Photo Credit: Negatives of the Bauhaus

Roman Mars:
This is 99% invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
You can picture her there, lying on her stomach in the dirt, arcing her camera up towards the building, tilting the frames so that the stark rectilinear building transforms into a striking asymmetric composition. You can see her taking her time with this photo, adjusting the focus and the exposure. She releases the shutter, impressing the negative image onto a glass plate.

Roman Mars:
90 years later, this photograph by Lucia Moholy, is one of the most famous images of the German art school known as the Bauhaus.

Sam Greenspan:
Bau, meaning the word ‘build’ in German, and haus meaning ‘house’.

Roman Mars:
Mediocre German speaker, Sam Greenspan.

Sam Greenspan:
The Bauhaus was founded by architect Walter Gropius in 1919. The school sought to fuse art with industrialization to use new ideals of modernism to create beautiful, functional things, which could be mass-produced for the betterment of society.

Robin Schuldenfrei:
In the beginning, the Bauhaus rose from the ashes of World War I and there was a very hopeful, very utopian period of craftsmen and artists all creating together.

Sam Greenspan:
This is Robin Schuldenfrei.

Robin Schuldenfrei:
I teach architectural and design history at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, but I’m American.

Roman Mars:
The Bauhaus was a magnet for European designers, architects, and artists of all kinds in the early 20th century, many of whom would go on to achieve international acclaim.

Sam Greenspan:
The photographer, Lucia Moholy, did not become one of those famous artists. She joined the Bauhaus in 1923, but not as a teacher or as a student. Her husband László Moholy-Nagy had been hired onto the faculty of the Bauhaus, and so Lucia set off with them to become part of this new exciting place.

Robin Schuldenfrei:
Yeah, they’re a young couple, right? They’re young. They’re in love. They come to the Bauhaus.

Sam Greenspan:
Lucia, like the wives of the other Bauhaus faculty, did what was expected of her, which was to do some kind of work that would help fulfill the mission of the school.

Roman Mars:
Unpaid, of course. Lucia had some training in photography.

Robin Schuldenfrei:
She had the darkroom skills and she had really excellent technical skills of the period.

Sam Greenspan:
So Lucia became a kind of in-house documentarian for the Bauhaus. She made portraits of the people there, of the things that they made and of the architecture of the school itself.

Roman Mars:
Walter Gropius designed the school’s campus in Dessau, and those buildings became a major theme of Lucia’s work. She photographed the workshops, the dormitories, the masters houses. She set about showing the spaces where these new methods and philosophies of design were being made.

Robin Schuldenfrei:
You can see the way in which Lucia’s photographs of Walter Gropius’s architecture express the same ideas that he wanted to express in the architecture itself, and this is not by chance.

Roman Mars:
Lucia’s photography like Gropius’s architecture, is all about clarity and simplicity of form. It is utilitarian, documenting the world as it is, and it’s also beautiful. Reveling in clean lines and stark contrasts, and it’s minimal, showing only what’s needed, and nothing more.

Sam Greenspan:
From the dark room in her and László’s home on the Bauhaus campus, Lucia amassed a collection of 500 or 600 photographs, and she couldn’t have known then the impact that these images would have on the built world or on her own life. The Bauhaus aspired to lift society up out of the wreckage of World War I, and into a new world of rationalism, beauty, good art, and good design, to bring its brand if utopianism into the world at large.

Roman Mars:
But for all their efforts, the world did not become more utopian.

Robin Schuldenfrei:
The national socialist government put the Bauhaus under increasing pressure. In 1933, it was closed down by the Nazis. Many members of the Bauhaus were forced to flee immediately because they were Jewish or because they were involved in very left, radical politics and they had to go.

Sam Greenspan:
Amidst all the turmoil of the Nazis rise to power, László and Lucia had separated. Lucia started dating a communist party member of parliament. One day in 1933 he was arrested in Lucia’s apartment while she was out.

Ralph Zazca:
So she was not able to return to her apartment because she had to fear that she was arrested immediately too. Somebody told her, don’t get back to your apartment.

Sam Greenspan:
This is Ralph Zazca, he teaches at the University of Saarbrücken in Germany and he knew Lucia Moholy.

Ralph Zazca:
She had to emigrate immediately. So what she did was flee to her Czec family. So as she went to Prague first, and then she went to Paris via Austria via Switzerland.

Roman Mars:
Eventually landing in London in 1933. Lucia had left behind nearly everything she owned, including the glass negatives of the Bauhaus.

Sam Greenspan:
As she fled the country for an uncertain fate abroad, Lucia left the legacy of the Bauhaus to an uncertain fate at home.

Roman Mars:
Lucia weathered out the war in London. She had arrived in the city with basically nothing, and at one point lost everything again when her apartment was bombed by German warplanes.

Sam Greenspan:
But even in all the chaos of war, Lucia found ways to work. She wrote a book about the history of photography.

Ralph Zazca:
‘100 Years of Photography’, that was published by Penguin in 1939, and at the same time she was quite a successful portrait photographer for the high society in London.

Sam Greenspan:
And for the most part she put the Bahaus behind her.

Ralph Zazca:
She said to me that she didn’t know that the Bauhaus was more than an episode in her life. She stopped thinking about it.

Roman Mars:
At least until after the war.

Ralph Zazca:
I suppose that in 1946, she received the MoMA catalog of 1938. That must have been the first hint for her.

Sam Greenspan:
Back in 1938, completely unbeknownst to Lucia, Walter Gropius had worked with the Museum of Modern Art in New York, MoMA, to put together an exhibition on the Bauhaus, and because the war was still going on at the time, MoMA hadn’t been able to get many of the Bauhaus’s objects out of Germany, and so the exhibition was comprised mostly of photographs. Images of the products they designed, the people who made them, and the buildings where they worked and lived. Images of the dormitories, the master’s houses, the workshops.

Roman Mars:
Photos that use interesting angles to transform stark rectilinear structures into striking asymmetric compositions.

Sam Greenspan:
Those photographs were published in the museum catalog, the book that accompanied the exhibition. She would have seen her own photographs.

Roman Mars:
But not her name.

Robin Schuldenfrei:
The 1938 MoMA catalog and other catalogs and books coming out from the U S, do not credit her.

Roman Mars:
Again, historian Robin Schuldenfrei.

Robin Schuldenfrei:
She also begins to see new articles that mentioned the Bauhaus that are illustrated with good reproductions of her photographs.

Roman Mars:
Following World War II, there was a surge of interest in the Bauhaus. All of their ideas about rationalism and modernism had caught on among postwar architects and designers. More and more books and articles about the Bauhaus were getting published, and Lucia’s photographs kept getting circulated.

Sam Greenspan:
And the quality seemed to be better than you’d expect from duplications of old prints. Lucia begins to think that just maybe, her collection of five-by-seven inch glass negatives might have made it through the war after all.

Robin Schuldenfrei:
And she begins to think, or to sense that her negative might have somehow survived, so she starts to try to get her negatives back.

Sam Greenspan:
Lucia’s first move is to write to her ex-husband László, who had since emigrated to America with his second wife Sibyl. Lucia asks if he had any clues about where the negatives she had left behind might have ended up.

Robin Schuldenfrei:
Sibyl tells her that they in fact left these cumbersome negatives in Gropius’s house, in Gropius’s basement.

Sam Greenspan:
Gropius, completely unbeknownst to Lucia, had actually taken her negatives with him to the U.S. when he’d emigrated more than a decade earlier.

Roman Mars:
Likely because he had friends who were higher ups in the Nazi party and so when Gropius left Germany, he didn’t have to flee in a hurry. He was able to carefully pack up his belongings – Lucia’s heavy, fragile, glass negatives among them – and bring them with him to Harvard where he recently got a job.

Sam Greenspan:
Lucia writes to Gropius…

Excerpt::
“These negatives are irreplaceable documents which could be extremely useful. Now more than ever.”

Roman Mars:
Walter Gropius writes back.

Excerpt:
“Long years ago in Berlin, you gave all these negatives to me. You will imagine that these photographs are extremely useful to me and that I have continuously made use of them, so I hope you will not deprive me of them.”

Roman Mars:
Lucia responds to Gropius, saying basically, I never gave you my negatives.

Excerpt::
“Surely you did not expect me to delay my departure in order to draw up a formal contract stipulating date and conditions of return. No formal agreement could have carried more weight than our friendship. It is this friendship I have always relied on, and which also I am now invoking.”

Sam Greenspan:
But when invoking friendship didn’t work, Lucia hired a lawyer who wrote to Gropius that his holding onto Lucia’s negatives was like a firefighter saving a house and then claiming ownership of all the stuff inside, but still Gropius was not giving them back.

Ralph Zazca:
Gropius did never anything for anybody, except for himself. He didn’t help her, he wrote very kind letters said, yes, yes, we have to think about it, we have to think about it, we have to think about it and he did nothing.

Roman Mars:
This whole argument raises the question of who owns the image of a building. Intellectual property law on photography has evolved over the years and it still varies by country, but generally if you take a picture of a two dimensional thing like a painting, it doesn’t show any artistry on your part, and therefore you have no claim to the ownership of that image.

Sam Greenspan:
But if you take a picture of a three dimensional thing like a building, you’re making decisions about position, angle, lighting, framing, you’re not just reproducing what’s quote unquote really there. You’re making something entirely new, and so generally copyright on those images, that is not just the negatives, but also the prints that Gropius would have been making from them, legally that all belonged to Lucia.

Roman Mars:
In any case, Gropius kept making prints, kept publishing them, kept circulating her representations, kept telling the story of the Bauhaus through Lucia’s photography. Architecture is in many ways understood and consumed through photography. We don’t get to see most of the world’s iconic buildings. We see pictures of those buildings.

Sam Greenspan:
And this turned out to be especially true of the Bauhaus buildings, because after the start of the Cold War, the west’s access to the Bauhaus campus was cut off by the iron curtain. Even in east Germany, it was incredibly difficult to photograph these buildings.

Ralph Zazca:
Yes, because there was no possibility of visiting them properly, and there was absolutely no chance of taking a photograph of them. I’ve been there for the first time in my life in the 1970s, I went to Dessau, and whenever I took off my camera, somebody came up and said, no, you can’t photograph here, because the Bauhaus buildings, at that time, was surrounded by Soviet military buildings.

Roman Mars:
Photography was banned at the Bauhaus campus in Dessau, from 1950 until 1980, and then later after reunification, the buildings were altered slightly. And so to this day, scholars like Robin Schuldenfrei say that Lucia’s photographs are the best representation we have of the Bauhaus. In a way, it’s like those photographs are the Bauhaus.

Robin Schuldenfrei:
And so even the slides that I, myself was taught about the Bauhaus in the 19… mid 1990s, many of them were still these black and white images, because they are such good quality.

Sam Greenspan:
After years of legal disputes, Lucia Moholy finally succeeded in getting nearly 300 of her negatives back, but…

Robin Schuldenfrei:
It was in a sense too late for her, and so I think that part of the story is unfortunate.

Roman Mars:
Lucia Moholy died in 1989. Her negatives went to the Bauhaus archive in Berlin, and it’s from Lucia’s photos that architects and designers drew inspiration to rebuild the postwar world.

Sam Greenspan:
People who rebuilt Europe drew on the ideas of the Bauhaus. They look to it’s modern, rectilinear, asymmetric architecture as a counter to the buildings that the Nazis had made.

Robin Schuldenfrei:
Fascism had used this kind of neoclassical aesthetic, courthouses that were built in the postwar period in America, post offices… these buildings were all built in the modern style, and this is where the modern style does finally take off.

Roman Mars:
Our modern world owes a debt to the Bauhaus, and the Bauhaus owes is a debt to Lucia Moholy. Whether anyone knows her name or not, but we should know it.

Sam Greenspan:
Today about 90 prints of Lucia Moholy’s Bauhaus photography are housed at the Busch Reisinger Museum at Harvard. They were donated by Walter Gropius, and are considered part of his archive, but the museum has over time actually been going through this archive and crediting Lucia on photos known to be hers.

Roman Mars:
Like the photo that Lucia took lying on the ground, pointing her camera up towards the Bauhaus building in Dessau.

Rob Wiesenberge:
So we’re looking at a photo from around 1926, a gelatin silver print. It’s a kind of worm’s eye view. So we’re looking up at this glass curtain wall and we’re looking into the workshops of the Bauhaus.

Sam Greenspan:
Rob Wiesenberger is a fellow at Harvard who works on their Bauhaus collection.

Rob Wiesenberge:
The backside of the photo says in German, in purple ink, “Photo Lucia Moholy, Dessau [speaks in German]” without permission, reproduction is forbodden, is not allowed, not permitted. This was the intellectual property, of Lucia Moholy.

Roman Mars:
Special thanks to Sarah Borree at the University of Edinburgh, whose research on Lucia Moholy got us started on this story. Thanks also to Jeffrey Saletnik, Gloria Phares, Sriba Kwadjovie and Jan Tichy and Mike Wolf. Ann Wooten was the voice of Lucia Moholy and Sharif Youseff played Walter Gropius.

  1. Ed

    To end the episode with “Bella Lugosi’s Dead” by Bauhaus . Nicely done. Thanks again for a great, informative and entertaining episode.

  2. Guru

    Great episode, studying the Bauhaus at Columbia College Chicago (arts college) was one of my favorite topics during college. This information is a delightful addition to my knowledge of the Bauhaus school.

    Every time I dwell on the Bauhaus school I feel like the school should be reopened. I like to think about how much more innovation the school would have contributed to global civilization if it was open during many decades since it was forced to close.

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