Founded in 1937, Chicago's Institute of Design (ID) grew into one of the most important and influential schools of photography in 20th-century America. Its faculty included László Moholy-Nagy, Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind. Among its graduates are Harold Allen, Linda Connor, Barbara Crane, Yasuhiro Ishimoto, Joseph D. Jachna, Kenneth Josephson, Ray K. Metzker, Richard Nickel and Art Sinsabaugh. "Ask any photographer with whom he or she trained, and you can probably trace that education back to the Institute of Design," says James N. Wood, president of the Art Institute of Chicago.
"Taken by Design: Photographs from the Institute of Design, 1937-1971" is a comprehensive presentation of the ID's contribution to American photography. The show features over 200 images by more than 75 photographers. Installed at the Art Institute of Chicago through mid-May, "Taken by Design" travels to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (July 20-Oct. 20, 2002) and the Philadelphia Museum of Art (Dec. 2, 2002-Mar. 3, 2003).
"Taken by Design" is the first exhibition to focus exclusively on the ID. We see a faculty of photo artists leading small numbers of highly committed students through an intense program of experimental, problem-solving-based learning. The faculty and student photographs in this show are far fresher and more intellectually honest than much of what we see today in galleries and contemporary art museums.
The New Bauhaus
The ID began as the New Bauhaus, a revival of the German school of art and design that flourished in the 20s and 30s. Bauhaus students discovered the principles of art and perception by experimenting with light, color, materials and the like in workshops. László Moholy-Nagy, the Hungarian-born photographer, painter and former Bauhaus professor, came to Chicago to found the school. He directed the New Bauhaus and its successor institutions, the School of Design (1938-1944) and the Institute of Design (1944-present) until his death in 1946.
Fascinated lifelong with the expressive possibilities of light, Moholy made camera-less photographs called photograms by placing objects on light-sensitive paper in a dark room, exposing the paper to controlled illumination, and developing the result. Photograms, a bridge between painting and photography, taught students how to use the complete photographic grayscale between black and white.
Photograms launched students on explorations of solarization, virtual volume, multiple exposure and other experimental techniques. "Taken by Design" includes several unfamiliar Moholy photograms and many unknown, but excellent student-made images. The Art Institute did four years of research to select work for this show and produce the catalogue.
In 1945, Moholy invited Arthur Siegel to teach at the ID. As the school's photography program grew, Siegel suggested that Moholy hire another teacher -- Harry Callahan, a photographer who lived in Detroit. When he came to the ID for a job interview, Callahan was a tongue-tied college dropout with no teaching experience. This no longer mattered when Moholy saw his photographs. "Only once in my life have I been moved like this," he said. Callahan soon joined the ID faculty and made history there.
The ID: 1946-1961
"Photography came of age -- at the Institute of Design and in American education -- in the years after World War II," writes Keith F. Davis in the "Taken by Design" catalogue. "The school's commitment to the medium, together with the talents of its faculty and students, ensured that the ID would be the leading program of its kind in the postwar era, and an inspiration and model for many others to follow."
Callahan was the central figure in this development, but he had important colleagues -- Siegel who taught until his resignation in 1949 and Aaron Siskind who came in 1951. Callahan made high-contrast landscape photographs, street pictures and exquisite portraits of his wife and child. Siskind is known for his wall abstractions. Together, these men changed the focus of the photography program from Moholy's studio experiments toward the development of individual vision and greater engagement with the outside world.
Callahan and Siskind influenced students through the example of their independent work and the exercises they assigned. One of these was to produce "people without people" images that suggest a human presence without showing a person. Callahan encouraged students to work in series and Siskind devised an exercise to discover "significant form" in plants. The ID was the birthplace of the graduate thesis, where photo students produce a substantial body of work.
"Taken by Design" includes images by the ID faculty next to work by students who ventured into Chicago's streets and photographed buildings and people. Though many of them are more than 50 years old, the architectural pictures could have been made yesterday. The elevated train still dominates downtown Chicago and the light in the central city remains unchanged, even if many buildings are gone.
Aaron Siskind (faculty) and Richard Nickel (student) both photographed architecturally significant Chicago buildings. Nickel became a passionate preservationist who died when a semi-demolished Louis Sullivan structure collapsed on him as he was photographing it.
Yasuhiro Ishimoto, Marvin Newman and Wayne Miller took memorable pictures in black neighborhoods on Chicago's South Side. These and other ID students always respected the humanity of their subjects. They never mocked people or exploited misery for political ends.
The ID in the 60s
Callahan left the ID in 1961 for the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). Siskind headed the photography program until his departure for RISD in 1971. There was considerable tension at the ID during those years because the director, Jay Doblin, was an industrial designer who viewed photo artists as dilettantes and declared that the ID's mission was to train design professionals for industry.
Though he wanted to eliminate the photography program, Doblin did not believe that this was possible. He left Siskind on his own, but starved the photo program. As a result, Siskind and his students were isolated from the rest of the ID. They gave lip service to the fads of the hour -- radical politics, drugs and sexual promiscuity -- but photography remained a small program where students acquired technical skills and developed a personal vision.
According to John Grimes in the "Taken by Design" catalogue, Siskind's "method of teaching was to reveal to students just what they needed to know when they needed to know it. On first meeting him, students were often disarmed by this New York street character, slightly disheveled with sparkling eyes. Wearing a wrinkled jacket made shabby by numerous scorch marks from the cigarette perpetually on his lower lip, Siskind's first comment was usually a wisecrack."
Siskind functioned like a paterfamilias at the ID. His students became his family and he gave them more freedom than his predecessors had. Their projects ranged from straight documentary to highly experimental. ID graduates found faculty jobs as photography education spread all over the United States during the 60s. The show presents some particularly attractive work made by this generation -- Joseph Jachna, Ray Metzker, Barbara Crane, Art Sinsabaugh and many others.
"Taken by Design" is an outstanding exhibition, one of the best that the Art Institute has organized in recent years. It demonstrates that Moholy-Nagy brought modern art to Chicago, a city that was known for its architecture before he arrived. It also proves that Chicago is a photo town. Not until the 80s did Chicago sculptors and painters begin to produce work that could stand next to Callahan, Siskind, Siegel and their ID progeny.
The catalogue for "Taken by Design" comes up to the standards of the show. There are seven historical and critical essays, reproductions of every photograph in the exhibition, and a mine of documentary information about the ID. David Travis and Elizabeth Siegel of the Art Institute's photography department prepared the exhibition and catalogue. Congratulations all around!