László Moholy-Nagy - Photographs New York Thursday, October 7, 2021 | Phillips
  • "The photogram, or camera-less record of forms produced by light, which embodies the unique nature of the photographic process, is the real key to photography."
    —László Moholy-Nagy
    The unique photogram offered here dates to the early years of László Moholy-Nagy’s career in photography, when his explorations of the medium expanded its capabilities and informed his expansive understanding of its role in the creation of art for a new age. Moholy-Nagy made this image without a camera, by placing objects on or over the sheet of photographic paper and carefully directing the angle and movement of light, creating an enigmatic composition that transcends the sum of its parts. Newly discovered in 2010, this photogram takes its place within an oeuvre remarkable for the consistency of Moholy-Nagy’s vision across all media.


    Moholy’s belief in the photogram as a tool for artistic expression was fundamental to his artistic practice and pedagogy. 'The photogram, or camera-less record of forms produced by light, which embodies the unique nature of the photographic process, is the real key to photography' he wrote in his 1933 essay A New Instrument of Vision. The photogram became a core concept for his ever-evolving curriculum of photography that he carried from the Bauhaus in Germany to the New Bauhaus and the Institute of Design in Chicago.


    This photogram is distinguished by Moholy-Nagy’s detailed notations on the reverse. It is rare to see such extensive writing in Moholy-Nagy’s hand on his photographs, and here he sets forth a concise treatise on his work with the photogram process, including an inventory of the three objects used in making this image under the heading Material:


    1 muzzle

    1 metal housing [spool] of a roll film

    1 child’s rattle


    In Moholy-Nagy’s handling these quotidian objects are transformed into pure compositional elements within a dynamic and animated whole. Dominating the image is the child’s rattle, which is placed on the diagonal. Its handle interacts artfully with the film spool in the lower left quadrant. The wire muzzle appears as a comparatively obscure network of lines in the lower register. In a photogram, those portions of an object resting directly on the photographic paper during exposure are rendered with greater clarity. The alluringly indistinct rendering of the muzzle suggests that it was suspended above the paper during exposure or was present for only a portion of the exposure time,


    László Moholy-Nagy, Photogram (verso)
    László Moholy-Nagy, Photogram (verso)

     In further notations on the verso of this print, Moholy-Nagy addresses the transformative power of the photogram process, as well as its unique ability to create an entirely new category of imagery. He writes:


    What is important here:

    A new spatial dimension given by light that can be captured with this photographic means and no other means.


    Moholy-Nagy inscribed this photogram 'á Mr. Zervos, Paris.' Christian Zervos was the editor and publisher of the seminal art journal Cahiers d’Art. Zervos illustrated two Moholy-Nagy photograms in Cahiers d’Art, no. 1, in 1929, and the present photogram was almost certainly sent by Moholy-Nagy to Zervos at that time. Like this photogram, the two published photograms (fgm 162 and 293) also bear Moholy-Nagy’s extensive procedural notations on their versos.


    When this photogram was purchased from dealer Stefan Lennert in 1982, it was understood that it had been in the possession of the great Russian poet and editor Vladimir Mayakovsky. One of the photograms published by Zervos, now in the collection of the Getty Museum, had an explicit Mayakovsky connection: on the verso, Moholy-Nagy wrote 'es gehört Majakovski' ('it belongs to Mayakovsky'). Moholy-Nagy had close ties to the Russian avant-garde and knew Mayakovsky, and it is possible that these photograms were sent to him in Moscow for publication in his political arts and literary journal LEF (published from 1923 to 1925) or Novi LEF (published from 1927 to 1929) alongside work by such artists as Alexander Rodchenko, John Heartfield, and George Grosz.


    László Moholy-Nagy, Self-Portrait, 1925
    László Moholy-Nagy, Self-Portrait, 1925

    The warm tonality and glossy surface of this photogram are indicative of the printing-out and gaslight papers Moholy-Nagy favored for his early photograms, each carefully selected for their special capabilities. Printing-out paper was formulated for sensitivity to sunlight and revealed the image during exposure, allowing Moholy to guide the action of light as he was making a photogram. Gaslight paper was sensitive to artificial light, letting Moholy-Nagy expand his photogram process beyond the availability of sunlight and thus affording new creative possibilities.


    When this photogram first appeared at auction in 2010 it was unknown to the authors of Moholy-Nagy: The Photograms: Catalogue Raisonné (Ostfildern, 2009). Images and documentation were provided to Renate Heyne, an editor of the volume, and the photogram was issued the number fgm 422 and will appear in a future edition of, or supplement to, the Catalogue Raisonné.

    • Provenance

      Possibly, the photographer to Vladimir Mayakovsky, Moscow, before 1929
      Christian Zervos, Paris, not later than 1929
      Stefan Lennart, London
      Private Collection, New York, acquired from the above 1982
      Sotheby's, New York, 13 April 2010, lot 143
      Private Collection

    • Exhibited

      In Celebration: Works of Art from the Collection of Princeton and Friends of the Art Museum, The Art Museum, Princeton University, February-June 1997

    • Literature

      Heyne, Neusüss, and Molderings, Moholy-Nagy: The Photograms: Catalogue Raisonne, fgm 422 (number assigned after publication)
      In Celebration: Works of Art from the Collection of Princeton and Friends of the Art Museum, pl. 355 (this photogram)



Unique photogram on printing-out paper or gaslight paper.
9 3/8 x 7 in. (23.8 x 17.8 cm)
Signed twice, titled 'Fotogramm,' inscribed to Christian Zervos and annotated extensively in pencil on the verso.

Full Cataloguing

$300,000 - 500,000 

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New York Auction 7 October 2021