Giving mainstream culture the finger, the avant-garde movement explored concepts that challenged tradition and veered away from the norm.
Avant-garde photography flourished in the 1920s-1930s, when Surrealist photographers used the camera as a tool to create visuals that explored the boundaries of the subconscious. Probably the most celebrated photographer of this movement is Man Ray, who pioneered a photographic technique with his Rayographs. This process involved placing objects – such as spoons and pearl necklaces – on photo paper and exposing the entire thing to light. While Surrealist photographers preferred to “shoot from the hip” (taking pictures without having to look through the viewfinder – sounds familiar, huh? :) ), Man Ray continued to explore this cameraless photography.
This technique was not originally Man Ray’s. Dada artist Christian Schad created Schadographs (a term coined by avant-garde poet Tristan Tzara) by placing various elements – usually bits of paper and discarded objects – on light-sensitive platters and placing a sheet of glass over the entire thing before exposing it to light. While it was speculated that “Schadography” was based from Schad’s name, it could have also been derived from the German word “schaden” meaning “damaged” – an apt description for Schad’s work, since he used scraps and “unimportant” objects in his images.
Hungarian painter-photographer (and more importantly, professor at the Bauhaus) László Moholy-Nagy also toyed around with this idea, which he called Photograms. He used objects with a more “industrial feel”, in line with the Constructivism movement. He did not limit his experimentation to solid objects – he also used liquids, crystals, and lenses to discover the “mysteries” of different light effects.
Photography clubs were very helpful in sustaining avant-garde photography. Alfred Stieglitz famously promoted the movement with his participation in the Camera Club of New York. By convincing his pals to turn the club newsletter to a magazine called “Camera Notes” it became the most esteemed publication that featured the most excellent photos and photography-related writing.
In San Francisco, American filmmaker and photographer Willard Van Dyke founded Group f/64, whose members included Ansel Adams and Imogen Cunningham. They agreed on the same photographic style – sharp and carefully composed – as a revolt against the soft-focused look that was popular in the early 1900s. Needless to say, the group name was based on the diaphragm number of the camera lens which yielded good resolution and DOF (depth-of-field).
Asia was not to be outdone. Japan’s esteemed photographer Kiyoshi Koishi was a member of the Naniwa Photography Club and pioneered Japanese modernist photography with his monograph, featuring surrealist images brought about by photomontage and photogram techniques.
Japanese photographer/filmmaker Eikoh Hosoe was also respected for his “psychologically-charged” images, and joined art groups to collaborate with other avant-garde artists.
Today, the resurgence of plastic cameras – from the Diana camera of the ’60s, Holga of the ’80s, and various point-and-shoot plastic snappers, as well as photomanipulation by way of film tricks and techniques, has contributed largely to making experimental photography active and accessible to everyone!
Special thanks to: Fookshit :)