Many Paths From the Bauhaus: An Interview with Herbert Bayer
By Janis Bultman
Published in Darkroom Photography, January 1981 and in Legacies: Interviews with Masters of Photography from Darkroom Photography Magazine, 2018.
To call Herbert Bayer (1900-1985) a versatile talent is almost an understatement. His repertoire of skills includes not only photography, but painting, sculpture, architecture, typography, exhibition design, and the list goes on. He’s authored several books on design and has won more prizes than he can modestly remember, including the German Photographic Society’s coveted Kulturpreis.
A native of Austria, Bayer both studied and taught at Germany’s famed Bauhaus. After relocating to America, he put the Bauhaus principles to work in Aspen, Colorado, where he was one of a group of artists, philosophers, and business people who designed its “total environment” and founded the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies. At 80, Bayer isn’t ready to retire. The latest addition to his already extensive resume is Art and Design Consultant for Atlantic Richfield Company.
Bayer had a hand in formulating many of the ideas about photography we now take for granted, and in the past few years, his photographs have been increasingly recognized not only for their craft, but for their historical value. From his current home, a converted polo club in Montecito, California, Bayer shared his philosophies on art and artists, and reminisced about the early days of twentieth century European photography.
JB: When did you start experimenting with photography?
HB: I got started in the early twenties while I was studying at the Bauhaus. We were working in many different media and I became interested in photography as a new and fascinating art medium. Several of us young people started experimenting with it. Then Moholy-Nagy joined the Bauhaus faculty in 1923, bringing with him his experiments with photograms. His wife, too, was a famous photographer. They excited and stimulated us.
JB: There was little interest in photography as an art form in Europe—except in certain circles—in the early twenties. But by 1929 Germany had become recognized as the birthplace of The New Photography. What was The New Photography?
HB: Well, the New Photography was really the discovery and use of new points of view. Like the bird’s eye view or the frog’s eye view. From above, below, from different perspectives.
JB: Your early camera images, then, are examples of the New Photography.
HB: Yes. I remember I once photographed a chair. It was only an object, but it was interesting. It had a life of its own. So I tried to photograph it in a new way that would bring out its character. I also photographed waves from above. It was different to look at waves this way.
I suppose the concept came partly from the Cubists’ ideas of penetrating the subject or object to show it from all sides, then recombining it again to show a conglomerate of images. This sort of approach was in the air.
Science photography also began looking at new perspectives. It became possible to photograph microcosms and the stars. Of course, much has happened since then.
JB: Yet these years are now considered to be the formative years of contemporary photography.
HB: Yes…it was an exciting time. It was all new.
JB: What kind of equipment were you using then?
HB: This is always a question. In the beginning I only used cheap, small cameras with a foldout bellows. They cost maybe 60 marks, which was then about $15. Now cameras are so expensive. Recently, I needed a new one, so I asked what a Hasselblad cost, and they told me close to $1000. I ended up buying a 35mm Pentax to replace the one I had, which was getting old.
JB: But you would have preferred a larger format?
HB: I think 35mm is really a little small. It is such hard work for the printer. And you cannot get as sharp an image as you can with a larger format. My very early photographs, the camera images, were 4-1/2 x 7-1/2 cm. Later, I used 8 x 11-1/2 cm. Then I switched to a 6 x 6 Rolleiflex. Today, I photograph mostly to make a record of my other work—for my slide file—so I use 35mm. But I like the square format for black-and-white. I’m planning to do more montages—I’ve always been interested in collage and montage—and I’ve collected some photos I want to use. I’d like to buy a larger format camera for this.
JB: How would you say the equipment you were using in the Twenties compares with what’s available now?
HB: It was primitive. I suppose there were better cameras on the market than mine, especially the large cameras professional photographers used. But they were of no use to me because I used the camera when I traveled, and I didn’t want to carry a large camera with me.
JB: What about photo papers?
HB: Well, the old photographers, of course, used soft papers. They also used soft lenses because they wanted to get a painterly feeling.
JB: You’re talking about photography prior to the New Photography, which was very impressionistic? When photographers were purposely blurring their images, copying what painters were doing at the time?
HB: Yes, and they sometimes altered their photos, covering up imperfections. So the papers were made for them, as well as the glass negative plates. Then this went out of fashion. Photographers wanted sharp, realistic images, so the industry complied and began making lenses and papers that would give a sharp image.
But this wasn’t available at first and for many things, like my early posters and photomontages, I had to use images that weren’t so sharp. People today don’t understand that. The other day I met with a museum acquisition committee consisting of three photographers who were, if I may so say, unimportant photographers, little photographers. They were thinking of buying some of my photomontages. But my prints weren’t sharp enough for them. They were not as technically perfect as you can make things today, and this was because of the times.
Also, we worked with glass negatives, and these have been rephotographed so they wouldn’t have to be handled. Then, when I assembled my photomontages, I cut up other photos and rephotographed the final montage. Of course, the new image was not as sharp. But I didn’t mind because this was a painterly concept. I sometimes chose grainy prints and rephotographed them purposely to get some grain.
JB: When you were at the Bauhaus, didn’t you explore using photography in other applications, such as graphic design?
HB: Yes, I used it extensively in my graphic work. I had worked a great deal with typography for posters and the next step was to find illustrations that would work with the type. Photographs seemed the logical answer. You see, prior to that time posters were always painted, and I believed photography could be more effective because it was less subjective. It wouldn’t show the personal character of a painting but would show the image as it actually is. The combination of photographs and type had a name: typo-foto. Then later, I turned to photomontage because it is much more pliable, and you can express more fantastic things—surreal things.
JB: What’s the difference between your photomontages and what are known as your fotoplastiken?
HB: Then are both montage forms, but I distinguish between the two. In photomontage, I cut up preexisting photos and reassemble them, pasting one on top of the other, sometimes retouching, and finally I photograph the result. This final photograph is the photomontage. It’s a way of using objective photography to show more subjective ideas.
For my fotoplastiken, I set up an arrangement of objects in my studio, sometimes using string to prop them up. Then I photograph the setup. Later, I sometimes use an airbrush technique to touch out supporting props or add tiny clouds. Then this retouched photograph is photographed, and this is the fotoplastiken.
JB: You were one of the first to use photography in advertising. When did you start working with that?
HB: In 1928. But I don’t like to call it advertising. It’s graphic communication. We tried many new things. We experimented with display photography, hanging photos at angles, applying the idea of extended vision, instead of hanging them flat on the wall. I used this principle at the New York Museum of Modern Art when I designed the Airways to Peace exhibit in 1943. It was an exclusively photographic show. The photographs were suspended, but you could not see what was holding them up. There was no structure. I also used a ramp to raise visitors so I could use the floor space.
Another innovation I was involved with was the use of extremely large photos. We used them in exhibitions at trade fairs. This was partly because of the influence of the Constructivists in Russia, particularly Nisitsky. He used large, color photographs of political demonstrations at fairs in the provinces. The photos became large, color statistics for the purpose of instruction. I used the same principle at an exhibition for the Building Workers Union in Berlin in 1939.
JB: You’re a firm believer in using photography in conjunction with something else, aren’t you? A photo should be more than a pretty picture on a wall. It should instruct or communicate.
HB: Yes, my principle has always been that every project should have a purpose. It must do something—express or convey something. It’s not simply an opportunity for the artist to do something artistic, although it has to be artistic too, within the given boundaries. It’s like in architecture. You can’t just make a fantasy. It has to stand up; the proportions have to be right. You have to consider your budget, the climate, what building materials are available, and so on. It’s the ultimate function of the piece that rules the concept.
JB: All your exhibition prints are black-and-white. Have you worked much with color?
HB: No, I have not. I still feel, with all the progress, that color photography doesn’t compare with what the eye registers. The colors are artificial, unnatural.
JB: Recently you’ve exhibited at the Arco Center for Visual Design and at the New York Museum of Modern Art. Where else have you shown your work?
HB: The Arco show has been traveling, and it will have its last showing in Aspen in January or February. In Europe, there is hardly a week that goes by when I don’t receive some notice of an exhibition. There have been many in Germany, Switzerland, and Austria. Right now, I have an exhibit in my hometown of Linz, in Austria.
JB: Interest in your photographs seems to have really grown in the last few years.
HB: Well, in Europe the interest has been in the past 10 to 15 years, but here it’s been in the past few years, yes.
JB: I’m afraid my politics are going to show in my next few questions. My editor cautioned me to be diplomatic, but I can’t think of any other way to word this. You’ve worked for several large corporations—Container Corporation of America and Atlantic Richfield Company among them. Whey did you choose to put your talents in the hands of these industry giants?
HB: Well, I first started working for Container Corporation not long after I came to America. They wanted me to design a corporate image for them. This was something new in America, and it interested me. I took charge of their advertising, designed the architecture of their offices, and handled anything that had to do with design.
JB: My generation [I was 23 at the time of this interview, two years out of Berkeley] has heard many times that you sometimes have to compromise your ideals if you work for a large, impersonal corporation. Did you have to make compromises?
HB: Well, this is always a question. When I first got started in New York, I had a difficult time. I was doing work for a few ad agencies. My ideas were more advanced than my clients’ and concessions had to be made to their tastes. But at Container Corporation there were no compromises made to speak of because there was a very small committee that made all the decisions concerning design. It consisted of Mr. and Mrs. Paepcke—the president and his wife—and myself. None of the other executives were involved. And so I say it’s always a question of how you come into a company. If you come in through the top, which I did through my friendship with Walter Paepcke, then you have power. I got into Atlantic Richfield Company the same way. I met the president when he bought my house in Aspen. He became active in the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies, in which I was also very active, and we became friends. He asked me to design a corporate image for him, and I’ve been working on that for the past three or four years.
JB: How did you get involved in the Aspen project?
HB: Walter Paepcke—the head of Container Corporation—was the one who really started what some have called the “Renaissance of Aspen.” I was intrigued, and I moved there to help design it. It was here that the “Great Ideas of Western Man” advertising campaign germinated. It was the result of roundtable discussions at the Aspen Institute, which Walter Paepcke founded. We chose quotations of some great man—a philosopher or statesman—and had an artist interpret it. Philosopher Monty Nadler, who as at the Institute at the time, helped us choose the quotations. Then various companies, including Container Corporation, sponsored the ads. This was something radical and revolutionary in advertising. When Walter Paepcke died and new executives took over, they didn’t understand the campaign. They couldn’t put their finger on how much money it was bringing in, because we didn’t sell to the public, we sold to other companies. But the campaign put Container Corporation on the map. It gave it an internationally famous name.
JB: What do you do at Arco?
HB: I call myself consultant in Art and Design. I don’t do the work myself. The Graphics Department in Los Angeles does that. I consult with various decoration or interior design firms. We work with various architects on the architecture, and so on. So I can operate from here.
JB: Then you’re the “idea man.”
HB: I’m the idea man and also curator and supervisor. I oversee each job. And I buy the corporation’s art collection.
JB: One of the prime Bauhaus concerns was how to combine art with industry. For example, designing a piece of furniture that was not only beautiful, but which could be mass-produced. Do you think this philosophy has been one of the things that kept you close to industry?
HB: Well, yes. The Bauhaus philosophy and principles are in my bones. I believe in them. However, I’ve always been against the term “Bauhaus Style.” A style is something immutable. It’s not flexible. It implies no more growth. But principles can be interpreted in new and individual ways. My work has changed over the years—there are always new and different projects—but I always approach it the same way. I ask myself questions about function. Then I find an artistic solution.
JB: One of Walter Gropius’s goals, when he founded the Bauhaus, was to teach students to become competent in many craft areas, which you’ve obviously done. Today it seems that most artists choose to specialize in one medium. Do you think this limits them?
HB: Yes, I do. Too many artists just sit in their studios, painting their thing, or go out and photograph, and then just wait around for somebody to like their work and buy it. They’re only concerned with what’s inside the picture frame. There’s no connection to life outside the studio or beyond the photograph. In former times there was always a connecting link between what the artist did and everybody else. It was religion, or the state had to be glorified. There was always something to which the artist could orient himself, but now there’s nothing. And with so many people wanting to become artists we will have, in fact we already have, a proletariat of very mediocre artists. I say they should turn their talents to something useful. I believe a well-designed, good-looking chair is more important than one more of millions of mediocre paintings or photographs.
JB: You’ve been a photographer, typographer, painter, writer, architect, and sculptor, to name a few. If you had to choose a label for yourself, what would it be?
HB: An artist. I think the new kind of artist has to be this way.