Much of what we know about Bauhaus design comes from photographer Lucia Moholy

Lucia Moholoy joined her husband, László Moholy-Nagy, when he was hired to teach at the Bauhaus school in 1923. She was a trained photographer, and took pictures of buildings where designers worked, the things they made, and the people who made them, especially the buildings designed by Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius. The 99% Invisible podcast tells Moholy’s story.

The Bauhaus sought to combine design and industrialization, creating buildings, furniture, tools, and other artifacts that were beautiful, useful, and that could be mass-produced to improve society that had been ravaged by World War I.

Moholy abandoned her hundreds of photographic plates when she fled the Nazis in 1933, and Gropius essentially stole them. They were published in books around the world, and she didn’t get credit. When she discovered what Gropius had done, she spent the rest of her life trying to reclaim them.

Who owns an image of a building? Intellectual property law on photography has evolved over the years, and still varies by country. Still, some rules of thumb that apply in many cases and places.

Generally, if someone takes a picture of a copyrighted two-dimensional object (like a painting) , the photographer has no claim to the ownership of that image. However, if one photographs a three-dimensional object, especially one viewable in public space (like a building), the photographer is clearly making decisions about composition, position, angle, lighting, framing—therefore, the photographer in this case is generally afforded more legal claim to the photograph’s copyright (though various caveats do apply).

In any case, right or wrong, Gropius kept making prints from Moholy’s negatives, kept publishing them, kept circulating them, and kept telling the story of the Bauhaus through her camerawork.

In many ways, architecture is understood and consumed through photography. For the most part, we don’t see the most iconic buildings in person—we see pictures. 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.

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