Microfilm and Memex

Lucia Moholy, Photography and the Information Revolution

Lucia Moholy and László Moholy-Nagy, Double Portrait Photogram, 1923.
Photo: Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin. © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2019.

This brief paper considers the role of photography, and particularly, of the Bauhaus photographer Lucia Moholy, in developing and envisaging information systems during and after World War II. I want to focus on the connection between her pre-war practices and her work as the director of the Aslib Microfilming Service in wartime London, using it to think through the direction of developments in media and information technology by drawing a comparison with Vannevar Bush’s famous essay “As We May Think” (1945).

Moholy was a historian and theorist of photography, and at one time the most technically able photographer at the Bauhaus. She documented the school’s buildings at Dessau, and the objects produced there, as well as making portraits of faculty members between 1923 and 1928. Born Lucia Schulz in Prague, she became the first wife and close collaborator of the Hungarian artist László Moholy-Nagy who she met in Berlin. With her superior German language skills and a background in art history and publishing, she helped him articulate his ideas in writing, editing and proofreading his writing. She also collaborated on the production of some of Moholy-Nagy’s photographic images including the early photograms, and as the co-author of many of Moholy-Nagy’s writings, including the seminal Painting, Photography, Film (1925) she had helped to shape photographic modernism.1 As author of the bestselling Penguin book A Hundred Years of Photography (1939), she attempted to maintain the historical interest in practices such as microphotography.

Oliver Botar, from the University of Manitoba in Canada, has examined Moholy-Nagy’s relationship with post-World War I biocentrism. My argument here is indebted to Botar’s research into these biocentric ideas, and I want to suggest that Moholy’s unusual combination of interests and practices can be used to highlight a problem inherent in the rise of the information society and in theories of the information and attention, namely, the suppression of the bodily, sensual aspects of technology and the human part of technological systems, in particular the female operator(s).

In the catalogue to the exhibition Sensing the Future: Moholy-Nagy, Media and the Arts, Botar describes how Lucia Moholy introduced Moholy-Nagy to the youth movement and to biocentrism or Lebensreform. Biocentrism rejected anthropocentrism in favor of a materialist, vitalist environmentalism. Though biocentrism is associated with the anti-Semitic right-wing philosopher Ludwig Klages, who coined the term Biozentrik, both Moholys were Jewish and left-wing and associated with the left-wing version of biocentrism.2 Moholy-Nagy met members of the Free German Youth (Freideutsche Jugend) in Berlin in March 1920. As Botar relates, Lucia Moholy (then Schulz) was already actively involved with the left-wing of the Free German Youth. They married in 1921 and participated in holidays filled with the kinds of therapeutic and pedagogical practices advocated by the movement.

Botar is interested in how such philosophies shaped Moholy-Nagy’s pedagogy, enabling him to link technological development with bodily, sensory education. As he points out, the writings produced by Moholy-Nagy in collaboration with Moholy show other, specific influences: such as Ernst Mach’s theories of sense perception in which perception constitutes the body rather than the other way around, and Raoul Heinrich Francé’s popular biological tract Plants as Inventors (1920).3 Francé compared plants to machine forms and processes and outlined seven basic forms (Grundformen) of technology—both nonhuman and human (or as Walter Benjamin would put it later: both first and second nature).4

I would add that Francé’s seven elements are strikingly similar to the basic forms outlined by the romantic crystallographer and pedagogue Friedrich Froebel (1782–1852). In his Kindergarten system, children learnt basic concepts through handling specially designed objects (called the “gifts”). Froebelian education provides a model of how material experience shapes understanding. The whole system was rooted in Froebel’s animist vision of nature which he developed while working in the Mineralogical museum of Berlin University, “in these lifeless stones and fragments of rock… there lay germs of transforming, developing energy and activity”.5 For Froebel, crystals exist in a continuum with human beings, sharing the same living force and this shared presence of living force made it impossible to think of human beings as individual subjects handling inert, mute matter. Technology and art become a matter of tactile collaboration.

Froebelian teaching methods had been practiced at the Bauhaus by Johannes Itten whose basic forms of triangle-circle-square have become indelibly associated with the design school. It was Itten’s resignation from the Bauhaus in 1923 that led to Moholy-Nagy’s appointment. Lucia Moholy remained close to Itten, working at his art school in Berlin after her separation from Moholy-Nagy. Shaped by all these influences, both Lucia and László Moholy-Nagy conceived of the human, natural and technological as deeply interrelated. Yet they also aligned themselves with objectivity and with science: Lucia in particular was equally influenced by the anti-metaphysics of the Vienna circle of philosophers, two of whom (Rudolf Carnap and Otto Neurath) visited the Bauhaus to speak (Neurath, too, was a keen reader of Ernst Mach).

The Moholys’ version of biocentrism led them to explore the technical, reproductive capacities of the latest developments in photography and film. They were attracted to scientific imaging for its capacity both to extend the reach of human perception and to push the exploration of the medium to its greatest extent. Painting, Photography, Film included examples of microphotography alongside x-rays and astronomical photographs. One of the most influential passages in the book argues photography could “make visible existences which cannot be perceived or taken in by our optical instrument, the eye”—so now “we see the world with entirely different eyes”—the task of photography to produce “new relationships”.6 It is a passage which famously influenced Walter Benjamin’s concept of the optical unconscious, expounded in his 1931 essay Little History of Photography.7

In the 1922 essay Production-Reproduction, which Lucia Moholy edited and probably co-wrote with Moholy-Nagy, the couple advocated using reproductive media to make “productive art”: that is using them to produce new forms and ways of seeing, a “new vision” (neues Sehen).8 The photogram, an image made by placing objects on or between a light source and photographic paper, conformed to the demand of production by enabling an entirely new way of seeing objects while at the same time acting as a kind of direct “reproduction”, recording without even the interference of lenses.

It is with this background in mind that we can now look at Lucia Moholy’s work with microfilm. In 1939, after she fled Berlin at the arrest in her apartment of her then partner, Theodor Neubauer, the parliamentary leader of the Communist party, and in exile in Britain, she began work on a microfilming project at Cambridge University. From late 1941 her microfilm work was linked to the work of Eugene Power of University Microfilms International who organized the microfilming of documents for intelligence purposes for the US office of the Coordinator of Information.9 In 1942 Moholy was appointed director of the ASLIB (Association of Special Libraries and Information Bureaux) Microfilm Service at the Science Museum London. This was a secretive project connected with wartime espionage and producing microfilm copies of German scientific periodicals. Thanks to Rockefeller foundation funding, and supported by both British and American governments, she was able to import five Recordak Microfile cameras (manufactured by Eastman Kodak) and set up her own developing laboratory, first at the Science Museum (in winter 1942–43) and then at the Victoria and Albert Museum (from April 1943).10

It has been argued that this service, and ASLIB as a whole, was part of a developing approach to information that led eventually to the World Wide Web.11 Moholy’s work with microfilm in wartime, and her subsequent work promoting its use in peacetime, is one of a number of connections between the experiments of the interwar avant-garde and the new era of information technology. In articles written in 1945 and ’46 Moholy discusses the ASLIB service and its relation to Power’s original project, and contextualized it within the larger political and scientific movement of the internationalization of science, describing her work as part of larger efforts to “produce what Mr. H.G. Wells calls ‘the abolition of distance on the intellectual plane’”.12 In his essay “The Idea of a Permanent World Encyclopaedia” Wells had seen microfilm as the means of realizing his “World Brain”.13

Moholy conceived of her work as part of the international documentation movement, and knew Paul Otlet, whose Mundaneum project had been an attempt to create a kind of proto-database of the world’s knowledge in the form of a card filing system. She was also friends with Neurath, mentioned earlier, whose Social and Economic Museum in Vienna and Isotype symbol language had been part of the larger effort to democratize knowledge by making statistical information available to less mathematically literate populations. In wartime Britain they corresponded regarding plans for new, peacetime uses for microfilm.14

Her work in microfilm was not just about the necessity of earning a living in exile, although of course that played a large part, but it was also rooted in a longer interest going back to the early 1920s and her work on Painting, Photography, Film. Her book A Hundred Years of Photography was published in 1939, but she had been working on it in Berlin several years earlier. She concluded the book with the sentences:

“Life without photographs is no longer imaginable. They pass before our eyes and awaken our interest; they pass through the atmosphere, unseen and unheard, over distances of thousands of miles. They are in our lives, our lives are in them”.15

Read in the context of the biocentrism of her youth, these three sentences suggest not only that photographs are dematerialized as wire-photos, and transmitted as electrical signals, but that the technology, the medium, becomes actually inseparable from the sensory, corporeal aspects of life: photography as chemical-industrial technology has become the new nature.

Towards the end of the war, Moholy became involved in anticipating and promoting new peacetime uses for microfilm. The second half of this paper will contrast her and Moholy’s biocentric conception of photography and film with a more famous technological imagining of microfilm.

In 1945, Vannevar Bush, the inventor of the Differential Analyzer who was then acting as special advisor to President Roosevelt, wrote an article called "As We May Think", which was published in the Atlantic Monthly. In the article Bush proposed a new microfilm machine, called the “Memex” (pictured as a kind of desk / proto-iPad). He argued that old methods for disseminating and accessing research were now inadequate in the face of growing amounts of publications. The problem was not merely the compression and storage of data but a problem of access, and the most pioneering elements of the Memex proposal is in its capacity to search and retrieve, and to link items to one another in a process called associative indexing.16

Bush’s article has been much discussed but it has not, to my knowledge, been noted that the description of existing new technologies is curiously eroticized: describing the Voder (a text to speech device), he writes “a girl stroked its keys and it emitted recognizable speech”; and in the case of the Stenotype, “A girl strokes its keys languidly and looks about the room and sometimes at the speaker with a disquieting gaze”. Bush proposed the elimination of this disturbingly relaxed female machine operator by linking machines like the vocoder and stenotype together to produce “a machine which types when talked to”.17 His envisaged Memex machine is presented as an obedient device: the (male) operator works at it, uses it and it promptly obeys his demands. In the description of “Memex” there is no feminine collusion with the device, no languid stroking here. The Memex, though described as an “intimate supplement to memory”, is not really intimate at all: a clean separation keeps the male user in control of the machine.

This is a dream of mastery completely antithetical to the Moholys’ biocentric vision of human-machine sensual collaboration. It tries to eliminate tactile, sensory co-training, and Bush’s choice of words seems to suggest that a bodily, sensual machine-operator intimacy is both feminine and threatening. Instead, the Memex becomes pure mind. Against a biocentric conception of technology in which the realization of bodily capacities happens in collaboration with technical developments and other bodies, Bush’s model is both rationalist and individualist.

The key to the Memex is its “associative indexing”; the researcher builds a trail based on his own curiosity [he is presumed male]. In the process, according to Bush “wholly new forms of encyclopaedias will appear, ready with a mesh of associative trails running through them”.18 This concept inspired the development of hypertext in the 1960s. By looking at the development of the World Wide Web and of software and platforms built around such kinds of associative indexing we can see now to what extent these new “encyclopaedia” are not the image of “pure mind” that Bush anticipated, but the product of unpredictable associative links, and meanderings of embodied attention. The fact that attention is always embodied, and that it is fickle, poses problems for his model of rational and disembodied knowledge.

The idea of information overload came into circulation towards the end of the 1960s. Too much information, too many images, also implied too many participants in the culture, too many producers and users, a teeming multitude. In this sense the arguments about attention and information in the late twentieth century resemble similar arguments from the early nineteenth century that were mobilized against eclectic literature, in other words, against the random self-educating practices of the lower middle classes. In both cases what was at stake was the expansion of the culture and the presence of new, threatening figures, women in the workplace, the subjects of recently decolonized nations, more and more actual people producing information, paying attention, or failing to.

By the 1990s this became the basis of new theories of the so-called “attention economy” just as the World Wide Web was beginning: most famously in Michael Goldhaber’s 1997 prophesying essay “The Attention Economy and the Net”. The fickle character of attention, its tendency to be distracted towards the novel and the stimulating, was now understood as the basis for a newly developing economy dependent on celebrity and attention-seeking behavior, a new postcapitalist economy based in “an unending scramble” (according to Goldhaber) for the scarce resource of attention.19 Based on a weak analysis of economic history, Goldhaber’s theory of the attention economy simultaneously seemed to recognize that attention was not purely rational, and yet justified this new “economy” in classical economic terms, that is, in terms of the free choice of independently acting subjects.20

More recently, the role of media in “capturing“ and monetizing attention has been understood as biopolitical: that is, in terms of the reconfiguring through technology of brains, synapses, neuroplasticity. Such theories reintroduce bodies, in the form of the embodied mind, yet this is still for the most part understood as both singular (individualized, rather than collective, multiple or swarming) and universal (so that media address a pre-existing, ahistorical, and socially undifferentiated set of biological processes). Sensory training reappears, but as the one-way rewriting of the (singular) human sensorium by an onslaught of media stimuli.21

In the post-war period, the Utopian vision of Neurath, Wells, Bush, Moholy and others was foundering. Their Modernist documentation projects had been part of a wider dream of a “universal archive” that would order a disorderly world, and facilitate global citizenship. Instead the archive had become unmanageable, the expansion of the community unsettling. By the 1990s, and then again with the growth of so-called social media in the 2000s, this expansion seemed to produce problems with what Jonathan Crary has termed the ”management of attention”.22 Such problems (of attention deficit and information glut) were already implicit in Bush’s concept of associative indexing, which was based around a concept of human attention that was purged of its collaborative, multiple, embodied and sensual aspects. It was predicated, instead, on an imagined rational and masculine individual very similar to that associated with neo-liberal economics, and on a Cartesian mind-body separation.

I have tried, in this very quick account, not only to illustrate avant-garde attempts to bring together biocentric ideas with new technical developments in media, but also to draw attention to the direct participation of Lucia Moholy in the development of microfilming services. Moholy’s biocentrism might provide a tantalizing, if very partial and obscured, glimpse of a different future-past.

This essay was originally a paper given in London in 2017. Some of the ideas discussed are also covered in my book Photography: The Unfettered Image, Routledge, London 2018, pp. 58–62.

  • 1 For more on her work and her contribution to Moholy-Nagy’s work, see: Lucia Moholy: “Moholy-Nagy: Marginal Notes, Documentary Absurdities,” in: Angela Madesani and Nicoletta Ossanna Cavadini (eds.): Lucia Moholy (1894-1989) between Photography and Life, Centro Culturale Chiasso / Silvana Editoriale, Chiasso 2012, pp. 165–79; Robin Schuldenfrei: “Images in Exile: Lucia Moholy’s Bauhaus Negatives and the Construction of the Bauhaus Legacy,” History of Photography 37, no. 2, May 2013, pp. 182–203; Meghan Forbes: “‘What I could Lose’: the Fate of Lucia Moholy,” Michigan Quarterly Review, Winter 2016.
  • 2 Oliver A. I. Botar: Sensing the Future: Moholy-Nagy, Media and the Arts, Lars Muller Publishers, Zurich 2014.
  • 3 Raoul Heinrich Francé: Plants as Inventors, 1920.
  • 4 Walter Benjamin: “The Artwork in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility (2nd Version),” in: Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings (eds.) Walter Benjamin Selected Writings, Volume 3: 1935–1938, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA 2002.
  • 5 Friedrich Froebel: The Education of Man, 1826.
  • 6 László Moholy-Nagy: Painting, Photography, Film, Lund Humphries, London 1969, pp. 26– 29.
  • 7 Walter Benjamin: “A Small History of Photography,” in: Esther Leslie (ed.): On Photography, by Walter Benjamin, Reaktion Books, London 2015.
  • 8 László Moholy-Nagy: “Production-Reproduction (1922),” in: Timothy O. Benson and Éva Forgács (eds.): Between Worlds: A Sourcebook of Central European AvantGardes 1910–1930, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA 2002.
  • 9 Bonnie Mak: “Archaeology of a Digitization,” Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 2013.
  • 10 Lucia Moholy: “The ASLIB microfilm service: the story of its wartime activities,” Journal of Documentation 2, no. 3, 1946, pp. 147–73; Lucia Moholy: “A Few Remarks on Documentary Reproduction in General and Microfilm in Particular,” Journal of Documentation 1, no. 1, 1945, pp. 31–40; Dave Muddiman: “A new history of ASLIB, 1924-1950,” Journal of Documentation 61, no. 3, 2005, pp. 402–28; Dennis Cox: “The Contribution of Microphotography and Reprints to the Development of Libraries,” Journal of Documentation 43, no. 4, 1987, pp. 334–49.
  • 11 Rayward W. Boyd: “Information Revolutions, the Information Society, and the Future of the History of Information Science,” Library Trends 62, no. 3, 2014.
  • 12 Lucia Moholy: “A Few Remarks on Documentary Reproduction in General and Microfilm in Particular,” Journal of Documentation 1, no. 1, 1945, p. 40.
  • 13 H.G. Wells: “World Brain: The Idea of a Permanent World Encyclopaedia,” in: World Brain, Methuen, London 1938.
  • 14 This correspondence is housed in the Otto and Marie Neurath Isotype Collections, in the Department of Graphic Communication, University of Reading.
  • 15 Lucia Moholy: A Hundred Years of Photography, Pelican Books, London 1939, p. 178.
  • 16 Vannevar Bush: “As We May Think,” The Atlantic, July 1945.
  • 17 Ibid. On the gendering of technology see Sadie Plant: Zeros and Ones: Digital Women and the New Technoculture, Fourth Estate, London 1997.
  • 18 Bush: “As We May Think.”
  • 19 Michael H. Goldhaber: “The Attention Economy and the Net,” First Monday, 1997.
  • 20 See Patrick Crogan and Samuel Kinsley: “Paying attention: Toward a critique of the attention economy,” Culture Machine 13, 2012, pp. 1–29.
  • 21 On this, see: Tiziana Terranova: “Attention, economy and the brain,” Culture Machine 13, no. 1, 2012, pp. 1–19.
  • 22 Jonathan Crary: Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle and Modern Culture, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA 1999.
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