CAMBRIDGE — Every photograph is a reaction, a reaction to light. Doesn’t matter who took it (Walker Evans, a 3-year-old), how it was taken (single-reflex-lens camera, a cellphone), why it was taken (Vogue cover, selfie). Most every photograph is also a reaction to external reality. And almost always, it’s about content much more than form.
Few photographers have so emphasized the reaction to light as György Kepes did. Everything else was almost incidental. What interested him was not external reality so much as perception. His photographs are explorations of seeing: form as its own content.
Kepes (1906-2001) was one of those wonderfully unclassifiable figures who seem less and less common as art, like everything else, becomes more and more specialized. He was a teacher, visual theorist, graphic designer, and painter, as well as a photographer. He was a one-man Bauhaus. A fitting comparison: As a young man, Kepes was an assistant to László Moholy-Nagy, who’d been a leading figure there; and both men would later teach at the New Bauhaus, in Chicago.
Kepes spent more than half a century affiliated with MIT, eventually being named an Institute Professor, the highest honor the university bestows. In 1967, he founded MIT’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies. “György Kepes Photographs: From Berlin to Chicago, 1930-1946” is the first of two Kepes shows the MIT Museum is mounting in honor of the center’s 50th anniversary. It runs through March 5. The second, “György Kepes Photographs: Kepes at MIT, 1946-1974,” opens later that month.
The show, curated by the museum’s Gary Van Zante, consists of more than 70 photographs, many never previously exhibited. There are also several display cases with magazines and books from Kepes’s days in his native Budapest through his time teaching at the New Bauhaus and beyond. The most distinctive items — they also indicate what a labor of love the show is — are Kepes’s student ID from the Hungarian Academy of Fine Arts and a set of glass and lucite objects he used for photograms and photographs emphasizing geometric shapes and distortions.
The earliest photos in the show, from ’30s Berlin, are cityscapes. But already Kepes’s overriding formal interests are apparent. The camera is canted or else the emphasis is on effects of light. “Light Display,” showing a set of electric signs, isn’t about signage but illumination. What matters in an overhead shot of a man rowing isn’t man or boat but the ripples on the water. Of course that’s what matters to Kepes. The ripples are liquid light waves.
Kepes’s style is there from the outset: precise, clinical, drawn to contrast rather than texture. The next 15 years see him constantly experimenting, using double exposures, solarization, distortion. The titles tell the story: “Projected Double Image,” “Deformations,” “Topological Forms,” “Light Graphic,” “Magnetic Fields,” “Microlabyrinth.” We see shapes, abstractions, studies in the play of light and dark. He’s presenting approaches toward a science of seeing. What few recognizable objects there are are themselves usually scientific in nature: swinging pendulums, prisms. Kepes couldn’t make this division between internal and external worlds clearer than in “Bread and Prism,” from 1940. Photography, or at least his photography, hardly lives by bread alone. Or there’s “Optician,” from 1937. It shows a shop sign, an oversized pair of eyeglasses. When Kepes published his influential textbook, “Language of Vision,” eight years later, he could have used it for the dustjacket.
GYÖRGY KEPES PHOTOGRAPHS: From Berlin to Chicago, 1930-1946
At MIT Museum, 265 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, through March 5. 617-253-5927, mitmuseum.mit.edu
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.