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Institute of Design | Art & Design in Chicago

Institute of Design

A photo by Harry Callahan, a renowned teacher at the Institute of Design
A photo by Harry Callahan, a renowned teacher at the Institute of Design

In 1937, an innovative Hungarian artist came to Chicago to set up a school of design based on the latest progressive German artistic ideals. László Moholy-Nagy had taught at Germany’s experimental Bauhaus, which sought to create art for the industrial age and to reconcile art, design, and architecture. As an influential photographer, thinker, and painter, Moholy-Nagy was invited to form a school along the lines of the Bauhaus in Chicago, and the New Bauhaus was born.

That new school sought to train the “designer of the future” and valued experimentation in a variety of mediums and methods; Moholy-Nagy, for instance, experimented with a camera-less technique of photography that he called the photogram, in which objects were laid on light-sensitive paper that was then exposed to light. Although Moholy-Nagy died in 1946, he hired photographer Harry Callahan as a teacher just before his death. Callahan in turn brought fellow photographer Aaron Siskind to the school, by then known as the Institute of Design, and it soon housed one of the most important photography programs in the United States.

Aaron Siskind
Harry Callahan
Aaron Siskind (left) and Harry Callahan (right)
Institute of Design
Watch: Institute of Design

Callahan is most famous for his photographs of his wife Barbara and daughter Eleanor in vast, still landscapes around Chicago and Lake Michigan; Siskind created abstract images from simple aspects of a city, such as a crosswalk, peeling paint, a crack in a building. Together, the pair taught their students that the mundane could be elevated to art and encouraged them to continually experiment with the medium itself, always building on their discoveries and even mistakes. “Photography is an adventure,” Callahan said, and the commonplace environment of the city offered an inexhaustible backdrop to explore.

Those students themselves became influential teachers and widely known photographers. In the 1950s and ’60s, the Institute of Design was the center of photography in the United States. Photographers such as Art Sinsabaugh, who founded the photography department at the University of Illinois; Yasuhiro Ishimoto, who took some famous photos of Chicago and became an influential presence in his native Japan; Kenneth Josephson, known for his playful deconstructions of the art, as in his photographs of photographs; and Barbara Crane, a native Chicagoan whose work has ranged from intimate close-ups of Chicagoans to cityscapes to abstract series, all studied there and went on to important careers.


Watch Barbara Crane discuss her life and career at age 90.

Photos by Harry Callahan of his wife Barbara and daughter Eleanor; Barbara Crane; and Kenneth Josephson