Photo-Murals, By Julien Levy, 1932

You know what, I could try and just quote the awesome parts, or hold up for scrutiny or amusement the seemingly unquestioned assumptions about art, painting photography, and decoration that inform it.

But instead, I have just typed in all of Julien Levy's catalogue essay on photomurals from the Museum of Modern Art's 1932 exhibition, "Murals by American Painters and Photographers." It's after the jump.

Levy was a pioneering photography dealer who was brought in by Lincoln Kirstein to curate what would be the Modern's first exhibition of photography. It's really hard to overstate the importance of Levy's role in the history of art and photography. He saved, with Berenice Abbott, Atget's photos. He gave first shows in the US to Brassai, Cartier-Bresson, Moholy-Nagy. [He organized the US premiere of Moholy-Nagy's short film work, Lichtspiel in 1932 which, really? Because it barely premiered in Berlin in November 1932. That's hardcore.] He had the first surrealism show in the US. He promoted the found and anonymous photograph as readily as the known artist's work. And though he barely sold any actual photos in the 17-year life of his gallery, he was a remarkable and prescient advocate for the medium as art.

In 2006, the Philadelphia Museum staged an incredible exhibition of photos and material from Levy's archive, which they'd acquired from his widow. Check it out for more details and context of Levy's significance.

Levy opened his gallery in the fall of 1931. The Modern show opened in May of 1932. If nothing else, this essay reflects Levy's thinking of photography and art, cinema and pai.nting, at an early stage of his involvement with a nascent medium. Enjoy.

PHOTO-MURALS, by Julien Levy

The photographer is particularly well equipped to meet the problems of mural decoration as posed by the modern architect and builder. The photographers in the present exhibition were invited only three weeks before the preliminary sketches were due. In the time elapsing between filing the plans for a building and the final preparation of the wall, the enlargements would be executed, projected, developed, fixed, backed with canvas, and eventually mounted, or hung as wall-paper is hung, glazed with a transparent varnish by the house painter. The cost of execution for such murals would be minimum. When it is considered that the life of a modern building is usually something under seventy-five years, it is often desirable to secure the best possible decoration with the least expenditure. Furthermore, the photo-murals are mounted on canvas so that they may be stripped easily from the walls to be installed in a new location, or renewed every several years with decoration of immediate topical interest for our shifting modern life. Thus the new medium satisfies at once three primary requisites of modern building: speed, economy, and flexibility.

The use of photographs for wall decoration was made possible only recently by the perfecting of a sensitized paper in large sheets, which would reproduce, when exposed to a projected image from a negative, the original tones with the original scale of values in enlarged size. This facility was extensively employed by movie directors in HOllywood as an economy to replace the painted backdrop, and by interior decorators to enlarge drawings, old engravings, etc. The history of photo-mural repeats in a condensed span of time the history of photography, first as a primitive in the service of economic realism, then self-consciously imitating painting and the graphic arts; yesterday using the actual photographic medium as basis for expression, and only today in this present exhibition inviting recognized artists in the medium to study the new problem and contribute their projects.

A good photo-mural is not merely the mechanical enlargement of a small photograph. The enlarged mural is a new and independent production, and the photographer who does not visualize in advance the final scale of his picture will usually be surprised and dismayed by the results. Not only must all the precepts of the mural painter be kept well in mind, but additional and unsuspected difficulties arise. For the original photograph may completely lose its identity when enlarged, the essential forms becoming almost unrecognizable when dissipated over a greater area. Conversely an unimportant shape in the small photograph may gain impressive dramatic force by progressive exaggeration. It is difficult to stretch a single, simple photograph over a large space and maintain interest, but it is dangerous to enlarge a complicated negative, as the photographer has little control over the minor bits of his picture, and just as the peculiar virtues of a photograph are dramatized by enlargement, so are any faults equally exaggerated. One solution may be the use of what is called "montage"... the cutting and reassembling of parts from separate pictures. In this method there is always the chance that the result will appear disjointed and arbitrary.

As there exists no traditional solution to aid the photographer past these primary difficulties, an attempt has been made to divide the problem so that each photographer concentrates in the present exhibition more or less on one particular aspect of the photo-mural (while they must all answer one question in common: what can the photograph present that is not better rendered in paint?)

[originally published in 1932 in Murals by American Painters and Photographers, an exhibition catalogue, by the Museum of Modern Art. 2,000 copies of the softcover catalogue were printed; they are now rare and expensive.]

Since 2001 here at, I've been blogging about the creative process—my own and those of people who interest me. That mostly involves filmmaking, art, writing, research, and the making thereof.

Many thanks to the Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Program for supporting that time.

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first published: December 14, 2010.

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