Photographer, painter, interior & theatre designer, architectural patron, and keen exponent of modernism: American artist Curtis Moffat was undoubtedly one of the most influential and accomplished artists of his day.
Silver Society, a monograph by Steidl, reveals some of his most compelling photographic works, drawn from the extensive archives donated by his daughter to the Victoria and Albert Museum in the early 2000s. It includes portraits, photograms, candid ‘snapshots’, and a selection of striking color imagery.
Born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1887, Moffat spent much of his childhood in northern France before returning to the states, where he would go on to study painting. He subsequently moved to Paris to continue his studies, where he met compatriot and fellow artist Man Ray, the poster child for Dadaism and a renowned photographer, whose works regularly graced the pages of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar.
The pair collaborated extensively, producing portraiture and photograms (or as Man Ray called them ‘Rayographs’ after his own alias), created not with a camera, but by arranging objects on a photo-sensitive surface before exposing them to light.
Moffat’s ‘abstract compositions’ were predominately conceived using this, technique, or, through slight variations of it that he had inventively devised. Though undoubtedly testament to the influence of Ray (who was one of the first people to use it for artistic purposes, and who passed it on to his mentee during their time together in Paris) Moffat’s are clearly distinct from the older artists’ monochromatic creations.
In his hands, everyday objects, sometimes discernible, other times not, are endowed with an ethereal quality, exemplified perhaps most strikingly in his image of what appears to be a grasshopper, its delicate, phosphorescent form, used in place of a photographic negative, appears ostensibly alien against the inky backdrop.
In the mid-1920s, Moffat left Paris for Britain, where he opened an interior design company and gallery in Fitzroy Square, an affluent central London neighborhood popular with the city’s Bohemian elite.
Nicknamed ‘the bright young things’ this litany of artists, actors, writers, and fashion designers, welcomed him as one of their own and became the predominant subject of his portraiture.
Usually created by making two exposures (each covering half of one negative) one of which he would then choose to enlarge and frame, for the first time, the original double-negative contact prints of his portraits have been reproduced and displayed in their entirety, offering a compelling insight into his unique process.
In contrast to these works, his somewhat lesser-known ‘snapshots’, are characterized by a rich dynamism and, in many cases, an ability to derive a compelling rendering from a seemingly quotidian subject. Captured predominately outdoors using a portable medium format camera, they display a similar sagacity to those captured by the great ‘Street’ photographers of the time, and further assert Moffat’s rare acumen and dexterity.
In the early 1930s, he began experimenting with color, using the complex trichrome carbro process (a variation on the carbon process) popular in London at the time.
Made from Moffat’s original color prints, or where these couldn’t be found, reconstructed digitally from separation negatives, the vivid chromatic images in ‘Silver Society’ display a striking realism and impart an extraordinary eye for color and mastery of the process that further underlines his extraordinary photographic credentials.
All images © Curtis Moffat
Curtis Moffat: Silver Society. Experimental Photography and Design, 1923-1935, is published by Steidl and available here.