Looking at Hungarian artist László Moholy-Nagy’s abstract photogram (a photograph made without a camera) we are left pondering what it is, precisely, we are looking at. At first glance, we can make out the outline of an outstretched hand that has traced itself by light onto the sensitized paper surface. Superimposed over the hand are a series of diagonal lines, that vary in tone from nearly white to dark gray to nearly black. Above these abstract lines is the outline of what appears to be a paintbrush filled with disembodied fingers, positioned as if to suggest that it was once held in the hand observed below.
The photogram is the end result of a sophisticated darkroom practice. It features a series of shadows layered one atop another, suggesting that the photogram was not made in a single moment, but in a series of moments. Taken as a whole, the composition is at once abstract and representational, richly toned and starkly black and white, it is darkness and light, suggestive of photography but also divorced from photography’s presumed truth to appearance. This is not the sort of view typically produced by the camera. Instead, it forces the viewer to question what a photograph is and what sort of vision this “new” form of photography produces.
For Moholy-Nagy, the photogram was exemplary of a new experimental, and inherently modern, approach to photography that he called the New Vision, which put the technological medium of photography on par with abstract painting.
Fotogramm‘s date and its abstraction from observed reality situates it within the larger context of interwar avant-garde art and photography, but its resistance to the clearly defined categories of painting or photography gets to the ambivalent nature of this cameraless form of photography. Moholy-Nagy’s photograms from this period reflect his preoccupation with overlapping, often intersecting, geometric forms of varying transparencies seen in his earlier paintings.
Moholy-Nagy’s experimentation with cameraless photograms brought together his interests in technology, in materials (taken from the Constructivist faktura and the Bauhaus emphasis on materials), in new ways of seeing, and in his belief that art could bring about a positive change in the world.
Like the other avant-garde artists who took up photograms in the interwar period (Christian Schad, Man Ray, El Lissitzky, Alice Lex-Nerlinger, and Rosa Rolanda), Moholy-Nagy was not a professional photographer with an established professional or studio practice. Instead, like his colleagues (who were affiliated with Dada, Surrealism, Constructivism, and the Bauhaus), he was a painter seeking to break from the constraints of traditional easel painting.
What did photography offer that painting and sculpture did not? For Moholy-Nagy, photography, especially its cameraless form, represented a new way of seeing and experiencing the world, and a means of expanding our sensory perception by bringing it into alignment with the modern world—the world of industry, technology, new materials, and a burgeoning mass media that bombarded people as never before with images in the pages of magazines and illustrated newspapers. By showing us a new way of looking at the world, photograms, Moholy-Nagy believed, could aid in expanding our visual literacy, making us more critical consumers of visual culture.
What is a photogram?
Although the literature on photograms in the 1920s speaks frequently of “invention,” recounting dramatic origin stories by self-serving avant-garde artists, the practice of placing sundry objects on sheets of (light) sensitized paper is as old as photography itself. In fact, it’s older. Experiments with cameraless image making date to the late 18th century, and were described by Thomas Wedgwood and Humphry Davy in 1802, several decades before the announcement of the invention of the medium of photography:
When the shadow of any figure is thrown upon the prepared surface, the part concealed by it remains white, and the other parts speedily become dark. 
The basic process for creating a photogram, later taken up by William Henry Fox Talbot, Anna Atkins, and countless others, remained largely unchanged throughout the 19th and into the 20th centuries. Maintained through the decades by amateurs and scientists in the form of hand and leaf prints, the photogram took on a new life and new subject matter in the 1920s.
At a moment when modern art fully embraced abstraction, “art” photography in the early part of the 20th century was decidedly less modern and still in the throes of pictorialism. In Moholy-Nagy’s eyes, pictorialist-inspired photography “misunderstood” the basic tenets of the medium and was too much like Impressionism to be of use to the modern artist.  Instead, he proposed a novel approach: photography should make use of those materials fundamental to itself—light and the sensitive surface.
The photosensitive layer—plate or paper—is a tabula rasa where we can sketch with light in the same way that the painter works in a sovereign manner on the canvas with his own instruments of paint-brush and pigment. . . . Whoever obtains a sense of writing with light by making photograms without a camera, will be able to work in the most subtle way with the camera as well. 
For Moholy-Nagy, photograms were the true basis for photography, not the camera. Therefore, for Moholy-Nagy, photography was about more than just photographic semblance and the use of a camera to reproduce nature. Photography was about light. Despite eschewing the camera, photograms could still evoke the technological (and modernity) through the use of electric light. Light was the medium and the message.
In July 1922, before Moholy-Nagy and his then-wife, Lucia Moholy, began experimenting with photograms, he published the essay “Production—Reproduction,” in which he advocated for the “productive” use of media traditionally used for reproduction—photography, film, and the phonograph/gramophone.  Moholy-Nagy believed that photography was only capable of moving forward if it was used in innovative ways to expand sensory perception and allow for new visual experiences. By using light sensitive plates or paper (without the aid of the camera) to create images that captured light effects produced by mirrors and lenses (and a range of other substances like oils and gels), photograms could bring about new relationships and new ways of seeing—a “new vision.” He believed that this “New Vision” was more closely aligned with the rapidly changing experience of the modern world. Moholy-Nagy’s “truth to materials” approach echoed the goals of Constructivism, his teaching at the Bauhaus, and his utopian views about art’s capacity to initiate positive change in society if utilized in a “productive” way.
Painting, Photography, Film
The cameraless photograph was key to Moholy-Nagy’s theorization of photography in his book Malerei, Photographie, Film (Painting, Photography, and Film), which was published in 1925 by Bauhaus Books. The book was concerned with teaching people to see the modern world in new ways through the “productive” use of photographic techniques that offered new perspectives. The photogram was key to this new approach to photography, which he linked visually, and in writing, to such practices such as the X-ray and astronomical photography. Although a number of artists had been working with photograms since the early 1920s, Painting, Photography, and Film helped bring Moholy-Nagy’s “new vision” for photography, with photograms at its center, to the broader public, thus initiating a conversation about photography as a modern art form.
Notes: Thomas Wedgwood and Sir Humphry Davy, “An Account of a Method of Copying Paintings Upon Glass, and of Making Profiles, by the Agency of Light Upon the Nitrate of Silver” (1802), in Photography: Essays & Images, ed. Beaumont Newhall (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1980), p. 15.  László Moholy-Nagy, Painting, Photography Film, trans. Janet Seligman (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1969), p. 49.  László Moholy-Nagy, “Photography is Creation with Light,” in Krisztina Passuth, Moholy-Nagy (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1985).  László Moholy-Nagy, “Production—Reproduction,” in Photography in the Modern Era: European Documents and Critical Writings, 1913–1940, ed. Christopher Phillips (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1989), pp. 79–82.  Moholy-Nagy, Painting, Photography Film, p. 30.
Geoffrey Batchen, Emanations: The Art of the Cameraless Photograph (New York: Prestel, 2016).
Oliver A. I. Botar, “László Moholy-Nagy’s New Vision and the Aestheticization of Scientific Photography in Weimar Germany,” Science in Context 17, no. 4 (2004): pp. 525–56.
Andreas Haus, Moholy-Nagy: Photographs and Photograms, trans. Frederic Samson (New York: Pantheon Books, 1980).
Renate Heyne and Floris Michael Neusüss, eds. Moholy-Nagy: The Photograms: Catalogue Raisonné (Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz, 2009).
Eleanor M. Hight, Picturing Modernism: Moholy-Nagy and Photography in Weimar Germany (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1995).
Andrea Nelson, “László Moholy-Nagy and Painting Photography Film: A Guide to Narrative Montage,” History of Photography 30, no. 3 (2006): pp. 258–269.
Krisztina Passuth, Moholy-Nagy (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1985).