PRINT January 1980

John Gutmann: A Transported Vision

JOHN GUTMANN’S VISION OF America in the 1930s is unlike any other pictorial record of the time. Newly arrived from Germany with a virtually unused camera, he determined to make photography his second profession after painting. This was a time in America when photography, in paradoxical opposition to the economic poverty of the country as a whole, was a fertile field: fashion and advertising photography blossomed out of modern antecedents of the ’20s; the f/64 group made a public debut with its exhibition in 1932 at the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco; the Farm Security Administration began its epic documentation in 1935, and a year later, Life magazine emerged, one of the most typically American cultural enterprises we have yet seen. The pristine tradition of the f/64 group exerted a tremendous influence on younger photographers up through the ’60s, and even longer in some places, but it was the F.S.A. photographs that came to exemplify our idea of the Depression years. Gutmann worked for photo agencies throughout the 1930s, both in Europe and the United States. Consequently, his range of subjects is much broader than that of the F.S.A.

The uniqueness of Gutmann’s pictures, however, is not usually due to their subject matter, as almost everything in them is familiar to us: job lines, the W.P.A., girlie magazines, political propaganda, naive-art landmarks, popular dances, gambling, Olympic swimmers, crime, parades, cars, children and signs—signs everywhere, writing on everything, pointing out places where you could buy either diamonds or guns, warnings of viciousness and fraud, promises that a new car would save you money. Americans had something to communicate that could not be contained, and so it spilled out onto walls and cars and random pieces of cardboard, sometimes written in block letters so passionate they had to be separated by dashes lest they clamber up on top of one another and obscure their message completely. Political communications abounded, claims that “Lies Are Falling Thick and Fast” and that “international bankers” had taken America away from its citizens. On walls and fences, graffiti offered apologies to former friends, claims for necromantic powers, plaintive notices of broken rendezvous and the most abrupt of all disclaimers: “Fuck Yourself Little Caterin.” These were the vehement words of private battles, not the noodled expanses of contemporary subway graffiti—whose mammoth initials look like the yearnings of a wayward monogramist—nor the unwitting abstract beauty later recognized by Aaron Siskind. These were the public proclamations of a vulnerable humanity, inscribed in wavering lines and uncertain scratches that only barely formed themselves into words. This indeed is the clue to Gutmann’s vision. He recorded the continuity of personal existence in the midst of overpowering social distress. The same theme runs, nominally, throughout the human-interest stories in Life, but with instructively divergent aims.

Gutmann, by 1936, was under contract to Pix, one of the large photo agencies which supplied Life and other magazines both here and abroad with images. Most of the pictures in his recent New York show were taken either for magazine assignments or, more often, on his own inspiration while on assignment. But the differences between Gutmann’s photos and most of the images with similar subject matter published in Life are differences of perception and spirit. Gutmann’s photographs have a subtlety, sensuality and wit not often found in American photography in that era.

A masked girl jitterbugs in an empty street during Mardi Gras. A sylphidine sprite, her outstretched arms in satin, batwing sleeves suggest an imminent levitation. She glistens in the fading light, skipping in abandon. Her partner, by contrast, is merely an earthbound man dancing. Photographs of American popular dances were in demand internationally. In the pages of Life, however, they were used for didactic and virtually propagandistic purposes. The “Big Apple” was illustrated in a sequence shot to demonstrate the varying movements, showing, at the same time, young Americans having a wonderful, wacky time in the midst of social chaos. No single shot of those dancers possesses the grace or hidden sexuality or mystery of Gutmann’s New Orleans girl.

Gutmann brought with him spirit and style, the same spirit that propelled him out of Germany within months after receiving a letter informing him that he would no longer be able to teach or exhibit. An Expressionist painter with a promising career, a former master student of Otto Mueller, a member of Die Brucke, Gutmann was told by a friend that San Francisco was the only place to go. Unable to take money out of Germany, he bought an expensive camera and decided to begin a new career as a photojournalist to support himself in his adopted country. He shot a few rolls of film with his Rolleiflex, obtained a contract with a large photo agency in Berlin on a fluke, and arrived in San Francisco at the very end of 1933. Catapulted out of one set of bad circumstances, he landed in another.

Despite the Depression, Gutmann was fascinated by America. For him this country was a hodge-podge treasure chest of strange conjunctions that might have been dreamt of in Europe by the Surrealists, but that here were realities of daily life. He had “new eyes” with which to see his new homeland, as though for him the emperor’s new clothes were really visible, stitched with a thousand beautiful and “crazy” sights. Yet, in itself, an appreciation of America’s manic eclecticism was not enough to produce an excellent body of photographs. Again, Life magazine provides a comparison. One of their covergirls in 1937, for example, was “Gracie the Dummy,” the first display-window dummy at Saks Fifth Avenue in possession of a head (headless dummies having previously been the norm). In addition, “Franco: A Dictator in Spite of Himself” might be found in company with the “Belgrave Babies,” a group of infants including Prince Edward and his sister Alexandra and the heir to the Guinness brewing fortune, whose habit it was to take the air in the gardens of Belgrave Square. And they, in turn, might be found sandwiched in between the war in Spain and a piece on the Federal relief plan. Such giddy interspersal of vastly different stories, illustrated mainly by undistinguished photographs, ultimately gave each item an equal measure of unimportance. Gutmann also recorded vastly different scenes—crown princes, W.P.A. workers and the “Three Little Pigs” in the service of traffic control, but he depicted their differences while at the same time recognizing linkages. Instead of flattening the world out into a jumbled platter of nonsense, he sought and preserved the core of each situation.

To a great extent, Life’s photographic policies were formed by the same things that were part of the everyday environment for Gutmann and most of his contemporaries, the illustrated German magazines that flourished in the 1920s and early ’30s. Some of the most superb photographers worked for these magazines—Andre Kertesz, Martin Munkasci, Erich Salomon—but the magazines’ greatest achievements were in the development of photo-reportage sequences.1 At the same time, photography as an art was being developed by Moholy-Nagy at the Bauhaus and by proponents of an antipictorialist movement known as the “Neue Sachlichkeit” (The New Realism or New Objectivity, a term first applied to neorealist painting and later to photography and film2). Despite philosophical differences, the most advanced photographers all produced sharp, realistic images, in opposition to stiff posturing and sentimental pictorialism. The illustrated magazines ran spreads on such themes as the “Beauties of Everyday” and "The Picture Can Be Found in the Street.”3 The spectrum of European life was explored, resulting in reportage sequences on things like the European boxing championship, small-town life, contemporary single women, nightlife in London, a French gambling casino and a theater performance by mental patients.

The Nazi rise to power in 1933 put an end to this activity and forced photographers and editors alike to flee Germany. Kurt Korff, editor of the Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung and his publishing director, Kurt Szafranski, came to the United States and were involved in the beginnings of Life magazine.4 Alfred Eisenstaedt, in 1931 a latecomer to the German reportage scene, became one of the core staff photographers for Life. Stefan Lorant, editor of the Münchner Illustrierte and chief proponent of graphically fluid presentations, rather than mere processions of pictures, went to London.5 And John Gutmann, a painter with no previous interest in pursuing a photographic career, put all his money in a camera and headed for the West Coast.

So Gutmann began his new profession with a painter’s eye and the weight of this short-lived but powerful German photographic tradition somewhere in the back of his consciousness. Two of the pictures he shot before he left Europe show how well he could function in his new medium from the outset, how sensitive he was to composition, mood and allusive story-telling. In October, Berlin, 1933, a young woman gazes into a shop window. The blackness of the reflections on the glass, the store’s shadowy interior and her own black form, arms clasped to her abdomen, almost fortell the funereal future of Germany. The second photograph shows an elderly man and his dog in Rotterdam looking out across an empty square, as if they were both at that moment watching the past disappear forever. A glaring, misty light emphasizes their expectant stances, which seem to respond to palpability rather than emptiness.

As a social documentarian in a new country, Gutmann sometimes saw the marvelous in the very existence of the mundane. To our eyes now, some of his dazzling discoveries may seem only acceptably commonplace, records of what once existed. Yet he showed the dislocations of the ’30s with an unusual subtlety and ambiguity.

Members of the National Guard “occupying” a produce area during the general strike that threatened to engulf the city of San Francisco in 1934 look like dough-boy extras on a movie set. Standing or sitting in a barren street scattered with random bales of hay, they appear to be waiting. This silent scene is bracketed by two large geometric shadows. But its elegant unreality is disrupted when we notice a cluster of striking workers masked by the shadow at the right of the picture. This is not merely an elegant composition after all but rather a moment of calm.

The ever-present mob of the unemployed is again in a potently ancillary position in the Dream of Uprising. A man asleep at the wheel of a car takes up the major area of the picture. Beyond, a fuzzy group of men congregates on a stairway, a crowd bound by its anxiety, floating like an apparition. Like every mob, they are homogeneous.

In Selling Apples at Broadway No. 1 single figures emerge. Temporarily severed from the mob, one of them is a part of the legion of apple-sellers who appeared on street corners during the ’30s, when shippers sold apples on credit to the unemployed. But which one is the seller? A man in an overcoat stands with his back to us, and a man in a three-piece suit faces us, the apples between them. The one stares at us guardedly while the other tilts wearily sideways. Neither indicates a sense of propriety in the situation. The unhappy mob is ubiquitous and these individual attempts at solutions are feeble at best.

Even worse than the hovering cloud of domestic trouble is the shade of world calamity. The silhouette of a woman in a fur-trimmed coat looks out across the water from the sun-striped deck of a ferry. U.S. destroyers dot the horizon in the grainy, gray distance. In contrast with the cruise-boat ambience of the ferry they seem impossibly small but not quite benign. Another group of silhouettes, hat- and overcoat-clad, gazes up out of a soupy atmospheric murk at three propeller planes in a blank gray sky: here is the mob as two-dimensional projection, a shadow of unknowns cropped at mid-trunk so as to seem severed even from the comfortable support of the ground. This last picture is one of the most threatening of Gutmann’s images. It fulfills the idea we already harbor of what really occurred in the 1930s. Yet by stressing the facelessness of the ’30s, Gutmann intensifies the realization that private dramas inevitably continued.

A small boy kneels in the street finishing the feathers in his chalk-drawn Indian’s headdress. A car menacingly zooms by, a few feet away, but he intently continues his work. Or a blurred hand presumably attached to the owner of an adjacent full-length shadow points mysteriously at a painted white spot on the ground in The Jump. A contiguous jumping form reads like two children leaping over the moon. An annual frog-leaping contest between a town’s leading citizens is thus witnessed as a transfiguration of matter. In addition, there are places like Petaluma, California, the chicken center of the world, where they have “Chicken Pharmacies” to preserve the production of their 45 million eggs a year. And there are also ads covering whole building, promising that if you eat a certain candy it will make your “mussles hussle” (sic).

The humor in Gutmann’s work issues from his esteem for the silly and the touching (but not the soddenly sentimental) and from his genuine wonderment. (Who had ever seen an elevator for cars before?!) Few consciously humorous images by other important photographers of the time come to mind—Russell Lee’s devilish hood ornament thumbing its nose at the world, perhaps, or some of Ralph Steiner’s jokey observations. In its composite gentleness Gutmann’s is quite unlike typical American humor of the ’30s, which is probably best represented by the insane hilarities of screwball comedy. There, the likes of Carole Lombard and a group of zany, decadent friends might seriously be sent out on a scavenger hunt in search of a “forgotten man,” and would actually discover said creature to drag back for the prize. On the other hand, there was the mordant wit of the fashionable set. Peppered with catastrophic contemporary references, it is well exemplified in this caption to a fashion photograph: “It seems that there will be inflation. This one fools you. It is not really as shockingly high as at first it appears. For though it soars in front, it suddenly collapses in back. . . . It is dark red felt . . . ”6 Gutmann’s curiosity allowed him to sidestep cynicism and despair. It also made it possible for him to locate and appraise the sensuality of everyday life.

During a visit by the Crown Prince and Princess of Denmark to this country, Gutmann shot the customary pictures of their activities for magazine use. The picture he exhibits, though, is a low-angled study of the way light falls across the back of the princess’ thin coat against the black shadow of a building. Gliding across her shoulders, down the folds of her sleeve and across her hips and skirt, it defines a sensuously unroyal swelling of her backside. Sunlight falls on the beautifully formed body of a male swimmer, also, glazing a plane of fabric that stretches from his abdomen to the bulge of his groin. As stealthily voluptuous as these images are, it is a surprise to encounter the overt sexuality in the pictures of two women making love. In one photograph a dark-haired figure in a tailored satin shirt curves aggressively to kiss a woman in a striped dress with a demure white collar, their hands clasped over the breast of the latter. The two are naked in the second picture, one reclining languidly on a divan while the other bends over her, kissing her hip and caressing the inside of her thigh. There is really no counterpart to these pictures in American photography at this point. If there were, a third image might likely be included, the denouement of the illicit lovers. Part of a very European sensibility, this pictorial eroticism is closest in kind to Brassai’s pictures of nighttime Paris.

Gutmann’s self-portrait is a particularly apt coda to this body of work: with unshaven face tilted backward, eyes closed and mouth partly opened in a grimace of pain, he is reminiscent of the wandering artist-exiles of the ’30s (which is not to ignore the difference between voluntary exile and necessary flight). Specifically, Gutmann’s grubby visage calls to mind Henry Miller, whose first and most moving book, Tropic of Cancer, was published in 1934, the same year Gutmann’s self-portrait was done. Sketching his own perceptions of his displaced life at the Villa Borghese, Miller says: "I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive.”7 The words don’t apply to Gutmann himself, but to the dichotomous vision of America that he created—gaiety rising above trauma, sensuality in the midst of privation, and mystery in the face of a pitilessly bitter reality.

Carol Squiers is a New York critic who writes about photography.



1. Tim N. Gidal, Modern Photojournalism: Origin and Evolution, 1910–1933, New York, 1973, p. 19.

2. Helmut Gernsheim, “Aesthetic Trends in Photography Past and Present,” Motify Magazine (London, 1959), p. 47.

3. Ibid.

4. My thanks to John Gutmann for pointing this out to me. It is also discussed in Gidal.

5. Gidal, op-cit., p 30

6. Nancy Hall-Duncan, The History of Fashion Photography, New York, 1979, p. 58: From an advertisement in Harper’s Bazaar, October 1934.

7. Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer, New York, 1961, p. 1.