PRINT November 1982


MEMORY, SAYS THE DICTIONARY, is “the mental capacity or faculty of retaining and reviving impressions or of recalling or recognizing previous experiences.” To aid memory, an aggregate of photographs can hold up to view images not only of separate people, now gone, but of whole cultural periods. Receding into history, a culture—the sum of the arrangements by which a society manifests itself—leaves behind artifacts such as words, objects, and images, which survive in a progressively alienated and disorderly state. What lives on in human memory of cultures is a composite of ideas which such remnants have generated. There have been few studies of the ways photographs enter into that composite and predispose memory with stereotypes of their own.

Let’s consider, for example, two eras, Weimar Germany and Depression America. If all evidence of them had vanished except images celebrated by photo historians, what notions would one have of those periods?

About Germany, it would have to be said that the environment there was almost entirely urban and industrial, that the light which shined then, instead of providing a luminous atmosphere, marked off zones of great contrast, and edged shapes of great precision. In this clean cityscape of pronounced junctures and seams, objects large or small were disposed as if, in all their existence, they had no other purpose than to form up in dynamic and serrated ranks. Though obviously inanimate in themselves, the view that set them forth dizzies the senses.

Weimar Germany would seem to have been possessed by a desolate exhilaration. Its larger structures, its bridges, towers, smokestacks, and smelters, its assembly lines and thoroughfares, constantly suggest human use, but hardly anywhere does one see a community that engages with them. There is no history behind these unweathered surfaces. When passersby occasionally appear, they exhibit only their marvelous talent for being ephemeral markers of geometrical space. Quick in their entrances and exits. unaffected in their passage by the services and stores that surround them, they’ve gotten crisply to their assigned places. as if guided by cue marks on the pavement. Everywhere there is offered a spectacle which resembles a theater in the round, in which actors and audience can exchange roles—that is. to see and be seen from multiple perspectives.

How charged must have been the sense of living in such cities, energized by the ricochet of lines and forces, tipped sightings and plunging views. The eye traverses these urban places without reference to human scale and its habit of ordering the relative weights and proportions of things in the environment. What would account for this cantilevered view if not the most intense curiosity about how the parts of the modern city, and then the parts of its parts. are put together? Even when they came close to their fellow human beings and made portraits, photographers tended to exclude everything but the physiognomy. or rather, the mask. One photographer spent a lifetime collecting portraits of hundreds of his fellow citizens, from all professions, in order to show how they make up a society. The momentum of the portrait types alludes to the national whole. Another photographer approached the face at exceptionally close quarters, a kind of charged proximity known to doctors and lovers, but nothing intimate is disclosed.

A plane, whether of a face or of a street, has no significance except to meet another, and the photograph has evidently no purpose but to emphasize the acute juncture of forms. As evidence of contemporary perception, the Weimar photograph has a great condensing power, functional, punchy, and schematic as a poster.

As revealed in photographs. Depression America, by contrast to upbeat Weimar, is a fallen culture. Images of this period, no less immediate, graphic, and mobile, speak of blasted hopes, wrecked lives, and social uprootedness. Every face reflects harsh and depriving circumstances, and their physical cost. When the camera visits such faces in the home, or in the fields and on the roads, the scenes only confirm the calamitous lowering of possibilities, a desiccated and stunted environment. Even as it makes a rare appearance, a heroic emblem of 20th-century industry, such as a steel mill, is preceded by a graveyard. Instead of buoyantly levitated up high, the eye is oriented by the ground, by floors and corners, as if the force of gravity would keep all things weighted in place.

Quite often, although people are caught out in the open, en route, along grand horizontals, they’ve come to a halt. Their antique flivvers or pickups, overloaded with their pitiful, rickety household goods, have broken down or run out of gas. People frequently sag in the heat (which reminds you how thermally neutral was Weimar photography). With so many of these pictures, the space through which figures walk or work is discouraging in its spread. How the images suggest the plain hardness of getting anywhere is not so evident, but the fact of it is pretty clear. As is also the gnarledness of hands, the grudging harvests, the rawness of unpainted wood. On balance, it’s understood that the Depression in America took place only in the country and occasionally its small towns, all of which, as it happens, were located in the South and West.

This documentation of national adversity as regional experience weighs heavily on the remembering mind. By focusing on the reluctance of the nourishing land, it implies that the failures at work in this culture had natural rather than social or political causes. To be sure, there are images of authority, county sheriffs, and glimpses of social oppression on the faces of blacks. But mainly these out-of-work farmers, migrants, and sharecroppers are shown as splendidly natural in themselves, afflicted but resilient and stalwart. Their clothes, body language, facial expressions, and modest domestic articles are studied affectionately and respectfully. It is as if catastrophe had brought out what was most dignified in their carriage and admirable in their character. These virtues seem always to have been linked with their atavistic (to city-dwellers) way of life. Not for them the blandishments of new-car riding or speedy trains, which ironically smile down on them from occasional signs. Theirs is a world of clapboard country churches and roadside watermelon markets, advertising foods at heartbreakingly low prices. Elsewhere, the industrial 20th century may be racing ahead, into a future of steam, iron, and flight, but compared to this flinty reality, so rooted in the goodness of a rural American past, it is a phantasm only, an irrelevant and rather specious promise.

Epochal illustration in the history of photography is one of the more beguiling areas into which images have been centered. It establishes a canon of normal perceptions and typical subjects which accrete only to reinforce each other. Suppose an epochal photographer, born in Germany and nurtured by Weimar, escaped with an open state of mind from the Third Reich, in time to join the American Depression. The mutant possibilities of such a career would be hard to conceive were it not for the revelation of John Gutmann’s photographs.1

It was Gutmann’s good fortune to have gotten under-way as an artist in his homeland but to have come of age, as a photographer, in his adopted country. What he carried with him and what he would learn was fused vitally into an unexpected pictorial enterprise. In acting as an instinctual broker between the visual value systems of the milieu he left and the one he entered, between two time and space frames, Gutmann mingled the look of them.

Born in Breslau in 1905, and raised there, Gutmann was one of those many sons of well-off Jewish families who became intellectuals or went into the arts. He looks back upon his artistic training, as a master student under Otto Müller, one of the original members of Die Brüke, with a fondness for its strict discipline. (A weekly average of twenty hours life-drawing for four years trained his eyes “forever” in the appearances of the figure.) In 1933, at age 28, with an evidently promising future as a painter and art professor, all of Gutmann’s prospects were terminated by the Hitler government when it listed him as no longer allowed to have a public career.

Not wanting to stay where he wasn’t welcome Gutmann planned his departure. He bought a Rolleiflex. read the instruction manual, shot three rolls, had them store-developed and contact printed, and fobbed himself off as a globe-trotting photojournalist at the Berlin agency Presse-Photo, which promptly contracted him—as he deliriously failed to notice—for exclusive world rights to his work. Soon after, he left Germany, light of load but heavy with camera. Destination: United States. This escape artist had not wanted to steal a job from those suffering chronic unemployment and reckoned that being a reporter for a European news agency was an equitable solution. “Don’t stay in Europe,” a friend said. “The only country you want to go to is the U.S. The only state is California. The only city. San Francisco.” Disembarking from their freighter, Gutmann and his fellow passengers looked down upon a multiracial group of shrieking, laughing, and gesticulating people. To this day, he remembers vividly how they all belonged happily together yet looked so different. After ten minutes of explanation, though amazed and delighted, he still did not know what it meant that they were shooting craps.

Just about everyone in John Gutmann’s photos exhales and inhales easily: far from being beaten down by the sun, they take it in naturally, and assume that it will warm them. With the steepest diagonals in the West, San Francisco was designed to make any Weimar shutterbug trigger-happy. Gutmann discovered the first drive-in movies and restaurants (in Southern California in 1935), and made their portraits. Glittering drum majorettes teased his camera. Diving into or emerging from Olympic pools, swimmers with rivulets of water running over their skin got his attention. A giant historical pageant replete with cowboys, Indians, and conquistadores drew his bead. Nor would his world have been complete without Count Basie, the circus aerialists, the Winged Pegasus, car parks and golf links, the beauty contests, the tattoo parlors and graffiti artists, the movie marquees and early girlie magazines that we know must have existed in the ’30s but are startled to actually see.

What is it that radiates from these photos and makes us blink, giving us the feeling that we have walked these streets, know their rhythms intimately, but have never viewed them before? The vantage assumed is that of the normal pedestrian. but the eye is that of an astonished foreigner. For Gutmann, average and nondescript scenes and fixtures, unlikely to be noticed by natives, have a riveting excitement, even a shock value. He could not anticipate what sorts of things would make pictures in this new city, but he had a readiness to see that was unheard of among those who lived there. This was not the promiscuous enthusiasm of the greenhorn who blunders into what is taken to be a garden of delights. In some respects, the cultural distance from which he approached San Francisco parallels the temporal distance from which we look at his evocation of the place. The familiar and unfamiliar oscillate in a way that is disquieting as much as it is pleasurable.

Before arrival, his few ideas of America had been fed by sources like Theodore Dreiser, jazz, and Charlie Chaplin. Upon settling in. he instantly engaged with what would be a lifelong theme—the icons of American popular culture, which orient all behavior and affect all moods. The FSA photographers working at the same time treated of the vernacular, which is a very different thing from popular culture. Mainly we think of the vernacular as utterly native or indigenous. Its how people fix up their immediate territory when they’re at their most familial, with what they can afford or what’s been handed down—or sometimes, with what little is left to them. The Okie homesteader’s truck is, above all, a packet of vernacular articles. Nothing underlines better the rhetorical power of the FSA photographers—Dorothea Lange, say, or Ben Shahn—than the degree to which they make you empathize with vernacular objects, expressive and personal possessions in an economy of great scarcity.

An artifact of popular culture, on the other hand, cannot presume to such authenticity or preciousness. It qualifies as popular by its participation in a national mindscape, shaped and standardized by a consumer economy. Popular forms have greater range—since they cut across classes—but in Gutmann’s hands, they have no less idiosyncrasy than vernacular ones. It makes little difference who owns them or how long they last, because they function as ephemeral diffusers of social myths. Gutmann showed extraordinary sensitivity to popular culture—which he describes and analyzes rather than endorses—possibly because he saw in it a much more amiable, exotic, and malleable counterpart of what would have been repugnantly familiar to him in Germany under the name of propaganda.2

As an emblem of a society where the class structure is open and fluid, rather than rigidly bound and hierarchically ordered, the key motif in Gutmann’s photography is the automobile. Photographers may have celebrated mass production in Weimar but gave no clue as to how it was used or how it changed people’s experience. In California, it acted as a sign of profligate but necessary mobility, through all walks of life as well as space. Students went to the Galileo High School in roadsters and coupes. Of a culture whose young naturally assumed such privileges, how could one say it was in the doldrums? When he saw people traveling to unemployment lines in cars, Gutmann ceased taking seriously any mutterings about revolution or national cries of despair.

Weimar had articulated the progressive, a state of being which had not yet gotten its circulation and which was expressed through an expectant neatness of things, in the end absurdly chaste. But here in America was progress itself, in the now, and it turned out not to be Modern in the orderly sense at all, but bumptiously prolific, ingenious, and convenient. Motorists, for example, could get snacks served on trays clamped to their open car windows. And Mobilgas advised its customers to use a credit card in-driving to the Fair (1939).

Looking at John Gutmann’s cars, you can thumb a ride through the American ’30s. Early on in the decade there aren’t too many of these vehicles, nor are there traffic jams, but they make up for their scanty number by being great characters. They all start off having the same die-stamped, square-jawed configuration, and they wear black, like deacons or undertakers. Under the California sun, which Gutmann etches brilliantly, this sobriety has a faintly comical air—like that of stiff Victorians at a loss in lotus-land. Soon enough, though, he peeks in car windows, sees cheesecake decals, or looks closely at the chrome-winged fripperies of hood ornaments. A Wyoming license plate with its rodeo silhouette, or a dashboard with a picture of a prancing deer, will not yield to car culture the myth of a wilder West. In 1934, someone out there draped a saddle over the hood of a two-seater. By 1936, when he got to Harlem, Gutmann shows a Cord, with its fabulous moderne grille, flanked heraldically by two expensively dressed black men. The more discrepant its realities. the livelier and more comprehensive was Gutmann’s photographic report.

Automobiles, certainly, were not just isolated social data in the cityscape: their backup and support systems also fed into it—the gas stations and used-car lots, businesses that had their own typical codes. They are described in a thoroughgoing spirit, as if the photographer were filling in essential parts of a text. In the beginning of his 1971 book on Los Angeles, Reyner Banham writes: “ . . . like earlier generations of English intellectuals who taught themselves Italian in order to read Dante in the original, I learned to drive in order to read Los Angeles in the original.” Gutmann reveals that certain cars themselves, hand-printed all over with messages, were meant to be read. One of them warns that “The Lies Are Falling Thick and Fast” . . . that “the International Bankers Have Taken it [America] Away From Us Saps”. These sentiments are continued in a nearby awning with a more explicit putdown of Roosevelt as a friend of the money-changers.3 This turns out to be a bit of private electioneering on behalf of retirement warranties, made all the more irate and hectoring by the starkness of the white lettering on the black car paint.

Public typography, during the early ’30s, was as serifed as the roofs, cowlings. and fenders of Fords. This slangier script has far less rectitude, and adds vividly to Gutmann’s inventory of the decade’s argot. He had been prepared for skyscrapers, but not for the American commonplace, neither its nerve nor its ironies and freedoms. In his outlook, the have-nots, the out-of-work, and the dispossessed resort to written messages almost as frequently as the media, and the air resounds with their pleas and their causes. Framing these underground statements seems to have been Gutmann’s way of informing himself and of telling his viewers what was going on beneath the surfaces of middle-class society. There’s a lot of language in his pictures, and a lot of people reading it, as if to encourage us to do the same. “Looky,” or “We Want The 40 Hour Week,” “Nazi Agents in San Francisco,” “Boycott Japanese Buy American” (this last a complaint by the Chinese community against the Japanese invasion of China, though it sounds very much like a latter-day pitch by American automobile manufacturers!). Thirties culture is abuzz with alarms and discontent. This is not the specific trauma of the Depression, but a tally of flawed, grating, and malignant conditions, even some current events, Neues vom Tag, all very particular in themselves, but reflective of a more diffuse and polyglot stress.4

Though it has its smiling faces, this photography was never intended to show that things were going well, or that they would necessarily turn out badly. Its author has written, simply. that he was “interested in relating to the marvelous extravagance of life” (italics added). Professionally speaking, John Gutmann was a journalist: emotionally, a celebrant: intellectually, he was a historian. The fact that the American world was tendentious (like most modern periods, but with a cadence of its own), only made it the more intense in its extravagance.

Gutmann’s outright Depression pictures were sent back, on contract, for European consumption, where they were placed by Presse-Photo, and eventually other agencies, in journals such as Der Welt Spiegel and Die Berliner lllustrierte Zeitung. (Some of his pictures were used by Nazi organs, a fact over which he had no control.) Even when working, through Pix. Inc., New York, for the American magazines, he employed certain tactics required by their European counterparts—the early leaders in the field. Knowing that foreign editors wanted him to establish his milieu does much to explain the explicitness of American scenography in Gutmann’s photos. A billboard advertising Dodge cars or a poster for Coca-Cola localized his reporting. The racial mix of the large American cities was an initial and continuing source of attraction to him, especially since “that maniac” had demanded that everyone be Aryan in Germany. Unless he could declare, though, that these were Chinese-Americans, rather than Chinese, his exposition would not be judged clear enough for his audiences in Europe. With its strong cuing and internal captions, his work accommodated itself to its reportorial context while it also articulated his own interests.

Still, no one in an editorial office required his work to be as insistent, reflective, and searching as it quite often was. Not the topic or the anecdote interested him so much as the life around him, a continuous activity that revealed itself gradually through its unannounced gestures and its unpredictable voices. Because no market existed for his particular sympathies, a great quantity of Gutmann’s work was inevitably private, undertaken for his own pleasure. The distinction between this intimate aspect of his photography and the evidently more commercial work is still not a clear one. It was simply a happy chance that the imagery that needed to be narratively climactic financed the imagery he wanted to be psychologically pointed, and that the two unfolded into each other.

As examples of harrowing density and concision, perceived by a highly observant eye, compare Ham and Eggs, 1938, with Guns For Sale, NYC, 1936. These are simultaneously street portraits, genre scenes, and symbolic statements. An elderly couple stands together, she reading a radical newspaper Ham and Eggs (with a strident headline “Persecution Stirs Statewide Anger”)5 he, behind her, blind and possibly scowling. Next to them, in a watchmaker’s window, are placards quoting the Gettysburg address—“Of . . . For the People,” etc., and a notice of retirement warranties.6 The juncture of these particular individuals and their sign environment is politically combustible without being didactic. Grimmer, but just as fortuitous, is the picture of two shabby black men, caught a second before stepping out of the frame toward us. Momentarily illuminated by sunlight, latticed through the New York El above them, their eyes hooded by shadow under their hat brims, they have just passed a street vitrine loaded with shot guns and ammo. In these photos, two rapid glances at very different subjects yield frames implicit with foreboding, irony, and violence. In one continuous circuit, they weld together disturbing wholes out of fractious parts. To a photographer with such synthetic powers of vision, demonstrated over and over again, the decade could not help betraying itself.

People did a lot of waiting during that period. If it was an experience that typifies our recall of the ’30s, it presented a challenge to photographers because they had to make exposure time count in the act of showing how social time was being wasted. Ever concrete, Gutmann, with single figures or groups, queued up or scattered, describes how racism and bureaucracy contribute to this state of affairs. Even so, commerce does not cease to make its appeals, and a sign above the heads of a street crowd, engaged in one of those recurring ceremonies of idleness, innocently asks “Do You Need Money?” What is happening in these scenes of displacement and listlessness, so energetically observed? The answer is, nothing, itself a major event. But with him, the very fact, the void that it represents, produces symbolism.

It was possible at any moment in this world of fifty years ago to turn a corner and be taken aback. For the view that opens up. as John Gutmann’s Depression wears on, is sundered, as if it is running on two timetables simultaneously. So many of the average functions of the city, its transport, media, and communications, as well as its established architecture, strike one suddenly as of the bright-eyed past, or at least as unrelated to the present aimless and unstable reality of people on the streets. In the country, one would certainly have perceived that conditions were terribly amiss, but not that the time was seriously out of joint. Evidence of this schism was constantly hatching in role reversals, in unexplained absences or new presences, minor incongruities, untoward incident and ominous potentials. Confronted with these circumstances, and having to make sense of them, Gutmann was one of the first photographers to have discovered that the present could be clocked and then defined by the increment of its disjunctions.

Increasingly, one sees that Gutmann’s portrait of the ’30s was unified by miniature jolts. Events or appearances that would start out with one kind of everyday meaning begin to turn or curdle and imply a very different sort of significance. Sometimes the occasion pivots on a matter of incidental contrast, as in Gutmann’s picture of two Texas ladies, one in a Tom Mix cowboy outfit, the other in dowdy civilians. A vignette from the ordinary pluralism of American dress, the photograph, just the same, throws behavioral norms into some doubt. More extreme are his photos of women in amorous dalliance or in wanton lesbian love. Of two or more terms in the pictorial scenario, one of them stands out as being “wrong” in combination, or misplaced . . . in the context of accepted morality. But it’s not just that his subjects violate standard prohibitions, consciously or not: the photographer does, too, as in the course of his work an occupational curiosity turns into a personal voyeurism.

Figures are shuffled into territories and hang around where they have no ordinary business or they are aligned in alienating rhythms. It happened one day, that the San Francisco wharves were deserted, except for squads of National Guards—prickly sentinels of space—who had moved in with their tanks and weapons. Gutmann’s views of the San Francisco General Strike of 1934, which was sparked by a longshoreman’s walkout that precipitated a city-wide shutdown, combine desolation and menace in a very European way. For this photographer, lines of sight gradually ceased being avenues of expected incident and were transformed into open zones, imminently transgressed. This, too, was a democratic possibility, but as much a befuddling as it was a hopeful one. In the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson, André Kertész, Helen Levitt, and now John Gutmann, a gimlet eye traces the spectacle of urban life in the ’30s, finding it less and less cohesive and rational the more it is examined. But with the others, the insight emerges as a freer reflex of their artistic sensibilities; with Gutmann, it’s tied to his involvement with his culture as history.

A man startled by the “extravagance” of life does not deny that his responses to it can be sexed, amused, or mystified. There was no expressive necessity for the bandage on the cheek of the young Indian musician, or the fly on the forehead of Arnold Schönberg. But these two “marks” complicate the mortal dignity of such faces. For that matter, so, too, does the bandage on the shin of the young man, naked but for loincloth, shoes, and socks, who sunbathes with eyes closed in the most abandoned attitude, in the photograph called By the Railroad Track. As if he were a choice bouquet of desert flowers, set off by a toothy Navajo blanket, he seems to exhibit himself in a locale that also includes a background conquistador, in full regalia, taking a break, some living-room furniture, and a curve of railroad track! Whatever could have been invented here had no chance of competing with what had been discovered. Or is it that discovery, at times, is so radiant that it becomes an invention?

Though it’s rarely groping or feckless, Gutmann’s level of acceptance—of ill-sorted, happenstantial, and sometimes self-canceling motifs—is remarkably broad. That very broadness represents a dynamic principle, for its inclusive sense of possibilities operates on and eventually twists the view of social probabilities. Gutmann belongs to that type of still photographer keenly interested in asserting new probabilities, but whose ethics prevent him from staging them—intervening in the realities he is otherwise actively proposing. It always remains important that the viewer can intuit the contrast between the banal circumstances—such as an offstage moment behind the set of a California historical pageant in By the Railroad Track—and the delirium of their effect. The fact that they don’t depend on the photographer for having happened keeps these images from insisting on a likely symbolism. Yet it also makes them more credible as vision. They arise in the work of one receptive to “the obscure fertilities of chance,” a phrase of Paul Zweig’s, describing an ideal of the mythic adventurer. (And one that is at the same time hospitable to Surrealism.) The real meaning of such images starts up beyond the point they can or need to be explained.

Scanning normal traffic, the photographer is on the lookout for a bogey. This would seem to be the case when Gutmann rapidly framed an aged and bony lady coming toward him, her polka-dotted frock and swinging bodice pom-poms oddly festive in contrast with her obscurely veiled face. It was certainly a worthwhile visual moment. But there lurked in it a macabre presence which Gutmann names, appropriately, but also as if for the title of a thriller, Death Stalks Fillmore.

From the first, the activity of mind at work in this photography had its playful side. This aspect of Gutmann’s portrait of the ’30s is its most equivocal feature, but it also lends his imagery its specific depth. Regardless of its disorders, the epoch presented itself to him largely as a comedy of manners. If one riffles through his pictorial archive as quickly as a deck of cards, the faces of them almost dissolving into each other, it gains a critical mass and achieves a manic quality, illustrating the decline and inconsequential fall of practically everyone. For no matter how many repeated spills it takes, the society is obviously elastic enough to pick itself right up again. His humor is reflective and intellectually reserved, rather than satiric and therefore disrespectful. When Gutmann enjoyed himself, it was at the expense not of individuals but of sentimentality and ideology—that is, of guidelines to feeling and advisories on right thinking. People are stranded in their dilemmas or are sprung from them unawares—as the mood or the setting shifts around them.

The great (and even the lesser) Depression photographs assert above all that people are conscious of the one miserable, long-standing trauma that is happening to them, and that every aspect of their behavior conforms to such an organizing consciousness. This highly creative approach was called “documentary,” and it is as such documentary records that Depression photographs have shaped our understanding of the period. Though they existed within the same social framework, Gutmann’s Americans do not seem to possess a like knowledge of their condition. It’s as if the day they imagine themselves to be living has little relation to the day that can be observed in the photo. His subjects are by no means as sorrowful and inward as those of his colleagues (whose work he was largely unacquainted with until after the Second World War.)7 But this is not because Gutmann’s characters are somehow more innocent, or exempt from material pressure. Their reality, rather, was more perplexing Which means, too, that our “superior” grasp of it is , conflicted and elusive. The photographer’s playfulness elides into a gentle irony.

Given this patchwork environment, the ironist has an advantage over those whose view of the period was more homogeneous. But the multiple icons of John Gutmann are also reflected through his multiple techniques. His photographic gestures can no more be pinned down to one formulaic approach than his tableaux can be said to describe only one social arena of life, or express one level of emotional response. Pictorially as well as psychologically, he perceives the decade as a theater in the round.

The photographic scrimmage is always redefined by the opportunities that unfold before him, and not by an operational program. With him, the latitudes of intrusion are finely gradated and empirically determined, trade-offs, possibly, between what was photographically necessary for him and psychologically tolerable to his subjects. Long shots and mid-shots alternate with frequent close-ups. Gutmann is just as liable to shoot things against the light as he is to have it behind him. A salient detail may draw focus away from a central image. He has no preferences for arrested movement over blurred action, when the latter is called for. The camera may distort space at extreme angles as much as it accords to appearances an everyday vantage.

These images are as finely crafted and as seriously printed as they can be. For all the mobility of their perception, and all their fluctuating stances, Gutmann’s photographs are not stylistically loose or arbitrary. We are not dealing with a cameraman so badgered by his instincts that every photographic act turns out to be a professional emetic. It’s a question, rather, of a photographer with a very strong character and also a large visual vocabulary, who does not hesitate to employ it in order to give an account of his equally large social themes.

In surroundings that offered him no professional community, the young refugee John Gutmann had no choice but to invent himself as a photographer. From memories of the German illustrated press and the jangle of American culture, experienced firsthand, he fashioned his own peppy, pictorial amalgam. As a rule, the greater the amount of social information he wanted to transmit, the calmer and more centered was his framing. Reciprocally, the more tremulous the action that beckoned him—and he was an adept of action—the more off-plumb are his weights and the more kinetic are the interrupting edges of the picture. Out of the Pool and Portrait of Count Basie are stunning examples of American subjects and German framing—angular and synthetic in their energies, armpit- and calf-high in their sighting, witty and involving in their human textures.

Interspersed throughout Gutmann’s record of the American ’30s are moments like these, genial moments of pleasure lived at full throttle. They may have about them a distinction of jazzy rhythm or a tingle of the flesh. The decade, after all, was not so driven to resemble our dismal memory of it that such historically undifferentiated moments were at a minimum. In his way, at his own pace (systematically, as it turned out), Gutmann pictured a historical epoch. If his sampling of it was more encyclopedic (a fairly European trait), and more contradictory than our stereotypes were prepared for, that is no denigration of the period, nor of his judgment. His past collided with and was humanized by his present, as though the ideal and the material, as principles, had come wonderfully to terms with each other. If it’s the mark of the true modern to accommodate rapidly dislocating experiences, then here is a Modernist, incarnate.

But the mnemonic power of the photograph can also rescue us from the trance into which Modernism falls, when it wants to forget history (unfortunately, a great deal of the time). Compared to our photographic recollection of the ’30s, the one that has been established as a true memorial, Gutmann kept a different set of carbons. In them, popular culture gets on very comfortably with vernacular expression, and economic malaise coexists with casual affluence. We were aware of that, of course, but we hadn’t visualized it, at least in the medium that enjoys the highest prestige as the medium of record.

As more of its history is made visible to us, though, photography is increasingly seen as an ongoing system of corrective visions—which undermine but also supplement each other. That spectacle is very instructive, for it teaches that one’s knowledge of oneself as an integral being in time is enlivened by an enhanced perception of what is owed to memory. One sees, too, how much the present can communicate with the past, and one can calculate more finely those degrees by which “now” had been anticipated by “then.” When that happens we’re also not so quick to make, in fact we tend to postpone, judgments of where we are. “If I am no longer young,” wrote Jules Renard, “I should like to know at what hour of what day my youth left me.” One of the most refreshing and vivid reassurances of John Gutmann’s photographs is that they do not answer that question.

Max Kozloff is a photographer and writer whose latest book is Photography and Fascination (Addison House, 1979). The present article is a version of an essay for a book on John Gutmann.



1. It is true that a number of important photographers had emigrated to the United States from Germany during the ’30s They include Alfred Eisenstaedt, Martin Munkasci, and later, Horst P. Horst and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. These men had worked in several European countries and had established reputations as commercial photographers. None of them can be described as interested in epochal illustration.

2. On one of his first rolls, there appears down a Berlin street a prominent store sign advertising SS uniforms.

3. A well-justified accusation. In Indispensable Enemies: The Politics of Misrule in America, New York, Penguin Books, 1974, p. 110–11. Walter Karp writes: “The legislation of the First New Deal began with the Emergency Banking Relief Act it Congressional reformers had expected Roosevelt to strip from the discredited bankers their private control of the nations credit they were fatally disappointed. At public expense Roosevelt restored the bankers’ power under the guise of “emergency” legislation. . . . Further New Deal banking legislation would permanently consolidate the big banks’ control over the nation s credit control which the majority of Americans had vainly opposed for decades.”

4. Gutmann was not the only photographer to have been captivated by graffiti. Friedrich Seidenstucker made some very charming pictures of them, sometimes in the process of being made—and then there was also Brassaï. Said Brassaï: “Walls attract me by their graffiti, because, in our civilization, they replace nature.” The rather aboriginal, and certainly abstract character of Brassaï’s graffiti perhaps bears out this idea of a replacement of nature. Could it be that the presence of script in them would have been too citified? Gutmann, by contrast, almost never intrudes a natural reference into his city scenes.

5. The historical reference is to Upton Sinclair’s campaign slogan, “Ham and eggs and $30 a week.” Needless to say, Sinclair was defeated.

6. Speaking of the Social Security Act, Karp (ibid., p. 118) quotes William Leuchtenburg: “ . . . In no other welfare system in the world did the state shirk all responsibility for old-age indigency and insist that funds be taken out of the current earnings of workers.” The aged poor were waiting then and still wait, for legislation that would improve their lot. Gutmann’ s photo is particularly graphic in this respect.

7. Interestingly enough, Gutmann relates that his 1947 show entitled “Face of the Orient,” at the M. H. DeYoung Memorial Museum, he was complimented briefly by an older woman whose name as he only learned afterwards, was Dorothea Lange!