New York

John Gutmann

Castelli Graphic

When John Gutmann fled Nazi Germany to settle in San Francisco in 1933, he began working at photo journalism, disseminating images first to a German public (through the Presse-Photo agency in Berlin), and later in American and European magazines (through contract with New York’s Pix). At the time Gutmann was a neophyte—a jobless painter with an unused camera, a hungry mouth, and an unerring eye. He recorded America in all its diversity, focusing on ethnic groups and automobiles, on Depression breadlines and parades, on graffiti, gambling dens, and the native surrealism of the streets. But one of his preferred subjects was women.

Or Woman, for Gutmann presented her both situationally and as an eternal presence, enigmatic and ultimately elusive. During the ’30s and ’40s he explored her in her sociological dimension, using Indians, Chinatown geishas, protesters for workers’ rights, and beauty queens to figure forth Femina Americana. He recorded women interacting with other women, shooting shopgirls, students, women engaged in sport and dance and in scenes of lesbian love; and he recorded nurses along with prostitutes, adolescent girls with soft and swelling bodies as well as wrinkle-ridden hags. Thinking of these photographs one tends toward lists, so strong is their documentary urge. But Gutmann also explored the mythological dimension of woman, showing her masked, veiled, or variously obscured by signs of disguise and seduction, or by layers alternately interposed and removed, hinting at secrets and revelations. Quite clearly, then, Gutmann sees woman both in her multiplicity and her complexity.

These photographs—some 90 odd—show Gutmann’s amazing gestural sense—an almost eery aptitude for seizing the conjunction of mind, mood, and role in its most articulate physical form. This is as evident in his California Woman, 1935 (an adolescent sex-bomb straddles the door of her home, with arms akimbo and legs flexed to show the fullest fleshy thigh), as in Gutmann’s roller skaters, majorettes, or the masked Mardi Gras sprite who jitterbugs in wild abandon. Gutmann loves bodies; bone and sinew move inside their fleshy molds with easy grace, in a wide range of rhythms. And he composes with amazing skill, using lofty or low-lying views or sharply slanted angles to wrest form from the matrices of events that don’t quite reveal it by themselves. Some photographs show Gutmann’s origins in Expressionism, as he focuses on foreground objects, blurring backgrounds into shadowy relief. And others show his uncanny eye for the sharp detail, which is often keyed into the major feature of the composition. A photograph from 1939 shows three blondes bent over a water fountain, sporting the corkscrew curls of the period which Gutmann’s cropping has turned into a sea of waves wandering toward the framing edge. Yet these photographs seem strangely short on artifice; though Gutmann works with a wide range of shooting techniques, manipulating his camera in a free, mobile manner, the sense of actuality is never threatened. His “documents” seem to tell their tales, bringing their story lines to contemporary life.

In these photographs it’s hard to avoid the sensuality and general sexiness that never quite cedes to sexism. The deep eroticism of Gutmann’s vision is part of a very European sensibility, a sense of woman as always existing within the compass of man (the same can be said for Gutmann’s “masculine” images). Gutmann plays with the range of this dialectical vision in his scenes of showgirls at the World’s Fair, 1939—sex objects on display—or of the office work force at rest in swan boats, like Ledas floating in a larger stream (Swan Ride, 1939). Yet he always places this sexual edge within a larger, multifaceted perspective. When he shows the sunlit, water-drenched, shimmering suit of a swimmer stretched taut across moving flesh, it’s with the sense of a body in motion, involved in a function akin to, but different from, the nurse’s ministrations, lobbyist’s picketing, shopgirl’s attentions, or the paradoxical absorption of women at rest. It’s that breadth of personal vision that gives this work its unique documentary edge.

Kate Linker