Thursday, September 9, 2010

John Gutmann

 John Gutmann, Mobile, Alabama, 1937: To be stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis blues again?

John Gutmann (1905-1998) was born in Breslau, Germany  (now Wroclaw in Poland), to a middle-class Jewish businessman and his wife. He pursued a career in art, studying as a master student from 1924 at Breslau's Akademie für Kunst und  Kunstgewerbe under the renowned Expressionist Otto Müller. Müller, one of the original members of Die Brücke, was admired by Gutmann for his strict discipline: His eyes were trained by a weekly average of twenty hours life-drawing for four years. From 1926 to 1927, Gutmann also studied art history and philosophy at Friedrich Wilhelm Universität in Breslau.

John Gutmann, Texas Women, 1937

After receiving a bachelor's degree in 1927, Gutmann moved to Berlin, where he earned a master's degree at the State Institute for Higher Education. He became a connoisseur of the city's vibrant nightlife, as well as the many new artistic movements that collided there: Expressionism, Constructivism, Dadaism, and New Objectivity. His own paintings of the time were compared with the work of Otto Dix, depicting the cosmopolitan social life of Berlin and spicing it with a sense of emotional isolation and social disharmony. In 1931, Gutmann had a solo exhibition of paintings and drawings at the important Gallerie Gurlitt, Berlin. His works were also included in exhibitions of the the Berlin Secession and the Preussische Akademie der Künste. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to find any reproduction of these paintings except the photo shown below. Probably, like the works of many other exiled artists, they were left behind in Germany and destroyed as "degenerate".

 John Gutmann with his paintings, "Nude" and "Still Life with Apples", circa 1932

The freedom Berlin offered was short-lived. In 1933, the Nazis forbade the Jewish Gutmann to teach or exhibit. Given the increasingly dangerous political climate, he realized that he would have to leave Germany. The editor of the magazine Die Neue Revue (whose mother was American) told him: "There is only one country, that is the United States, the only state is California, the only city, San Francisco." During that period, a strong and lively populist culture promoted, through magazines and popular novels, an image of America as a land of skyscrapers, painted Indians, gangsters, and Negro dancers. Before his emigration, Gutmann's few ideas of America had been fed by sources like Dreiser, jazz, and Chaplin.

 John Gutmann, Autumn, Berlin-Charlottenburg, 1933

Photojournalism struck Gutmann as a useful means of supporting himself. He had no training as a photographer, but a month before he sailed for California, he purchased a Rolleiflex, read the instructions, made three rolls of test shots, and immediately obtained a contract with a news agency, Presse-Foto, to send pictures back to Germany for the many magazines that circulated there. As can be seen in Autumn (above), a melancholy farewell to Berlin, even his first "test shots" alreday showed Gutmann's future as one of last century's outstanding photographers.

John Gutmann, Oakies on their Way West, Laramie, Wyoming, 1936

In the 1930s, San Francisco seemed alluringly remote and exotic to a refugee from Nazi Germany. With the steepest diagonals in the West, San Francisco was designed to make any Weimar Expressionist trigger-happy. "I was in Paradise", Gutmann later said. With his outsider's eye for the curiosities of the city, he recorded the sheer strangeness of his American experience. Gutmann observed the life of the city with the detachment of an anthropologist examining an alien culture. He was particularly fascinated by the prevalence of the car, the fetish of the modern world. Automobiles were a luxury in Germany, whereas in America during the Depression, even homeless had them.

 John Gutmann, San Francisco City Hall, 1935

Gutmann also was a politically conscious photographer: He shot a fascinating series of the militant 1934 West Coast waterfront strike (which resulted in four workers killed by the police and private guards of the employers). His 1935 photo of a Nazi rally in San Francisco's City Hall (obviously organized by the German Consulate - Billy Wilder, in his memoir, sarcastically commented on a similar event in Los Angeles) is a striking historical document. My favourite photo of Gutmann is simply called Omen. Shot in 1934, it is a dire vision of things to come, and bears a striking resemblance to Richard Oelze's famous painting The Expectation, produced one year later.

 John Gutmann, Omen, 1934

Many of Gutmann's pictures are photojournalistically straightforward, modern photojournalism having developed in Germany in the late 1920s. A fair number of his pictures also show the influence of the avant-garde that flourished in Europe in the 1930s. Elevator Garage, for example, has the distinctive bold, tilted angle and arresting cropping of Russian Constructivism, reminiscent of Alexander Rodchenko:

 John Gutmann, Elevator Garage, Chicago 1936

Gutmann described America as "foreign - a landscape in which buildings had replaced mountains, automobiles had replaced trees, and neon and painted signs had been substituted for flowers." His work of this period also had a certain Surrealist quality that owed much to the type of camera he was using. The Rolleiflex was held at the waist, offering a disorientating field of vision in which Gutmann framed the sharp shadows and strong diagonal forms that give his photographs their compelling quality.  In 1936, Gutmann signed up with the New York City picture agency Pix Inc., which placed his work in magazines like Life, The Saturday Evening Post, Look and Time. The same year he also began teaching art at San Francisco State University. A decade later, he founded the creative photography program there, one of the first in the country. 

John Gutmann, National Guard tanks occupy San Francisco Waterfront General Strike, 1934

By the end of the 1930s, Gutmann had toured most of the U.S., and became established as a photographer for magazines and newspapers in America and Europe. His work was shown alongside that of Henri Cartier-Bresson and Brassai. After his full-time appointment as a professor of art at San Francisco State College in 1938, his magazine work began to peter out. During World War II, he studied at the Signal Corps Motion Picture School in New York, and made still and motion pictures for the U.S. Army Signal Corps. During World War II, Gutmann served with the United States Office of War Information in China, Burma and India. His images of these places were published, amongst others, in National Geographic.

John Gutmann, GI's and Chinese watching Kunming Airbase hit by Japaneses bombers, 1943

After the war, Gutmann returned to the studio, producing in 1946 a large three-screen panel that combined painting and photocollage. Months after completing it, he photographed a beautiful young woman smoking a cigarette before it. This was Gerry von Pribosic, a talented artist whom he would marry in 1949 and photograph frequently. Eventually, she took her own life.

 Imogen Cunningham, Woman in Sorrow (Gerrie von Pribosic Gutmann), 1964

In 1955, Gutmann was appointed full Professor of Art at San Francisco State University. The following years he traveled extensively, producing photography and motion picture footage on modern architecture in Europe and Mexico. Since 1962, Gutmann did little work in photography due to a prolonged illness, but continued teaching. In 1970, he visited  Berlin for the first time since 1933. Since the late seventies, Gutmann's work was exhibited nationally and internationally in many important shows, and was acquired by many museums and private collections.

 John Gutmann, The Oracle, 1949

In 1998, shortly before his death in San Francisco, Gutmann made a selection of what he considered his best photographs, exhibited and published as The Photography of John Gutmann: Culture Shock. These images, taken mostly in the 1930s in San Francisco, offer a very different city from the paradise of the popular imagination. There is a recent film by Jane Levy Reed about John Gutmann's life, My Eyes Were Fresh, which is shown at the Palo Alto Art Center through December, 2010. You can order a DVD here. Also, there is an excellent official webpage where you can see many more of his photos.

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