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John Gutmann

Text from Max Kozloff, The Restless Decade: John Gutmann's Photographs of the Thirties

Born in Breslau in 1905, and raised there, Gutmann was one of those many sons of well-off Jewish parents who became intellectuals or went into the arts. He looks back upon his artistic training, as a master-student in painting under Otto Miffler, one of the original members of Die Brücke, 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, Gutmann saw all of his prospects terminated by the Hitler government, when it proscribed him from any further public career.

Not wanting to stay where he was not wanted, 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 globetrotting photojournalist at the Berlin agency Presse-Photo, which promptly contracted him for - as he deliriously failed to notice - 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 from 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 upon a multi-racial 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. This bird's-eye view of Orientals, blacks, whites, Indians, and Mexicans in real community became his most enduring memory of Americans.

Just about everyone in John Gutmann's photographs exhales and inhales easily; the era of stressed performance is over. Far from being beaten down by the sun, people 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. Yet Gutmann also discovered the first drive-in movies and restaurants (in southern California, 1935), and made their portraits. Glittering drum majorettes teased his camera. Diving into or emerging from Olympic-sized pools, swimmers with rivulets of water over their skin excited his attention. A giant historical pageant, replete with cowboys, Indians, and conquistadors, drew his bead. Nor would his world have been complete without Count Basie, the circus aerialists, the Winged Pegasus, the car parks and golf links, the beauty contests, the tattoo parlors and graffiti artists, the movie marquees, and the early girlie magazines which we know existed in the thirties but are startled to see there.

What is it that radiates from these photographs and makes us blink, giving us the feeling that we have walked those streets, have known their rhythms intimately, but had never viewed them? The Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographs of this same period are salted away yet fabled in history. They are like a sad dream, affecting yet remote. Weimar photography had no nominal truck with specific historic incident. With their compounded visual interest, though, Gutmann's images mature out of it, and sparkle with a bright pathos. The vantage assumed in many of them is that of the normal pedestrian, but the eye is that of an astonished foreigner. For him, average and nondescript scenes and fixtures, unlikely to be noticed by natives, had 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, unheard of among anyone who lived there. This was not the promiscuous enthusiasm of the greenhorn who blunders into what is taken to be a garden of delights. Young people startled by his images today are as much foreigners to his scenes in time as he was in space. In his work the familiar and unfamiliar oscillate in a way that is as much disquieting as it is pleasurable.

Before arrival, his few ideas of America had been fed by sources like Dreiser, jazz, and Chaplin. Upon settling in, he instantly engaged with what would be a life-long theme, the icons of American popular culture, which orient all behavior and affect all moods. The era conjured up by this popular culture is novel to our eyes because it is implausibly staid as it is also raunchy. More innocent and yet more bereaved than our own era, it nevertheless reaches out insinuatingly to us through that same hot continuum of the media that bonds us now in our diversity.

There is, then, a structural similarity, which John Gutmann could not have previsioned, between the way he looked at America and the way we examine it in the present. Many photographers who came after him have exploited this ubiquity of the media, and have educated us with it. In Gutmann's work they should have to acknowledge a major and unknown predecessor. We're more at home, though, with his manner of seeing than with the content of his vision. As he surfaces it, the decade of the American thirties had more surprising circumstantial life - more snap, gaiety, contradiction, and bite - than was ever thought stored away in still photographs.

The FSA photographers treated of vernacular, which is a very different thing from popular culture. Mainly we think of vernacular as utterly native or indigenous. It's how people fix up their immediate territories 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, just as much idiosyncrasy as vernacular ones. It makes little difference who owns them or how long they last because they function as ephemeral diffusers of social myths, partly imposed upon, but mostly commanded by, the industrial order which transmits the general modes of egalitarian consciousness. John 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 propaganda.


 


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