Editor's note: The following essay was rekeyed and reprinted on February 15, 2005 in Resource Library with permission of the Amon Carter Museum. The essay was excerpted from the 1995 illustrated catalogue for the exhibition New York to Hollywood: Photographs by Karl Struss, held at the Amon Carter Museum. Images accompanying the text in the exhibition catalogue were not reproduced with this reprinting. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or if you have interest in obtaining a copy of the exhibition catalogue, please contact Amon Carter Museum through either this phone number or web address:


A Commitment to Beauty

by Barbara McCandless


Karl Struss had not one but two careers with a camera. From 1907 to 1917, he was a rising star in New York's photography circles, producing work that was innovative and unique and earning the approval of such photography greats as Alfred Stieglitz and Clarence White. He dropped from view, however, while serving in the army during World War I, and following his discharge from the service in early 1919, he headed west, to Hollywood, to establish himself all over again as one of the most innovative cinematographers of his day. Instead of becoming one of the century's best-known photographers, however, the effect of these dual careers has been to somewhat obscure Struss' accomplishments. Photohistorians have recognized his role in the world of photography but have been unfamiliar with -- even unaware of -- his work in cinematography. Likewise, film historians, while applauding his innovative film work during the 1920s, have not paid any attention to his career in still photography prior to World War I. Considered as a whole, however, Struss' half-century of work with a camera, from his youthful days photographing New York to his filming of television series when he was in his early seventies, reveals a surprisingly unified set of aesthetic principles -- a commitment to beauty.

When questioned about his reasons for leaving New York and switching careers, Struss always attributed his decision to both his desire to live in a warmer climate and his belief that he could do better work than the cinematographers who were then making movies. While these were no doubt factors in his decision to move across the country and change occupations, the real story is much more complex, illustrating the tenuous nature of building a successful career as an artist. While developing his artistic voice, he had to deal with many distractions, including conflicts between various artistic factions and personalities, unsuccessful commercial ventures, and a political atmosphere that hampered his professional activities. Although some of his choices got him into trouble, Struss' perseverance eventually triumphed. Through all of his struggle to find a niche for his artistic talents, he remained committed to the idea of pictorial beauty. Applying much of what he had learned about artistic photography to cinematography, he helped to instill a needed sense of beauty into a, young industry just discovering its own far-reaching power.



His family's German immigrant background had a strong influence on Struss' life, and the example set by his grandfather, father, and siblings inspired the artist to strive for success and believe in his own natural talents. His grandfather, Henry Struss, had come from a modest rural background in Swearingen, Germany, a small village south of Hannover. Emigrating to the United States in 1851, probably to escape the serious economic problems that plagued Germany, he soon prospered with a retail grocery business in lower Manhattan. He died while serving in the Civil War, leaving two children, both American-born: Karl's father Henry Jr. and his aunt Wilhelmina. As these first-generation Americans assimilated into the middle-class lifestyle of New York City, they left behind most of their German roots but maintained a strong pride in their heritage,[l]

Henry Jr. became a strong role model for his children. He attended city public schools only until the age of twelve but later completed studies at the Packard Business College in New York. He also found early success in his chosen field of clothing manufacturing, becoming a junior partner in a dress trimming manufacturing firm. then building two silk mills in New York and New Jersey. By the age of twenty-two, his business had prospered sufficiently for him to travel to Germany, where he met and proposed to Marie Fischer, of Cologne. She emigrated to the United States the following year to marry him, and they raised six children -- three daughters and three sons. All but Karl, the youngest, were born in the house where their father had been born, adjacent to the grocery store their grandfather had managed. Eventually Henry moved the family uptown, to a house that he designed and built himself on the Upper West Side (fig. 2). Karl was born there on November 30, 1886, and throughout his life he felt a distinction in stating that he had been born in the house his father designed and built.[2]

Although Marie Struss was German-born, her husband and their children were thoroughly assimilated into American middle-class culture.[3] An expert horse-rider, Henry Struss served as president of the New York Riding Club, which quartered at the Eighth Avenue stables down the block from their house. Endowed with literary and artistic talents, he also wrote a book on ring riding and added some of his own watercolors for cover illustrations. Unfortunately, his success was not immune to economic cycles, and during an economic depression in 1892, when Karl was six years old, Henry Struss' silk mill business went bankrupt. Forced to sell the house he had built, he moved his family farther north, to a more rural area of New York. Far from being crushed by the experience, however, he worked hard to recover his financial stability, and in 1896, he bought back his personally designed house near the Riding Club's stables.[4]

Henry Struss was also an accomplished mechanical engineer, and when automobiles were introduced to the United States in the 1890s, he wasted no time experimenting with the new technology. He built and patented the first gasoline-powered automobile in New York City, completing all of the machine work himself at the Dakota Stables near their home and finishing the car in 1896.[5] He also helped edit the first automobile magazine, Horseless Age.[6]

Karl Struss, who had seen his father lose his business but build it back through hard work and dedication, greatly admired his parent for being a self-made man. The fact that the elder Struss was a multi-talented writer, artist, architect, mechanical engineer, and expert rider also may have intimidated his son. As the youngest of the family, Karl was spoiled by his mother and three older sisters, none of whom married, but his father, who expected a lot from all of his children, was strict with him, and their relationship was strained.

Having recovered its financial stability, the Struss family began a tradition of renting a summer cottage away from the city, frequently on the south shore of Long Island. In 1898, Karl, his mother, and his sister Elsa spent a month with his aunt Wilhelmina. Her husband, Charles Willis Ward, ran a one-hundred-acre nursery in Queens and was the oldest son of David Ward, whom Karl called the "lumber king of Michigan." Karl spent much time with the Wards during his childhood and through them learned some of privileged society's ways of leisure. While at his aunt's, Karl enjoyed hurdling, pole-vaulting, and sailing and many of the popular new pastimes of the leisure class, including pool, tennis, and golf. An intense need for physical recreation would stay with him his entire life.

During these summers, Karl also first developed an interest in photography. In 1896, for their summer vacation in Babylon, Long Island, his thirteen-year old brother William purchased a Pony Premo camera, easily portable and designed for "Wheelmen and Tourists."[7] Karl, who idolized Will and "was interested in anything he was doing,"[8] watched while Will took photographs with his new camera. In the fall, after they returned to the city, the boys developed the negatives together in a darkroom illuminated by a candlelamp covered with red glass. Karl didn't take any photographs of his own that year and only helped with the processing, but Will eventually let him use his camera during another summer vacation five years later.

Growing up in an atmosphere of physical activity, intellectual and creative stimulation, and mechanical ingenuity, Karl developed a passion for variety and excitement in his own life. However, his strained relationship with his father would frustrate his desires for stimulation during much of his young adulthood. As the youngest of the Struss children, he saw all of his siblings develop their own talents: his brother Harry went into an electrical business, two sisters became schoolteachers, and another attended the New York Architecture League. His brother Will (fig. 4) was the star of the family; good-looking, popular, and bright, he was president of his high school class for four years. Henry Struss was still struggling with his business and could not afford college tuition, but Will received a scholarship to study mechanical engineering at Columbia University.[9] Karl may have been intimidated by the talents of his father and his older brothers and sisters, and he may have had some difficulty finding his own strengths.

Although Karl was a robust youth who enjoyed a variety of physical exercise, he also had frequent bouts with colds and flus. In 1903, during his third year at DeWitt Clinton High School, Karl got pneumonia and was out of school for two months. A family photograph made at this time illustrates a very sickly looking Karl surrounded by the rest of his very healthy family (fig. 5). This juvenile sickliness may have been more than his father could stand; Henry Struss removed his son from school and sent him out of the city to stay with the Wards on Long Island. By the time Karl recovered, it was May, near the end of the school year, and for some reason -- perhaps a lack of faith or patience in his youngest son, or disappointment in Karl for becoming ill and not having better physical health, or simply a desire to have one of his children to follow him into his business without spending more time on education -- Henry Struss removed Karl from school permanently after that illness.

In an act that hurt Karl deeply and caused him lifelong bitterness, his father put the young man to work at the Seybel & Struss bonnet wire factory, not in the office, but as a laborer operating the machines that covered wire with colored threads of various fabrics. Such work required both hands and feet, and machine operators remained on their feet the entire day. Karl worked from seven in the morning until five-thirty, five days a week and a half-day Saturday mornings,and earned from four to fifteen dollars a week. Although he did what he could to improve the efficiency of the machines and invented a spring take up the slack in thread, it was still tedious work, and Karl hated it. He knew he would never be happy or successful in the manufacturing business, but he remained with his father's company for eleven years, all the while yearning for something more stimulating.


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