A Commitment to Beauty

by Barbara McCandless




In 1906, three years after Karl started at Seybel & Struss, he found the stimulation he needed following a family tragedy. Will Struss died suddenly of spinal meningitis, at the age of twenty-two. The shock of his death devastated the entire family but especially Karl, who worshipped his brother and believed that Will was the true technical and creative genius of the family. The following summer, when the family vacationed in New Hampshire, Karl got his first camera, perhaps his brother's Pony Premo. Photography reminded Karl of his brother, and he may have wanted to hold onto those memories or carry on something his brother had started. Oddly, Will's death may have liberated him enough to discover his own aesthetic talents and interests, and he began to photograph in earnest.

One day in New Hampshire, riding in the back of a buckboard wagon as they returned to their cottage, Karl photographed a seemingly banal country landscape that somehow caught his imagination (see figs. 12 and 13). "I just happened to turn around and there was a vision and I reached down and got the camera and turned around and snapped."[10] This experience helped him realize that photography could reveal the latent beauty in the ordinary world. When he returned to New York, he began tentatively to photograph around the city and at the Ward house in Queens.

The following summer, Karl's Uncle Charlie asked him to come to Michigan to photograph forest fires threatening David Ward's lumber business. Someone supplied him with an 8x10 camera, hoping that he would be able to operate it. The family camp, on a lake, consisted of one large building and a boathouse. The primitive conditions challenged Karl to use his wits. He developed the plates at night in the boathouse, laboring until the early hours of the morning and using a safelight made from a pocket flashlight covered with dull green paper. Contending with cold weather and no running water, he raised the developer to the proper temperature by resting a large washbasin of it in another basin of hot water obtained from the camp cook.

When Karl returned to New York at the end of the summer, he started to read about photography. Only then did he realize that it could be more than just a hobby. He discovered that the Photo-Secession, an organization devoted to the promotion of photography as a fine art, was centered in New York and that photographs by its members were exhibited regularly at the 291 Gallery on Fifth Avenue. The Photo-Secession, formed in 1902 by Alfred Stieglitz and other leading photographers, had become the primary American proponent of the photographic style known as pictorialism. These photographers argued against the habits of the snapshooting amateur and instead believed that photography could be as valuable a medium of artistic expression as the other fine arts.

Struss also discovered that Clarence White, a founding member of the Photo-Secession and one of the most prominent pictorial photographers, recently had begun to teach a photography course at Teachers College, Columbia University, very close to the Struss home. Extension courses were offered in the evening to accommodate people like Struss, who wanted to study after a full day's work. Classes met two evenings a week, for two hours each, in the studios and labs of the college's School of Industrial Arts, then reconvened on Saturday afternoons for practice in the field.[11] Offered through the Teachers College art department -- whose chairman, Arthur Wesley Dow, was a progressive art teacher and early champion of photography -- White's classes were a mixture of art and technique that perfectly suited Struss' personality. In addition to providing basic instruction in the use of the camera and in methods of developing, printing, and presenting the final print, White emphasized the application of art principles to photography. Students also could take courses in art history and design taught by the painter Max Weber.[12]

Struss enrolled in White's class in 1908 and studied with him in the evenings for the next four years. The classes were informal and involved training the eye by looking at art in museums and galleries and making photographic excursions into the field. On Saturday afternoons, the class frequently took photography walks along Riverside Drive, on the edge of the Hudson River. Only about twelve students were in these classes, and although men dominated the commercial photography field and jumped into it with a minimum of training, more of White's students were women. White himself hypothesized that women might be more willing to take the time for training their eyes, because they possibly were greater idealists than men.[13]

Struss was charming and handsome and easily developed strong friendships with women. On his Saturday photographic excursions, he was frequently in the company of Amy Whittemore, Eleanor Pitman Smith, or Francesca Bostwick, all students in White's class. These don't appear to have been romantic relationships; Bostwick and Smith were both married, and Whittemore was eleven years his senior. They were, however, good friends and respected colleagues who shared the same passion for photography. He was very fond of these women and frequently gave them gifts of his photographs. He also included them in his photographs, using them as models to experiment with artistic techniques of portraiture, and collaborated with them on special projects (figs. 8 and 9).[14]

In February 1909, in the middle of his first year studying with Clarence White, Struss went to see the International Exhibition of Pictorial Photography at the National Arts Club. The hanging committee, chaired by Alfred Stieglitz and including White and other members of the Photo-Secession, selected works by pictorial photographers in the Photo-Secession, the British pictorial association the Linked Ring, and the German association Kleebatt.[15] This may have been the first major photographic exhibition that Struss saw, and he would not have taken its examples lightly. It also had a separate section on "natural color photography," featuring the new technology of autochromes by several photographers, amateurs as well as professionals. As early as 1907, when autochrome plates were first available in New York, Struss had made some family portraits and self-portraits using the technique, but now he also saw its aesthetic possibilities.

During his long workdays at his father's factory, Struss' mind was on photography. Whenever he got the chance, he made studies of other workers (fig. 10) or photographed scenes from the factory window (see figs. 52 and 53). In the evenings and on weekends, he traveled throughout New York City, taking photographs that reflected its excitement, as Bonnie Yochelson discusses thoroughly in her essay, "Karl Struss' New York." He also photographed at home, using family members to experiment with portrait techniques, and during the summers at the resort areas where his family vacationed (fig. 11).

In keeping with Clarence White's admonitions to simplify compositions and fill the space of the picture frame, Struss used lenses twice the length of a normal camera lens -- basically telephoto lenses. The normal lens for his four-by-five-inch camera had a six-inch focal length and gave a wider-angle view than he wanted, so Struss instead used a twelve-inch focal length lens. Likewise, he used a seven-inch lens on the smaller camera. In addition to allowing him to crop his images in the camera and concentrate on the tight compositions that he favored, these longer lenses tended to flatten the depth of field. He also experimented with a special camera lens of his own design, which he adapted from a projection lens and attached to the cameras with a brass mount. This crudely fashioned lens, which had only a single element and was therefore "uncorrected," produced an effect similar to that of a pinhole camera -- all planes of the image, from foreground to far distance, were in focus simultaneously, but without being sharp. The resulting images thus combined an overall softness with tight compositions, leading the viewer to concentrate on the composition rather than detail. This lens was the first of many technological innovations Struss would make in the field of photography. He eventually applied for a patent and successfully marketed it to pictorial photographers as the Struss Pictorial Lens.

Struss experimented minimally with his homemade lens during his first year of study with White, but he had his first chance to use it extensively when he took a ten-week trip to Europe with two of his sisters, Hilda and Lilian, in the summer of 1909.[16] He was then twenty-three years old, the same age his father had been when he met Marie Fischer in Germany. His father may have hoped that Karl would find a good German wife, as he had, and settle down into his job rather than fooling around with photography. Karl, however, saw the trip as a perfect opportunity to apply what he had learned from White's class and to assemble a large body of photographs. He took two Century view cameras to Europe: a 4x5-inch camera for making straight platinum prints and another that made 3 1/4 x 4 1/4-inch negatives, which he planned to enlarge and print at four times their original size. To ensure a wide range of exposures to work with, he also took along ninety Eastman orthochromatic film packs, with twelve negatives per pack.

The Strusses arrived in southern Italy, then traveled up the coast to Milan, turned north to Lake Como, crossed the Alps, and took a train to Lucerne. They concluded their trip in Germany, stopping in Dresden and Berlin, then visiting with their mother's relatives in Cologne for a week. In all, Karl produced about a thousand exposures, which he developed, four packs a night, after returning home from the trip. It took him about a month to complete the processing, then he enlarged some negatives of his favorite images and experimented with them.[17] Following the example of other pictorial photographers like Edward Steichen, Gertrude Käsebier, and .F. Holland Day, who used alternative printing processes to achieve different pictorial effects, Struss made straight platinum prints, gum prints which incorporated pigments and brush strokes into the image, and also combined the two processes, layering the pigment-carrying gum solution onto a paper previously coated with platinum.

One of his negatives was a very simple composition of a cloud in front of a mountaintop, taken while they were crossing Simplon Pass in the Alps. The negative, made at sunset under low light, had received insufficient exposure and thus was very contrasty, with good blacks but little detail in the highlights or the shadows. Instead of discarding this negative as a failure, Struss decided to experiment. When he printed the enlarged negative, he coated the paper with the platinum solution and, not knowing what to expect as a result, turned the paper over and coated the other side as well. After exposing one side of the print, he turned the paper over and exposed the other side, carefully keeping the image in register. He then continued this process for a total of thirteen separate times. The result was a rich print with intense blacks (see p. 70). Struss realized he had developed a new procedure for multiple platinum printing and experimented enthusiastically with it throughout the next year. Suddenly entranced with the magic and artistic control offered by the printing stage, he went back to some of his old negatives to make new prints. He even took the negative he had shot from the back of the wagon in New Hampshire in 1907 and made many variations in different processes (figs. 12 and 13). A straight platinum print produced an image that was very soft in focus but was still easy to comprehend. However, hand-stippling the gum solution onto paper resulted in a non-photographic effect that looks surreal, almost nightmarish.

Struss' trip to Europe had been such a successful photographic excursion that he continued to photograph extensively during his summer vacations, primarily in Arverne, the community on the south shore of Long Island where his family rented a summer house. During the summers of 1910 and 1911, he vacationed with his sister Hilda and some of her friends in Chester, Nova Scotia, a small tourist and artists' community.[18] On the way to Nova Scotia in 1910, they stopped off in Maine to visit Clarence White's first session of the Seguinland School of Photography, and there Struss met several students who later would develop into good friends.


Go to:

This is page 2

Visit the Table of Contents for Resource Library for thousands of articles and essays on American art, calendars, and much more.

© Copyright 2005 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.