A Commitment to Beauty

by Barbara McCandless




From 1908, when he first began to study photography, through mid-1914, Struss continued to work all day at the Seybel & Struss factory, then to photograph and print in the evenings and on weekends. Although he had originally considered photography a hobby, he now worked steadily to develop the skills necessary to photograph professionally. Success as a pictorial photographer depended not only on talent but also on the ability to exhibit and publish one's work. Struss' first chance came in 1910, with an important but troubled exhibition that was the first of many factionalized photographic activities.

Organized by Alfred Stieglitz, the International Exhibition of Pictorial Photography at the Albright Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York, was the last exhibition of the Photo-Secession. Other photographers considered the Photo-Secession's artistic beliefs to be controversial, and under Stieglitz's direction, the organization and its activities antagonized critics and photographers alike. For the Albright exhibition, Stieglitz invited foreign photographers and some Photo-Secessionists to exhibit in an Invitational Section and planned an Open Section for all other photographers, whose submissions would be judged by Stieglitz, photographer and critic Charles Caffin, the painter Max Weber, and Clarence White. Stieglitz' control deeply offended a very active photographic organization who perceived the Open Section as merely a conciliatory gesture to allay criticism, and all of their members except Augustus Thibaudeau boycotted the exhibition.[19]

Although Struss previously may have exhibited a few of his images in the Teachers College student gallery, he had never been included in a major exhibition like this. The prospect of submitting some of his prints may have been daunting, but he probably was encouraged by the fact that Clarence White and Max Weber were among the judges, and they may have urged their most promising students to submit work. Since White's studio was right across the street from Stieglitz's 291 Gallery, White may even have taken Struss over to show Stieglitz some of the young man's multiple platinum prints. Struss remembered Stieglitz's reaction: surprised at the richness of the prints, he wet his finger to touch a print, then shook his head, saying he had never seen such blacks.[20] In selecting works for the exhibition, the judges were so impressed by Struss' multiple platinum and gum prints that they chose twelve of his photographs, including both European and New York views. Only one other photographer in the Open Section, William Mullins of Franklin, Pennsylvania, had as many photographs, and many better-known photographers, including members of the Photo-Secession, had fewer works accepted.

Struss must have been immensely flattered by such measures of esteem, especially for a newcomer. He took the train to Buffalo to visit the Albright gallery and stayed for two days, photographing the building's exterior and the gallery installation while there (fig. 14). He did not meet any of the Buffalo photographers,[21] but his prints in the show made such an impression on one photographer that they became lasting friends. Augustus Thibaudeau, the only member of the Photo-Pictorialists of Buffalo who submitted photographs to the Open Section, had written Stieglitz about the Buffalo group's animosity but had given Stieglitz his own complete support. A lawyer by profession, Thibaudeau may have been accustomed to taking unpopular causes, and he did not back down in the face of opposition from his Photo-Pictorialist colleagues. After the exhibition opened, he wrote Stieglitz: "I had my first opportunity to study the work in the open section. It is strong. I am proud of being in the company of Haviland. Genthe. Struss. Anderson and Mullins." Thibaudeau would later prove to be one of Karl Struss' best supporters, admirably coming to his defense when others abandoned him, again taking an unpopular cause.[22]

Reviewers generally praised the exhibition and agreed that it was a historically significant event in proving photography's aesthetic value. The exhibition also made Struss' reputation, as critics mentioned and reproduced his work among the day's leading photographers. Record crowds attended the show, and many prints were sold, including thirteen to the Albright Art Gallery to begin a permanent collection of photography. Although the Albright did not purchase any of Struss' work, two of his photographs did find buyers -- no doubt the first prints he had sold.[23]

A few months after the Albright exhibition closed, Struss found his second opportunity to exhibit. In April 1911, the Newark Art Museum organized an exhibition that in many ways followed the Albright Art Gallery's example. The Newark photographer Edward R. Dickson worked with the Museum to organize the exhibition, titled "What the Camera Does in the Hands of the Artist," and Max Weber, who had hung the Albright exhibition, also laid out this one. Since the Albright exhibition had already brought recognition to several photographic students from the area, Dickson, working with Clarence White, invited some of the latter's students from both Columbia University and the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Letters to exhibit along with leading photographers. Not only Struss, but his good friends Amy Whittemore, Francesca Bostwick (both of whom had been included in the Albright exhibition), and Eleanor Pitman Smith were among White's students whose work was included.

By the end of 1911, Struss' status as a photographer had vastly changed. In November the Dean of the Teachers College asked him to teach the photographic course the following summer, while White was away teaching in Maine. The Teachers College also gave Struss his first solo exhibition of forty views of New York, in which he included a wide variety of street, park, and harbor views and many night and twilight scenes. Although many of these were picturesque, even symbolist, views of the river and bridges, Struss also included some of his more daring compositions, including perspectives from above and below, such as his 110th St. El Station (see fig. 49) and Queensboro Bridge (also called Blackwell's Island Bridge, see fig. 51). Alvin Langdon Coburn, whom he had probably met through White's class, corresponded with him from the West Coast, expressing regret at missing Struss' exhibition of New York views and describing his excitement over photographing the Grand Canyon and other areas of the West. (Struss would remember this seven years later when he made a special sidetrip to photograph the Grand Canyon on his way to California.)

For Christmas, Struss celebrated his "graduation" by giving photographs to family members and associates. He gave individual prints to Coburn and to Gertrude Käsebier, whom he also had probably met through Clarence White's class, perhaps in Maine the previous summer, and who continued to be a valued friend and colleague. He also gave individual and personal images to family and friends -- images made in Europe to his two sisters who had accompanied him, images of himself and his mother to her, and ones of his friends Amy Whittemore and Eleanor Pitman Smith to each of them. For his best friends, he assembled presentation albums, selecting photographs that he felt would appeal to them: views taken in Nova Scotia for a young woman he had met while there; views from Europe, New York, and Maine (made while visiting Clarence White's Seguinland school) in one for White; and views of New York and Metuchen (where he had photographed with Amy Whittemore) in her album. He also kept several albums for himself, including one that documented the Albright Art Gallery exterior and exhibition installation.[24]

While many photographers, including Clarence White and Max Weber, broke off relations with Stieglitz following the Albright exhibition (see Bonnie Yochelson's essay for a complete discussion), Struss maintained ties with Stieglitz and appreciated his approval. The ultimate accolade from Stieglitz came in 1912, when he invited Struss to join the Photo-Secession -- to become the final member, as it turned out -- and included a selection of Struss' images in the April issue of Camera Work. Later that year, White, Struss, and Coburn arranged for an exhibition at New York City's Montross Gallery, with themselves as the selection committee. They claimed to be motivated by the "public desire to see the progress of photography in America, as a medium of personal expression," but their move also acknowledged that Stieglitz, who was becoming increasingly interested in promoting modern art and had stopped showing photographs at 291, would no longer satisfy either the public's wish to see photography or the photographers' need to exhibit their work. Although they hoped to fill Stieglitz's place in arranging photography exhibitions, they did not want to alienate him. In inviting him to participate, the selection committee may have been thankful that Struss was still on good terms with Stieglitz. When Stieglitz declined to Struss, the younger artist attempted, unsuccessfully, to get him to reconsider: "I would regret very much not being able to show any of your prints, for, in an exhibition of this character, there is no reason for the sake of good photography why you should not be represented, especially when one considers what you have done for photography."[25]

After such an impressive start to his exhibition career, Struss in 1913 focused his efforts on getting his photographs published. One had been printed in a 1911 Teachers College course schedule, and in May 1912, in the first issue of Art and Industry in Education, the annual publication of the Arts and Crafts Club of the Teachers College, a Struss photograph was in a portfolio of student work that accompanied White's essay on "The Educational Value of Photography as an Art." In 1913, Struss experimented with his own writing, publishing a brief essay on "The Field of Modern Photography" in Art and Industry in Education. In the essay, he extolled the virtues of photography in modern society, saying that "an understanding of the fundamentals of photography is an essential requirement toward successfully solving the problems which are continually before us." He even foreshadowed the direction of his own career with an assertion that the fundamentals of photography also included "the use and application of color motion photography" -- several years before he began working in that field himself.[26] Struss' main emphasis in the essay was the educational benefit of photography. Asserting that fields such as manufacturing, astronomy, and medicine could be taught much more efficiently with the aid of photography, he concluded with a discussion of photography in the fine arts, explaining that the camera, as a medium of aesthetic expression, was a tool to be mastered, just like a chisel or brush.

Although all of these early instances of seeing his photographs published related to White's classes and to the educational value of photography, Struss intended to follow White's encouragement to use photography in illustrations and for other commercial uses in order to make a living from it. In the summer of 1913, Struss also had some of his photographs published independently of any connection to Clarence White. Edison Monthly, the trade journal for the New York Edison Company, published a portfolio of his night views around the Brooklyn Bridge (figs. 15 and 32). He also sold some of his autochromes to the Saturday Magazine of New York's Evening Post newspaper, which published them as:color cover images.[27]

His principal publishing effort in 1913 was to initiate a new photographic magazine, Platinum Print, which was subtitled "A Journal of Personal Expression." The key players in this publishing venture were Edward Dickson -- the photographer who had organized the Newark Art Museum exhibition in 1911 and who served as editor -- Clarence White, Alvin Langdon Coburn, Karl Struss, and Paul Anderson.[28] Promising "to place before readers examples of photography as a medium of expression, and to publish as well, the written, personal word on subjects possessing contemporary interest in varied fields," the editors hoped to attract readers who felt abandoned or slighted by the new editorial focus of Camera Work, which concentrated more on modernist painting and sculpture and less on "camera" art.

The first issue of Platinum Print, in October 1913, was fairly mundane, with technical articles by Coburn on the photogravure, Struss on multiple platinum printing, and Anderson on the photographic representation of motion. The second issue, in December 1913, included a pullout photogravure insert of Struss' photograph of Columbia University at night (fig. 16)-a clear homage to White and a recognition that photography students would respond to the image. Subscribers were even invited to send for a copy of the photogravure, without the printed caption and "suitably mounted and ready for framing," for twenty-five cents each.

Struss was still working six days a week in the Seybel & Struss factory, but his increased involvement in the photographic world must have made him consider various ways to change careers. In March the leader of an expedition to the arctic contacted him about their search for a photographer to accompany them for two years.[29] Considering Struss' previous bouts with influenza and his love of summer sports, the prospect of being in an arctic climate for so long must not have been too enticing, despite the offer of a fulltime photographic assignment. Moreover, his increased involvement with the publishing ventures and exhibitions of New York's photography circle made it much too exciting to leave the city at that time.

In November 1913 he took a vacation to Bermuda, a much preferable climate to the arctic. A previous vacation in Bermuda had impressed him with both the climate and the island's colors; he reported to Alfred Stieglitz in June 1912 that it was "probably the most beautiful, charming and quaint place I have ever visited, and as for color -- there is nothing like it anywhere in Europe. I hope to go again someday and will not forget to take along a few autochromes."[30] Stieglitz, who had heard about Bermuda from other people as well, in his response to Struss agreed that the color must be wonderful for autochromes[31] -- the latest development in the long search for viable color photography. In the earliest days of the medium, photographers had applied paint on top of black and white images, and later they experimented with three-color printing processes. With the development of the autochrome plate -- a glass plate manufactured with minute dyed starch particles that filtered the various colors in the light spectrum -- color photography finally became simple and practical for all photographers. Since the finished work was a glass transparency, applications were unfortunately limited, but many pictorial photographers like Struss, who closely followed each new technological achievement, enthusiastically adopted it and tested its appropriateness for various subjects and applications. As soon as the Lumiére brothers had demonstrated the process in the summer of 1907, Edward Steichen had purchased plates for himself and for Alfred Stieglitz. Within a month, these two, Frank Eugene, and Heinrich Kuehn were enthusiastically experimenting with it. Stieglitz presented several exhibitions of autochromes at his New York Little Galleries, beginning in 1907, and Steichen wrote an article on the new color photography for the April 1908 Camera Work.

Struss himself followed his earliest color experiments in family portraits with interior views, landscapes, and street scenes in the city (see pp. 1 and 3-5).[32] As he had planned, he took autochrome plates to Bermuda in 1913 and made many color views of the landscape, architecture, and people. Although he had visited Europe, from southern Italy to Germany, and Nova Scotia, it was in Bermuda that he first discovered the excitement and emotional quality that the vivid colors of an exotic landscape and people could bring. The brilliant tropical flowers, vivid blues of the ocean, and colorfully painted houses provided wonderful opportunities to experiment with color composition.

He had returned to New York by January 19, 1914, when the second major exhibition organized by Clarence White opened. The International Exhibition of Pictorial Photography at the Ehrich Galleries in New York included prints by European photographers Frederick Evans, J. Craig Annan, and Robert DeMachy; works by such leading American photographers as Kasebier, White, Coburn, and Struss; and examples by other White-influenced photographers like Paul Anderson and Amy Whittemore. The third issue of Platinum Print, published that March, stated that Struss would take over the associate editorship of the magazine, and the next issue, published in May, listed him as associate editor. However, it is doubtful that he contributed much, for he had returned to Bermuda for four months, as an official photographer for the Bermuda government -- apparently a good enough offer to tempt him away from his photographic colleagues in New York.

Immediately after returning from his trip to Bermuda the previous fall, Struss had contacted Richard Butler Slawzer, who did Bermuda's tourism advertising. Slawzer already knew of Struss, having seen his print Hamilton, Bermuda, Moonlight (see p. 73) exhibited at the Montross Gallery in 1912. Slawzer wrote: "Is it not you who are the author of the moonlight scene exhibited not long ago at a West Side Photo Exhibition? Have been longing to meet some one who could catch the real spirit of Bermuda."[33] Struss was hired by the Bermuda Trade Development Board to make photographs for Bermuda: Nature's Fairyland, the official tourists' guidebook for 1915-16.

On this trip, he experimented with a multiple tourist camera, which used motion picture film -- 35mm film in fifty-foot rolls. Fully loaded, the camera took 750 still exposures without reloading, and Struss would have found it much more convenient than his view cameras for this commercial assignment. However, while enthusiastically experimenting with the increased ease of this camera, he used up the entire fifty-foot roll in the first week. It would take a week or more to have more film shipped to him from New York, so Struss decided to see if any might be available locally. Discovering that a motion picture company was filming on the island, he went to the south shore hotel that served as the company's headquarters to meet with Charles Rosher, the film's cameraman. Rosher, who had been a portrait photographer in London before arriving in the U.S. in 1908, had been working in the motion picture industry in Hollywood only since 1911. After talking with Rosher, Struss procured some "short ends" -- pieces of motion picture film that had been left over from shooting -- and returned to his commercial assignment documenting the island.[34]

The guidebook (fig. 17) included a variety of images showing tourist activities, boating, swimming, fishing, and playing tennis. The images also showcase the village houses and streets (fig. 18) and illustrate many of the ships that carried tourists to the island. The editors of the book were wise to also include several of Struss' pictorial views that captured the flavor of the peaceful beauty that awaited tourists-harbor scenes framed by foliage or night views with the lights of Hamilton reflected in the harbor waters.


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