A Commitment to Beauty

by Barbara McCandless




The trip to Bermuda proved a turning point in Karl Struss' life, marking the beginning of his career as a professional photographer. At the age of twenty-seven, after eleven years with Seybel & Struss, Karl was finally able to resign from his job at his father's factory, and in the process release himself from his father's authority. Throughout the previous six years, his photography had increasingly come under Clarence White's influence, and in June 1914, Struss published an announcement that he was taking over White's studio after the elder photographer moved to another site. But larger events in the world were destined to affect his photographic activities. In August 1914, World War I began in Europe, and the ensuing changes in international politics and economics brought new opportunities for business and photographic assignments -- and an unexpected set of problems for Struss.

As he settled into White's old studio in the summer of 1914, Struss was able to offer a variety of services that would increase his chance of success in a full-time photographic business. He advertised his ability to produce portraits made in the studio or in the home, to photograph interiors and exteriors of residences, and to make photographs for advertisements and illustrations. Because of his background in manufacturing and his penchant for technology, he also offered a manufacturing component: the pictorial lens he had constructed for his own work. This lens had received much attention and interest, and he had already made a few for friends. In early 1914 he hired a legal firm to conduct a patent search for similar innovations to lens design, but began manufacturing the lenses even without a patent. (The application procedure proved so complicated that in 1916, he dropped his attempt to patent his invention,[35]) He also formed a partnership with fellow photographer Paul Anderson to manufacture a photographic developer. For years, Struss and many of his colleagues had favored a German developer called Rodinal, which was excellent for producing a soft negative with a broad tonal range and which came in a concentrated solution that only had to be diluted with water, making it very convenient. Once the World War started, Rodinal was no longer available. Anderson, a technical expert on photographic processes, reconstructed the chemical formula, and he and Struss marketed the new product, Kalogen, from Struss' studio,[36]

The advent of the war also influenced another of Struss' commercial ventures. After his assignment with the Bermuda Trade Development Board, his next big commercial job was to produce architectural photographs (both exteriors and interiors) for the Mergenthaler Linotype Company of New York. In 1884, Ottmar Mergenthaler, a German-born inventor who had emigrated to the United States, invented the Linotype machine, which subsequently revolutionized typesetting. Struss photographed the sites that held Mergenthaler Linotype machines in New York (fig. 19), Pittsburgh, Boston, and Washington, D.C., and his completed photographs were exhibited at the United Typothetae Convention, held at the Waldorf-Astoria in October 1914. They were also reproduced in a brochure for the Mergenthaler Company, which proclaimed, "In war as in peace, the hand that keeps the world informed."[37]

News about the war began to have a negative effect on German-Americans. Once the German transatlantic cable was cut, soon after the declaration of war, all subsequent news reports displayed a pro-Allies bias, and reports of German atrocities and arrogance began to foster stereotypes about the German people. A New York Times editorial on June 1, 1915, clearly demonstrated the changed attitude towards Germans and the common failure to distinguish the German government from the German people. It described how in the past forty years the German people had been "transformed from a nation worthy of the world's esteem and admiration into a people who stand apart from other nations, distrusted and feared, disturbers of the peace, a menace to the general security, and now pursuing their ends by the hideous atrocities perpetrated in Belgium and France, by deeds of monstrous inhumanity. . . Their ideals have been abased and their intellectual development stifled, they have been bred away from the high and noble things of life."[38]

Anti-German feelings soon extended to German-Americans, the largest immigrant ethnic group in the United States. Although German-Americans were not the only ones who questioned the American government's pro-Allies leanings, other Americans frequently interpreted such disagreements as betraying divided loyalties and cowardice. When German-Americans suggested that the United States government remain truly neutral by imposing an embargo against arms trading with either side, or questioned the need for a draft and for German-Americans possibly to serve abroad, they frequently came under suspicion for holding pro-German sympathies that conflicted with American interests. This was especially true after Germany sank the American ship Lusitania; while many German-Americans deplored the action, some felt that Germany was justified.[39]

As these points of contention escalated, newly formed patriotic organizations, such as the American Defense Society and the National Security League, attacked German-American institutions as subversive. The American Protective League, formed in March 1917, took an even more radical approach. A semi-official auxiliary of the Bureau of Investigation, with over 300,000 volunteer detectives eager to serve the country, the League conducted surveillance and investigations not only of enemy aliens but also of American citizens who had dissenting views on the war. Founded on fears of German conspiracies, the organization considered all German-Americans suspect, alleging that the German government "counted upon two million German-Americans to help her win this war; that she knew every nook and cranny of the United States and had them mapped; that for years she had maintained a tremendous organization of spies who had learned every vulnerable point of the American defenses, who were better acquainted with our Army than we ourselves were."[40]

Several of Struss' associates were connected in some capacity with these anti-German organizations. Alice Muller Choate, a socialite whom Struss had befriended and photographed when she was a student of Clarence White's, was married to the nephew of Joseph H. Choate, whom Vanity Fair described as the most popular public figure in New York. Choate supported American entry into the war and was honorary president of both the National Defense Society and the American Security League. Melvin Palmer, a photographer who briefly shared Struss' studio from late 1914 through the spring of 1915, was also a staunch supporter of the Allies.

Struss was a natural target for the prevailing anti-German sentiment. Although he and his family considered themselves patriotic Americans, both his mother and his father's parents had come from Germany and his family still had relatives in that country. Some of the first photographs to bring Struss to the public's attention, both at the Albright Art Gallery exhibition in 1910 and in the 1912 Camera Work, were ones he had taken on his trip to Germany in 1909. Like many German-Americans at the beginning of the war, Struss, who was proud of his own and his family's accomplishments and successes, may have felt a need to defend the social status of German-Americans by defending Germany herself. Additionally, the fact that he had just opened his own studio may have encouraged him to be more assertive with his opinions. At a dinner in 1914 attended by several of his photographic associates, Struss apparently took Germany's side in an argument, asserting Germany's right to defend herself and saying that Belgium was "getting what she deserved." Several guests who were decidedly pro-Allies became concerned that since Struss appeared to be pro-German, he might also be anti-American.[41]

In addition, many of Struss' early commissions, like the one for the Mergenthaler Linotype Company, brought him into contact with Germans and German-Americans. Whether he was given these commissions, or perhaps even sought them out, because of their common German heritage is unknown, but these associations could have led to discussions about the war in the presence of Melvin Palmer and any of the studio assistants that Struss hired. Palmer apparently left the studio in 1915 because of disagreements with Struss concerning the war. Although he had no way of knowing it at the time, such seemingly minor events would have major repercussions for Struss as anti-German feelings grew to near-hysteria later in the war.

The war also impinged on one of the studio's main sources of business, making photographic illustrations for magazines such as Vogue, Harper's Bazaar, and Vanity Fair. Struss' working relationship with Vanity Fair may eventually have been affected by the magazine's editorial slant, which became distinctly pro-Allies by 1917. In addition to frequent articles about the war, criticizing Germany and "slackers" (those who resisted military service), the magazine also printed ads enlisting members for the National Defense Society and the American Security League. Another client affected by international events was the Metropolitan Opera, which in 1917 removed all German operas from the program and also canceled the contracts of five German artists, including Melanie Kurt and Johannes Sembach, whom Struss had photographed for the Opera Company in 1916.[42]

Despite the war, and his own need to secure commercial assignments for his studio, Struss continued his close ties to pictorial photography circles. He enrolled as a special student in Clarence White's new School of Photography in 1915-16 -- perhaps to have continued contact with students and White himself, and access to equipment he may not have had at his studio -- and he taught photography at the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences with White and ,Anderson in 1916-17. He also increased his submissions to photographic exhibitions. In August 1914, just as he took over White's studio, he contributed his first work to an exhibition abroad when Alvin Langdon Coburn invited him to submit five prints to the American Invitational Section of the 59th Annual Exhibition at the Royal Photographic Society of Great Britain. Coburn, who also requested five prints each from White, Stieglitz, and Frank Eugene, four from :Anderson and seven from George Seeley, would continue to organize these London exhibitions for many years, with Struss as a virtually annual contributor throughout the 1910s and 1920s.

His involvement with the magazine Platinum Print helped Struss make connections with pictorial photographers on the West Coast, and he began exhibiting in San Francisco and Los Angeles as well. The officers of the magazine also organized a collection of prints to circulate among museums and galleries; the Platinum Print Loan Collection (sometimes including work by only White, Struss, and Dickson) was exhibited in eastern cities such as Pittsburgh, Syracuse, and Elmira, New York. From 1915 through 1917, Struss appeared in twenty-three exhibitions throughout the United States and in and and frequently won awards for his photographs [see Appendix].

The collaboration that began with Platinum Print continued when Struss White and Dickson started a new society, the Pictorial Photographers of America, in the fall of 1915. In their first formal meeting, on January 15, 1916, at the office of White's friend and student, Dr. Charles Jaeger, a committee consisting of Jaeger, White, Dickson, Struss, and Mary White, another White student, drew up a constitution for the association. Designed to give pictorial photographers an alternative to Stieglitz's Photo-Secession, the new organization was also more highly organized and provided increased activities. The founders listed a number of ambitious goals for the Pictorial Photographers of America, including publication of newsletters and annuals, lectures and workshops by prominent photographers, and regular traveling exhibitions by members. They also encouraged museums and libraries around the country to purchase pictorial photographs. Platinum Print became the organization's primary publication; in 1917 the title was changed to Photo=Graphic Art to reflect a shift in emphasis from the fine print to photographs for illustration.[43]

Struss was elected to a two-year term on the executive committee for 1917-18, and at a second meeting was reelected to the executive committee, to serve through 1921. However, though he was instrumental in the organization's founding and planned on extended service with the association, his name mysteriously disappeared from the roster of the PPA in its 1918 annual report.[44] Although he never knew exactly why -- he by that time was serving with the U.S. Army in Kansas -- the war had begun to influence organizations like the PPA, and Struss' earlier views on the war had disturbed a number of its members.


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