A Commitment to Beauty

by Barbara McCandless




By 1917, the photographic community in New York had changed significantly from only a few years before. The last photography exhibit at 291 had been shown in early 1916, the last issue of Camera Work was published in June 1917, and the Photo-Secession ceased to exist. The Pictorial Photographers of America filled the void in many ways, holding exhibitions and publishing Photo=Graphic, but they had not received the support of all photographers working in the field. Further aggravating the schism within the community were the economic changes caused by the war. As early as 1914, American Photography, the leading journal for amateur photographers, had predicted in "The Effect of the War on Photography" that, because Germany was the largest source of photographic supplies, photographers would find it difficult to get certain necessary products. In 1917, another journal, PhotoEra, reported that even the Army was unable to procure appropriate lenses for their needs and asked photographers to "enlist" or sell their lenses to the Photographic Division of the Signal Corps. Clearly, a greater mission was at hand, and art photography began to seem not only more difficult but less important as many photographers began to concentrate more on the wartime needs of the country.[45]

After the United States entered the war in April 1917, those who had criticized American policy or actions in regard to the war (especially German-Americans) had to prove their undivided loyalty to the United States. Although Struss had initially supported Germany and had hoped that the U.S. would remain neutral, his greatest loyalty was always to the United States. By the time the Selective Service became law, on May 18, 1917, he and most other German-Americans believed that an unwillingness to serve their country would be cowardice. Some pacifists, including German-American Mennonites, delayed their registration until they could find noncombatant ways to serve their country, but Struss did not delay at all. He registered for the draft on June 5, the day that registration commenced nationally, and received certificate #39 in the New York City precinct.[46] He still did not want to serve abroad and be forced to fight against Germans, but he felt he could serve his country through his photography.

Since Struss had always been most interested in the technical side of photography, he hoped that the U.S. Army would use his technical knowledge and talent for experimentation. The British and French had developed excellent techniques in aerial photography in the early years of the war, and now the U.S. needed accomplished photographers and technicians for these purposes. In 1917 the Pictorial Photographers of America invited Major Kendall Banning of the Signal Corps to speak about the government's need for photographers who, "being the eye of the army, would be instrumental in winning the war."[47] Banning handed out "experience blanks," which would give the government a census of photographers who might be contacted if their services were needed. In August, perhaps inspired by Banning's description of the Aerial Division of the Signal Corps, Struss traveled to Washington, D.C., to speak to Major James Barnes, the head of the Signal Corps photographic division, about prospective service. Barnes and Lt. Edward Steichen (one of the original founders of the Photo-Secession), both with the Aerial Photography Division, explained to Struss that positions in the division were going only to enlisted men rather than draftees and urged him to enlist. The first class in aerial photography would begin soon, using techniques the British had developed from British Sergeant-Major Haslett, and Major Barnes gave Struss a letter for the recruiting officer in New York, recommending his enlistment as a photographer.[48]

Back home, Struss arranged for Paul Anderson to take over his studio and continue sales of the Struss Pictorial Lens and their photographic developer Kalogen under the name of Struss-Anderson Laboratories. He then enlisted on September 7 and reported nine days later for basic training at Camp Vail, New Jersey. Enthusiastically anticipating the exciting photographic work he expected to do, Struss reportedly gave daily informal lectures on photography to the men there. At the end of a month, he was among the twelve chosen to report to the School of Aerial Photography at Langley Field, Virginia, for Sergeant-Major Haslett's first course. Upon graduation a few months later, Sergeant Struss (fig. 20) was sent to instruct at the new School of Military Aeronautics, opening at Cornell University. He arrived in Ithaca, New York, in mid-December and began organizing everything so he could begin teaching classes in January. In all three military locations, he loaned his own photographic equipment for classes to use, since the army had not yet procured adequate equipment.[49]

Even before Struss started the course at Langley Field, however, forces working behind the scenes had ensured that he would not go much farther in the photographic division. Unbeknownst to him, his past remarks about American policy and Germany's actions had given him a pronounced pro-German reputation, and his enlistment coincided with the country's growing suspicion about German spies. On September 29, David Jones, an acquaintance of Struss' who was also a member of the Defense League, sent a memo to the Department of Justice Intelligence Bureau stating that "Carl [sic] Struss, an expert photographer whose place of business is at 5 West 31st Street, is a decidedly pro-German fellow, who is said to have recently joined the U.S. Aviation Corps and in that capacity might be in a position to do much harm."[50] With that, the Military Intelligence Department began to investigate Struss in the same manner as they investigated thousands of American soldiers and civilians suspected of unpatriotic sentiments. The department secured confidential reports on his photographic experience and loyalty from his commanding officers, Major Kendall Banning at Langley Field and Major James Barnes, and the Military Intelligence office in New York spoke to Struss' associates there. On November 1, an investigator interviewed Clarence White at his studio at 122 East 17th Street, then contacted Edward Dickson (fig. 21) by telephone. In this first interview, White claimed to be unaware of any discussions with Struss relating to Germany but noted that he had heard indirectly that Struss was pro-German. Dickson, however, said that Struss "had always talked very pro-German -- that this talk did not cease upon the entry of the United States in the War, and that even to casual acquaintances, Struss had aired his views on the subject of Germany." Dickson further stated that all of their mutual acquaintances had been surprised when they heard he had enlisted. Shortly after this, an investigator interviewed Melvin Palmer, who had shared the studio with Struss in 1914-15, and Mary Brown, whose sister Margaret was Corresponding Secretary of the Pictorial Photographers of America and had worked for Struss in his studio. Brown, whose sister had since moved to Indiana, claimed that she had heard Struss make pro-German comments, but was unaware of pro-German meetings and "thought if there had been any her sister would have told her of them. She had, however, heard . . . of German friends visiting Struss in his studio and of pro-German talk that had occurred there."[51]

The investigative records show considerable confusion about what constituted a pro-German "meeting" and what might be merely visits from German-American friends or clients whose comments could be construed as pro-German. Furthermore, the statements against Struss changed over time, possibly because the investigators were trying to elicit a certain response. For example, an investigator named Holmes Mallory, who conducted additional interviews and obtained signed affidavits from Clarence White, Edward Dickson, and Melvin Palmer, paraphrased White's comments to say that Struss had "always been very pro-German, and has attacked the Draft on at least one occasion when [White] was present. Struss' attitude toward the service was hostile and he expressed himself as being unwilling to serve." In fact, White's signed affidavit said only: "At a meeting of friends at Keans Restaurant in 1914 as well at Prince George restaurant in 1917 -- I heard Mr. Karl Struss express strong pro-German feelings."[52] Similarly, though a signed affidavit from Edward Dickson stated only that "On several occasions I have heard statements uttered by Karl Struss, to me, which have been hostile to the United States and pro-German in tendency or direction," Mallory's report paraphrased Dickson as saying that Struss was "so very pro-German that neither himself nor any of a group of Artists and Authors of which he was a member would have anything to do with him." Mallory also reported that Dickson thought Struss had only enlisted a day or so before he would have been drafted, and that he had continued to make remarks "hostile to the United States." According to Dickson, Margaret Brown, Struss' assistant, "lived in a perfect 'hell' as a result of these fanatical pro-German expressions of Struss on all occasions," and when her sister Mary learned that Struss had enlisted, she reportedly said "what, as a spy?" Mallory further reported that Dickson thought it would be extremely dangerous for Struss to hold any position of confidence in our Army." Melvin Palmer, described by Mallory as "rabidly pro-Ally," surprisingly was not as forceful in his condemnation as Mary Brown had been; he said only that Struss had been distinctly pro-German and that Palmer had not seen any evidence of a change in Struss' attitude.[53]

Since the signed statements from Struss' colleagues criticized his pro-German attitudes, but were not as harsh as the investigators' paraphrasing, it is difficult to know whether the original statements were exaggerated. Clearly, Struss been insensitive to the growing superpatriotism and the resulting suspicion of German-Americans. Extremely outspoken and even arrogant with his opinions and sometimes lacking diplomacy, he had made enemies at a time when the should have been wary about his professional reputation. He could not have predicted, however, how seriously his lack of discretion would affect his career.[54]

While Struss trained to teach aerial photography, the investigation intensified, and soon military memos stated that the entire Struss family had always been violently pro-German and anti-American, that he had entered the service only to escape the draft, and that he had held "secret" meetings in his studio throughout the previous year. Other photographers were implicated in these meetings, suggesting a possible conspiracy.[55] On November 10, a memo from the chief of military intelligence recommended that Struss be relieved of his duties as a photographer; by December 6, an acting Judge Advocate General recommended conducting a court-martial or at least Struss' discharge, and putting him under surveillance for the duration of the war.

Struss never knew how close he came to being charged as an enemy of the country. Instead, on December 20, 1917, by order of the Secretary of War, Chief of Staff General Tasker Bliss sent Special Order No. 296 to all relevant parties, stating that "Sergt. Karl Struss, Signal Corps, on duty at the School of Military Aeronautics, Ithaca, N.Y., is transferred as private to the United States Disciplinary Barracks Guard and will be sent to Fort Leavenworth, Kans., for assignment to a company." In the ensuing series of miscommunications and examples of military ineptitude, Struss was confined in Ithaca for thirty-seven days while officials tried to figure out what to do with him. [56] As soon as he was able to communicate outside of the military, he notified Paul Anderson, who had been managing the photographic studio during his absence. Anderson in turn called Struss' brother, who "was plumb hot at the idea of anyone questioning the loyalty of any member of the family" and wanted to contact his congressman. Anderson, however, advised him to wait until they could find out what the charges against Struss were, since probably "some hysterical person, -- and there are unfortunately a good many of them in this country at present -- has got excited over your name or over something that you or someone else has been reported as saying. . . I have thought for some time that there was a danger of someone taking you for disloyal, just on the strength of your name."[57] Anderson soon realized how seriously Struss was being investigated but still expected people to come to their senses and judge the man rather than the name. He probably remembered an article about Struss in the photographic journal American Photography in 1915, before the U.S. entered the war. In the article, the pictorial photographer and writer John Wallace Gillies had referred to Struss' German heritage but had come to an entirely different conclusion than the later military intelligence investigation, describing "[t]he imperturbable Karl Struss. . . . As may be inferred from the name, there is German blood present, . . . though for some generations the family has been in this country and is strictly unhyphenated. . . . Excitement is foreign to his nature. Last month I wrote about an Englishman who would not jar when a bomb was exploded under him, and now I find myself saying much the same thing about a German. Maybe that is why the war is lasting so long."[58]

The "bomb" that exploded under Struss in December 1917 certainly jarred him and his family. Although his relatives hesitated momentarily, hoping that it was all a misunderstanding, by the time Struss had been held for more than a month "pending a military investigation," they began to contact anyone who might provide assistance. In addition to New York Senators J. W. Wadsworth and William A. Calder and Oregon Senator George Chamberlain, Chairman of the Committee on Military Affairs, they contacted Judge James Drew of Pittsburgh, an old friend whom they had met on the boat to Europe in 1909 and with whom they had remained in close touch. Drew, who was well-connected, immediately wrote to New York's senators and representatives and a state supreme court judge and also offered to bring Struss' case to the attention of Secretary of War Newton D. Baker. The Struss family also contacted pictorial photographer and prominent lawyer Augustus Thibaudeau, Struss' friend and colleague from Buffalo, who also wrote Senator Wadsworth. After hearing from so many people about this strange situation and then receiving a four-page letter from Struss himself about his predicament, his photographic qualifications, and entire family history, Senator Wadsworth initiated an investigation at the War Department. [59]

Struss considered going to the press with his situation, but Anderson urged a gentler touch, cautioning Struss that publicizing his situation and aggressively pushing his own defense might backfire with military officials. Anderson at first believed that the military was actually investigating someone else, perhaps a true German spy, and thus had to investigate everyone who might have associated with him as well. Attempting to be the voice of reason, he suggested: "you will be doing a better service to the country and to yourself as well by just keeping quiet about it and waiting for matters to develop."[60] Judge Drew also advised Struss that his letter-writing campaign might prejudice people against him. Thinking it preferable to leave the efforts in the hands of "one man of influence," Drew contacted a personal friend, Pennsylvania Congressman John Morin, who was on the Committee on Military Affairs and apparently "had the ear" of Secretary of War Baker.

Finally, after thirty-seven days of confinement, Struss was transferred to the Disciplinary Guards at Fort Leavenworth's Military Barracks, as directed by the Special Order of December 20, 1917, and was assigned to guard the prisoners rather than to be one.[61] Although he had originally disliked writing letters, he now found it helped his morale, so he wrote daily. These letters betray his moods, his close relationship with his family, and his status as the "baby" in the family as his mother and sisters comforted him. Demoralized by the urgings of his friends to be patient and "keep quiet," Struss nonetheless took their advice and asked his family to stop writing letters to officials. He thoroughly expected that the efforts of Judge Drew and the senators would clear his name and return him to photographic work in no time.[62] His family, however, was devastated and would not let the matter drop, though Struss, who had begun to distrust everyone, begged them not to talk to anyone. Suspecting that his letters might have been read by military investigators, he pleaded with his family to stop writing about the situation and began to refer to other people in abbreviated code.[63]

Struss may have never suspected that two of his primary accusers were his good friends and colleagues Clarence White and Edward Dickson. He did, however, hear that White had advised Augustus Thibaudeau not to try to come to Struss' defense and that several of his photographic colleagues (among them White, Francis Bruguière, and critic Sadakichi Hartmann) were "spreading rumors" that exaggerated or fabricated his situation. Some of the stories claimed that he had been caught photographing sensitive manufacturing areas, or that he had taken his father into restricted areas at the Aviation School at Cornell (his father had never visited him there), or that he had been insubordinate to officers in Rochester, New York (where he had never been stationed). Most of the rumors, however, claimed that he had been interned at Fort Leavenworth as a German spy, rather than being stationed there as a guard; some people even heard that he had been sentenced to twenty-five years.[64]

Although several friends and members of Struss' family criticized Paul Anderson's reluctance to come actively to his defense, Struss maintained that Anderson "unquestionably is one of my best friends and sincere and true."[65] Anderson (fig. 22) soon had occasion to defend him in the context of their photographic careers. An accomplished writer who had published numerous articles on pictorial photography in the 1910s, Anderson was in the final stages of preparing a long article for the popular journal The Mentor in early 1918, just as Struss was transferred to Fort Leavenworth. The Mentor's editor, W. D. Moffat, heard the rumor that Struss was interned as a German spy at Fort Leavenworth and questioned Anderson's use of eight Struss photographs as illustrations, suggesting that they credit the photographs to Anderson instead, or possibly to "The Struss Studio." Citing "the rising tide of hostility to all things German," Moffat quoted one of his colleagues: "Why must a number on photography feature all thru [sic] its pages Karl Struss, Karl Struss, Karl Struss -- and not a thing about Genthe or of some other well-known photographer?"[66]

In a sharp response, Anderson defended his own loyalty and patriotism and emphasized that he did not "feel that it is the part of any loyal American citizen to discriminate against another, merely because his name happens to sound German." He then pointed out that "two of the photographers whose work you asked me to discuss -- Stieglitz and Genthe -- are, unless my information is erroneous, German-born,"[67] adding that he was not accusing Stieglitz or Genthe of any disloyalty, but only showing the lack of fairness to Struss. Although Moffat threatened to pull the article entirely, he eventually printed it in August 1918 with full credit to Karl Struss.[68]

Struss found that he had other battles to fight. In May 1918, the Pictorial Photographers of America, the organization he had helped form with Clarence White and Edward Dickson, asked him to resign, claiming to have been criticized for keeping his name on their membership list. Later that year they attempted to change their constitution and by-laws in order to eject him. Although Struss did know that the organization asked him to resign, he did not know that four of the organization's top officers -- White, Dickson, Margaret Brown, and Melvin Palmer -- had all spoken against him to military intelligence investigators.[69]

As spreading rumors began to erode his circle of support, Struss tried to contain the situation as much as he could at long distance. Since he could not defend himself in person, he asked his family to tell those who asked about him only that he was instructing photography in the War College and to say nothing of his situation or location. In addition, they were to tell anyone who had already been told the story "not to repeat it, under any circumstances, to anyone -- it doesn't matter who." Frustrated with his lack of control, Struss began to lash out at his family. "What's the matter with father, has he lost all his intelligence? Surely if I wrote T.M. and she knew nothing, why should he go out of his way to tell her. It makes me out a liar and a fool, and having said so often not to say anything further about it to anyone and [him] disregarding my wishes -- simply makes me sick. . . Can't I even trust my own father?"[70] He even began to suspect that his father was partly to blame for his dilemma. When a friend informed him that his father had made "some comment," Struss wrote to his mother that he had never agreed with his father, but, "Like as not someone has heard him making absurd and silly, nonsensical remarks and you see where it has put me." He also remembered a lieutenant at Cornell asking if his father had been anti-Britain before the U.S. entered the war. "I said 'No, never, so long as she respected our rights, but he had always been pro-America (being the land of his birth) and not pro-Britain or pro-anything else, and that couldn't possibly imply that he was pro-German. He didn't favor any of the belligerents, but insisted on the recognition of every American right by all the belligerents.'"[71]

Meanwhile, Paul Anderson was unable to keep the studio business profitable. Advertising commissions decreased measurably as businesses entered a wartime economy, the developer Kalogen turned out to be a money-losing venture, and the war-related coal shortage kept him from doing any photographic processing through the winter and spring because the water temperature was barely above freezing. He tried to rent lights to other companies, then started selling equipment that was not being used. As early as December 1917, only three months after Struss had entered the Army, Anderson had written his partner that he intended to enter the Signal Corps and had advised that they close the studio until after the war. Five months later, he did just that, liquidating or moving out all equipment and stock, with help from Struss' family.[72]

Even some of Struss' earlier work came back to haunt him. Several of his nude studies had been published in a portfolio titled The Female Figure (see Bonnie Yochelson's essay), and about this time publisher Ferenz Kotausek had developed legal problems because of them. "Some Society of Prudes," as Struss referred to the people responsible for Kotausek's trouble, were offended by the nudes and did not understand their artistic merit. Kotausek wrote to Struss, asking to borrow the original plates for the portfolio in order to prove his case in court. Although he eventually settled out of court and was able to continue selling the portfolios without further trouble, it must have seemed to Struss that society's values were once again at odds with his own. He felt he had conducted the whole project in a very ethical manner, with the models even chaperoned by their mothers during the photography, and the ensuing controversy seemed needless.[73]

Throughout this period, Struss attempted to keep busy and to maintain his health and spirits. A very physical man, he did whatever he could to keep active, ice-skating throughout the winter, then playing tennis once summer arrived. Guarding prisoners offered no intellectual or aesthetic challenge, so he went to movies constantly, attending two or three each day. He seemed to take great joy in this and wrote to his family about each one he saw, asking them if they had seen the new Chaplin film or anything with a new actress who impressed him. While much of his interest in the movies was probably escapism, the films occasionally interested him aesthetically, and at least twice he commented on ones he felt were photographed well.

In June 1918, he was assigned to a new position that lifted his spirits and changed his perspective on his own situation. Assigned to special duty as a file clerk in the Department of Sociology and Psychiatry, Medical Examiner's Office, he processed reports on the histories of all military prisoners interned in Fort Leavenworth. His demotion and transfer had left him completely absorbed in his own dilemma, but now he became interested in the lives of others. "To get such an insight into the humans that populate this universe is really a privilege indeed. . . I am sure the benefit derived will [be] of inestimable value in judging others."[74]

His new appointment was more than a change of scenery; he had achieved a higher level of trust within the prison system. In addition to filing reports, he planned to take charge of the department's photographic section and to begin photographing all prisoners. In a letter to his mother, he displayed a boost of enthusiasm from his new appointment and vented his pent-up frustration: "You see what getting back to work means to me, after five months idleness, mental I mean. The things stored up during that time will someday come forth." Suddenly caught up in the stories of others, he realized that he was not the only person who had been treated unfairly by the country's patriotic fervor. As a board of inquiry judged hundreds of conscientious objectors, he observed: "Contrary to newspaper accounts which are untruthful, [they] obtain short shift, being sent up for five, eight or ten years, and they are American to the core having been here for generations."[75] Struss may have been sympathetic to many of the prisoners, but he had to remain objective or at least attempt to keep his opinions silent. Displaying a new philosophical attitude, he observed that "what we consider fundamental American principles, are suspended for the period of the emergency and this applies to everybody and everything. One's opinions must be nil or minus on all subjects; whether one thinks he is right, matters not. It is better to give one's brain a vacation and simply drift along with the tide."[76]

Struss' photographs of the prisoners were straight frontal and side-view documents that left no room for interpretation or clarification of the subject's character. Still, they suggest intriguing stories behind the faces (fig. 23). Happy to be photographing again, Struss looked forward with pride to photographing the entire prison population and reported: "Am going to have the darkroom altered and modernized so we can turn out the best work in the country."[77] He also hoped to begin taking movies; the department purchased a camera in July and Struss submitted a three-page summary of a scenario, but he then had to wait for film and for the military bureaucracy to authorize his plans.[78] By early September the Army rejected both his request to modernize the darkroom (fig. 24) and his plan to make movies.

Frustrated again, Struss attempted a multi-pronged attack on the military bureaucracy. He approached several officials, including the commandant of his company, to request a hearing on his case, and papers giving his view of the situation were referred to the Central Military Intelligence Branch of the War Department. Then he wrote a long proposal to organize a series of exhibitions of wartime photography that would tour the country and raise public awareness of the wartime needs; he pleaded: "If for some unknown reason. . . I am still denied service to my country in the capacity of a technician, then I ask to be allowed to serve it as an artist."[79] Meanwhile, Struss' company captain suggested that he apply for entry into the Officer's Training Camp, explaining that a rejection would require written justification. Struss immediately wrote his mother that he would need several letters of recommendation stating "that I am intensely loyal and come from a family who have always worked for the advancement of every American right and principle and so forth and make it as strong along those lines as possibly can be." He himself wrote to Paul Anderson and several other photographic colleagues. On October 9, he was accepted and transferred to the training camp as a corporal. [80]

A few weeks later the armistice was signed to end the war, but except for his promotion to corporal, Struss' situation remained unchanged. In response to his request for a hearing, the Military Intelligence Department assembled all papers relevant to the case, including the many letters that had been written in support of Struss, and determined that the original witnesses and those who had come out strongly in his defense should be reinterviewed. While that was going on, Struss wrote a moving plea to Major John Campbell of the General Staff of the War College Division, requesting the right to be heard and give his own defense. "I do not intend to have to go thru life, considering my international photographic reputation and all, with any unmerited stigma attached to my name, for such a thing, in its last analysis, would brand me as a man without a country -- a man who couldn't be trusted by his fellow beings -- as people will always remark that 'His country couldn't trust him in its hour of need', and such-like expressions. If I am not of good enough calibre to be an American, tell me, and I will, then, reluctantly renounce my citizenship. Upon your decision rests my future."[81] Whether Struss would have given up American citizenship or was merely making a desperate bluff, he realized correctly that he could not return to the life he had known before the war. His studio was gone and much of the equipment had been sold or returned to original owners. His reputation with advertisers and publishing contacts was severely damaged. Most of his photographic colleagues had turned away from him. Even his relationship with his family, specifically his father, was critically strained. .

Meanwhile, the intelligence officers concluded their investigation and decided that their original actions had been warranted. They had not been able to find Clarence White, whom they erroneously thought had left New York to work in the Military Intelligence Office in Washington. Thus it remains an unanswered question whether he might have recanted or softened his comments; Struss knew that White had spread rumors about his supposed meetings with pro-Germans but did not know his old teacher's entire involvement. All the other original witnesses against Struss confirmed their original statements and had no knowledge of him since that time. Although Judge Drew had praised Struss' character and claimed that he was incapable of pro-German attitudes or conduct, the investigators discounted his knowledge of Struss because it was purely personal. The only relevant thing Augustus Thibaudeau recalled was hearing Struss take the German side in an argument at the beginning of the war; although Thibaudeau did not take this as any indication that Struss was disloyal, the investigators obviously disagreed. When everyone who worked with Struss in the military praised his character and maintained that he had never shown anything but loyalty, the investigators concluded that Struss had wisely learned to keep his anti-American attitudes to himself. On January 15, the Acting Director of the Military Intelligence Office advised the Intelligence Officer at Fort Leavenworth that "in light of the demobilization, the easiest course would be to discharge him." Struss received an honorable discharge from the Army on February 15, 1919,[82] but unlike most soldiers, he did not return home, even for a visit. Instead, within three days he was on a train bound for California and what he hoped would be a whole new life.


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