A Commitment to Beauty

by Barbara McCandless




Karl Struss had decided to begin again in the land of opportunity. His earlier career was over, and although he might have revived it with some effort and patience, he was too bitter even to try. He did not write about his decision to move to Los Angeles or to seek work in the booming movie industry, so it is difficult to know exactly when this path became clear. He had some family in California, however, and had made several professional contacts through various pictorial associations. In addition to finding work in the movies, he planned to do commercial photographic work in advertising, illustration, and portraiture. Though not sure of what to expect or even that his gamble would work, he had his family ship his things from New York, but told his mother just to let people know that he was out of the service and traveling in California.

He may have remembered the photographs that Alvin Langdon Coburn took on his 1910 trip to the West, because he made a side trip to the Grand Canyon on his way to California. He arrived at the canyon rim during an early morning snow. The light, color, and spatial composition were unlike anything he had experienced before in the East, in Bermuda, or in Europe, and he reported, "Well, I've never seen anything like it and I guess its the only one of its kind." After photographing for two days, he continued on to Los Angeles, very pleased with the photographs he had taken.

Although the side trip was brief, it rejuvenated him. The images he made of this landscape were different from anything he had done before, and they helped prepare him aesthetically and spiritually for the new world before him. While the landscapes Struss had produced of Europe, Nova Scotia, and the northeastern states were fairly simple compositions with few lines describing the hills and trees, the Grand Canyon views more closely resemble his urban views of New York. The grandeur of the view, the scale of the mesas, and the distance across the scene all required the same decisions he faced with skyline views of the city. Complex compositions with a broad tonal range could give a sense of space and distance, while a narrow tonal range and very dark printing flattened the scene into an abstract design and suggested drama and mystery (see The Canyon - Late Afternoon, fig. 25, and Detail - Grand Canyon, p. 156). These photographs were new work for him to show people, demonstrating his skills in composition and his potential for illustration or other commercial assignments.[83]

When Struss arrived in Los Angeles, he knew that he had made the right choice. Overwhelmed by the contrast between his experience and his state of mind in Kansas and what he encountered in California, he wrote home: "This is a most wonderful country and I am just crazy about it. . . . . . The future is very bright, and I know I'll love the place. Everything is so green and bright and looks so refreshing after drear [sic] dirty Kansas. What I like about this West Coast is that everything is all so new and clean, and one doesn't meet the crowds or poverty that abound in the Eastern cities."[84] He immediately set about defining his new life and identity. Though he wanted to leave behind the bitter memories and the blemish on his reputation, he knew that his success depended upon the assistance of a network and support system of colleagues. He had built up contacts during his years as a photographer, and without delay, he began to strengthen these connections. Through Clarence White's classes in Maine and New York he knew Viroque Baker, a pictorial photographer from Los Angeles; Edward Weston had participated in many pictorial exhibitions with him and would have been familiar with his work. Struss had also exhibited in at least two West Coast pictorial exhibitions, the 1915 Panama/Pacific International Exposition Exhibit of Pictorial Photography in San Francisco and the First Annual Photographic Salon of Los Angeles, organized by the Camera Pictorialists of Los Angeles in 1917.

Many of the people he met had connections with the film industry and were happy to give him advice on how to get work. He planned to take his work around to all "the big producers and get acquainted for future use," exploring all the possibilities before settling on a job. He selected photographs that would show his skills in portraiture, advertising, and magazine illustration and also included some innovative work he had done with an experimental color print process called Hess-Ives. He had written an article about this procedure for American Photography and had included examples of the process in the Female Figure portfolio (see p. 8), and he thought he might do "some color work on the side as the 'stars' are very much interested."[85]

He took his Grand Canyon negatives to a lab to make several enlargements. Although the processing cost him almost all the money that he had left, he knew the prints would be valuable in promoting his work and felt confident that he would recoup their expense through quick sales. In fact, newspapers bought several of his views and agreed to print something about his being in the area.[86] The art editor at the Los Angeles Examiner told him to send prints of the best views directly to William Randolph Hearst, who might want some to advertise his hotel at the canyon rim. Struss had Hearst send them on to his family in New York and relied upon their assistance to distribute his work to all the magazines who might be interested.[87] An art dealer agreed to sell the Grand Canyon prints in his store and expressed interest in the rest of Struss' work as well.

Having found a new market for his images, Struss wrote his family to send the negatives of his Europe, Bermuda, and New York views; many of his new friends had darkrooms that he could use temporarily. An assistant director who was a "camera bug" offered to help get him a job as an extra on a film, so he could shoot scenery on the way to the set and then sell the photographs. Struss also made an appointment with the owner of Santa Catalina Island to talk about doing advertising work for their tourist concerns.

He thought of taking an evening job to support himself temporarily, so that he wouldn't have to take a photography job prematurely. He wanted to give potential employers the impression that he was not desperate for employment, although he was virtually broke, with a bank balance of $1.31. He wrote his mother to deposit some money into his account immediately, promising to pay her back as soon as he "struck oil" and observing: "In what I am trying to land I have to look prosperous and be indifferent whether I accept or not what is offered me. I don't want to jump too quickly."[88] Two days later, he wrote that he had just shown his work to some people and when they expressed interest and asked him how much he expected to be paid, he responded, "Two hundred dollars a week! -- just like that. I can say it now without any difficulty and next week, if I don't land anything, it will be three hundred a week to start. You wouldn't know your little sonny -- he's changed quite a bit and nothing phazes [sic] him anymore. They are quite used to large figures here, and they seemed impressed enough to devote an hour's time to me with a dozen people outside waiting their appointments."[89]

His appointment may well have been with Famous Players-Lasky Studios, the largest concern in Hollywood at the time, and "a veritable city within a city." A year earlier, Jesse Lasky had sent a letter to all directors, including Cecil B. De Mille, urging them to pay more attention to the quality of the photographic stills that were made to promote their films. The stills were as important as the films themselves, Lasky explained, "because it is just as important to sell the film as to make it," and he strongly urged all directors to supply "such attractive, unique and artistic photographs as will materially assist our work."[90]

Struss may have been just what they were looking for. Although he had not had any directly relevant experience, he knew how to relate his work to the needs of potential employers or clients. With his talents in lighting and portraiture, he could make the stars look good, and his experience crafting illustrations for fictional pieces suggested an instinct for capturing the one instant that would communicate a story's narrative or emotion. He brought with him several letters of recommendation, including one from John Chapman Hilder, the editor of Harper's Bazaar, for whom he had illustrated several fictional pieces. Hilder praised Struss' artistry and technical proficiency, calling him "one of the few photographers who have taken the trouble to go beneath the surface of his subject."[91] Struss convinced the Lasky Studio officials to take a chance with him.

Thus, just three weeks after arriving in Los Angeles, he began work on For Better, For Worse, which their biggest director, Cecil B. De Mille (see figs. 26 and 73), had almost finished. Although he did not immediately receive the big salary he had hoped for, Struss considered the job a way of "breaking into the game." Still concerned about what the people back in New York would think about his new employment, he wrote his mother that she could say that he was in the movies, but that it wasn't "necessary to say what company -- 'one of the big ones' is enough."[92] Though hired to make portraits of the stars and produce the all-important stills, he immediately began to assist with lighting as well. For the most part, he used the standard lighting techniques from his earlier commercial photography career, but his great talent was in the use of light and shadow to create dramatic compositions. Feeling confident of his abilities, he suggested an innovative lighting arrangement that allowed an actor's shadow to appear first, growing larger and larger until the actor himself entered the scene. More importantly, on only his fourth day on the job, Struss did his first movie filming and planned to use his pictorial lens on various scenes. Clearly, he wasted no time in showing De Mille and Alvin Wyckoff, his photographer, that he had multiple talents that would improve the visual effect of the film.[93]

Struss may have noted some irony in his first Hollywood assignment. In For Better, For Worse, set during the war, the heroine loves a doctor whom she believes to be a slacker, but who in fact declined a commission because he was the only doctor able to run the children's hospital in his hometown. Slackers had been a much-discussed subject and popular theme in fiction during the war (one of the pieces Struss illustrated in the Bazaar had dealt with the subject), so by showing that the man who did not fight on the front was not necessarily a coward, the movie attempted to heal some of the war's lingering wounds. Struss, who by that time was accustomed to self-censorship, did not discuss his own experiences during the war. Just as he had instructed his family to tell friends in New York that he was teaching aerial photography in the War College, he told his Hollywood acquaintances that he had been doing secret photographic experiments for the military (actually what he had hoped to do). Likewise De Mille probably did not discuss his own role as a member of the American Protective League. Frustrated at not being able to enlist in the war, the director had become a volunteer representative for the Los Angeles district of the Justice Department's Intelligence Office, secretly investigating individuals he employed, reporting on people he had met at parties, and using the network of studio offices to investigate people in other cities.[94] Whether Struss and De Mille ever knew of each other's experiences during the war is unknown.

However, Struss sufficiently impressed De Mille with his artistic sense and his knowledge of lighting that he became the director's third cameraman. They finished shooting the picture very shortly, and Struss began making promotional portraits of the stars for the studio's publicity department. De Mille seemed very pleased with the results, and so was the leading lady Gloria Swanson, who had just recently started work for De Mille and was his current star. For someone who had seen two or three movies each day during his military career and displayed a typical fascination with the stars, Struss showed restrained enthusiasm at being able to talk to and please the "star-ess," saying "had she known me better she would have put her arms about your hero and given him a lovely smack! But no, she refrained." One of Struss' old colleagues, Otis L. Griffith of the Hess-Ives Corporation, was quite impressed with his new position and claimed that he would not have been as restrained. "If I were in Los Angeles, I would have had my picture taken with Mary Pickford at my knees, Anita Stewart and the Gish girls hanging on my shoulders, and Mabel Normand sitting on my head; however you are undoubtedly more dignified than 1."[95]

Although still not making much money, Struss was glad to be on the studio's regular payroll and to have money coming in between pictures. Since the schedule was not as hectic as during filming, he could also earn extra money making portraits in people's homes, including De Mille's (fig. 26), and preparing photographs for some of the magazines he had worked with in New York. In the summer, he traveled with the entire cast and crew to the island of Santa Cruz to film scenes for Male and Female, which again starred Gloria Swanson. This was the first film that Struss worked on from start to finish, and he took great care to prove himself with it. He made elegant promotional portraits of Swanson and Bebe Daniels, another actress prominently featured in the film, showing them in both standard portrait mode and in costume and character (see fig. 74 and pp. 151-153). He also had increased chances to film as second cameraman. In the fall, following completion of the film, De Mille officially promoted Struss to second cameraman and gave him a raise. Soon after, he signed a contract for another two years with the studio.[96]


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