A Commitment to Beauty

by Barbara McCandless




Struss' risky move across the country had succeeded, and he had little need for his past life in New York. When his mother mentioned a former colleague, Struss responded with bitterness: "If he wants to write, let him send the letter to you for forwarding. . . He [has never] written me a single line since seeing him last Fall and even before and as I am making plenty of new friends, really am not interested in the old, as I don't consider them friends in the true sense of the word. . . Had they been real friends, [they] would have done something."[97] Although Struss was ready to cut ties with the people he felt had abandoned him, he did regret being at such great distance from his family. They had always been very close; in fact, he had still lived at home until he entered the service. Having committed to a permanent move, he displayed his bitterness towards New York as he tried to convince his entire family to follow him. "Certainly wish you could all move out this way. . . Don't waste your time and life trying to live up to what a big city 'expects'." As he anticipated a visit from his mother and sisters during his first summer in Los Angeles, he wrote: "Everyone wishes you were all out here in the land of the living and sunshine and leaving the land of the narrowness and shams behind forever."[98]

Struss remained bitter toward many of his New York colleagues for damaging his reputation, and he considered seeking compensation. In November 1919 he wrote several letters to Dr. Charles Jaeger, treasurer and one of the original founders of the Pictorial Photographers of America, to try to reactivate his membership in the organization. Apparently, Jaeger did not respond to his queries, for Struss became so frustrated that he asked his mother to see about bringing suit against the society. It wasn't until 1929, years after the death of both Clarence White and Edward Dickson, that his membership was finally revived through the efforts of John Stick, the PPA regional vice-president representing Los Angeles, and Ira Martin, then PPA president. [99]

In the meantime, Struss became very active with Los Angeles pictorial photographers and organizations, which provided opportunities both for furthering his photographic efforts and for socializing. On Valentine's Day, 1920, a year following his release from the Army, he attended a gathering of photographers at the home of his friend Viroque Baker, whom he had known from Clarence White's school. On that romantic holiday, he became completely captivated by a young woman named Ethel Wall, who was twenty-two years old. Ethel had been assisting in the studio of a friend who had a Struss Pictorial Lens but was not accomplished at using it. Hearing that Struss was now living in Los Angeles and would be attending this gathering, the two women resolved to meet him and get personal instruction. Ethel later remembered that he was at her side the entire evening.[100]

Although meeting Ethel on Valentine's Day was a significant event in Struss' life, in 1920 the following day -- February 15 -- was more important. In two letters written that day, he noted that it was the anniversary of his release from 'the Army. He reminded his mother: "It was exactly a year ago, and snowing to beat the band, that I got out of the army. How the time has flown." Perhaps in one last effort to put his wartime experiences behind him, he also wrote to Secretary of War Newton D. Baker that he had not yet "received the slightest satisfaction from those who were directly responsible for the treatment accorded me while in the Service."[101] He was not to receive the vindication he sought, however. When one of his friends and supporters at Fort Leavenworth, Lieutenant Louis Humason, reopened the investigation at Struss' request and argued that he had never witnessed anything in Struss' actions that could be interpreted as other than loyal, he was admonished by the Director of Military Intelligence, Brigadier General M. Churchill, that the case was closed: "This office firmly believes that it would serve no useful purpose to correspond with this man for the purpose of enlightening him on his status. . . The motives and good faith of the authorities in acting as they did are not open to question."[102] The only response Struss received from the Secretary of War was a brief note stating that "whatever action was taken by the War Dept. was warranted by the exceptional circumstances of that time."[103] Unable to clear his name publicly, Struss continued for the remainder of his life to use his fabricated story of military service "doing secret photographic experiments."

With his past behind him, he pursued Ethel Wall intently, and they were married in January 1921. She became his photographic partner, accompanying him on excursions into the California countryside and posing for photographs (fig. 27). They lived in a bungalow on the same block as the Famous Players-Lasky Studio, where Karl worked, and in the evenings, Ethel assisted him as he processed the negatives and made prints in the studio's darkroom. Most of the photographs Struss made on the movie sets were standard production stills, used for advertising and promoting the film. However when his filming schedule permitted, he also made a few pictorial stills and presented copies of these to the producer and director as mementos of the film, and to publicity offices in both Los Angeles and New York. His talent for producing a more pictorial still became well known, and when a production company wanted something out of the ordinary, they hired him.[104] If the subject of an image inspired him sufficiently, as the theme of Not Guilty may have, and was attractive enough to appeal to a broad photographic audience, he also made platinum prints for exhibitions (fig. 28).[105] Sometimes he worked on only one or two scenes of a film. Called to help make the closing scene of The Faith Healer (see p. 148), he described the scene "after the light has come in on the two figures. It looks awfully good on the screen, as the light on the crowd dims, the ray opens up on the two."[106]

As Struss became accustomed to working in two mediums, he understandably explored connections and similarities between them. He used techniques he had developed in his New York photographic career to produce dramatic shots in his films, but he also experimented to see how the added element of motion affected a composition. On his days off from work, he began to take both a movie camera and a still camera on his excursions into the country, and there he experimented with shots he considered using later in his films. Building on his longstanding interest in dancers as figures in the landscape, he made several trips into the mountains with some dancers he knew, taking still photographs until sundown, then making movies of the dancers silhouetted against the sunset.[107] Dancer, Hollywood Hills (fig. 29) is similar to many of his earlier photographs of figures in the landscape. The solitary dancer is framed by trees on either side, and an aura of light created by the sunset outlines her body. The composition and pose are almost classical, the image suggesting sensuality at the same time as a spiritual celebration of nature.

In February 1921, just one month after he and Ethel were married, one of Struss' Grand Canyon views (Detail -- Grand Canyon, see p. 156) won third prize in a prestigious national competition, the 15th Annual John Wanamaker Exhibition of Photographs in Philadelphia. He had previously won awards in this competition in 1915-17 but had not exhibited any photographs from 1918 through 1920. Now firmly settled in his career as a cinematographer, Struss also wanted to remain active in pictorial photography, and he participated in six exhibitions in 1921, renewing his connections with the same European and East Coast salons to which he had submitted work before, and also becoming active with the California pictorial groups. In addition to displaying his old work from Europe, New York, and other eastern locations, he submitted prints of California landscapes, dancers, and stills from movies. Struss clearly saw his role in the photographic world as unique. While submitting prints for the annual exhibition of the London Salon of Photography at the Royal Society of Painters, he wrote, "I believe I am about the first of the [American] Pictorialists to have entered the field of [motion picture photography] with the view of improving the presentation of pictures photographically." He explained that his motion picture work was his primary occupation, but that he still enjoyed doing pictorial photography "to be worked up at leisure."[108]

When Struss' contract with Cecil B. De Mille expired, he was not retained (as Richard Koszarski discusses in his essay), but De Mille wrote a glowing letter of recommendation that praised his artistry. "There are few better photographers," De Mille wrote. "His still work is more than excellent. He is highly artistic, and I cannot too highly recommend him."[109] This letter may have helped Struss get free-lance assignments over the next few years. In 1925 he was hired to work on the movie Ben-Hur, which had been in production for over a year and was plagued with problems. Struss was brought into the project because of his ability with innovative and dramatic compositions, and it is a measure of his success in his new career that the studio turned to him. Passing through New York to film on location in Europe, he was able to visit his family and to see Paul Anderson in New Jersey. Aboard ship in New York harbor, he photographed the skyline, including a man at the ship's railing looking longingly at the city (fig. 30). He chose a viewpoint set back from the ship's edge to emphasize his intended meaning of the image -- a view of New York from the outside rather than from within, as many of his earlier images had been. In a sense, Struss projected himself into the man who was looking back at the city (and the past) he had left behind. When he exhibited the print later, he titled it "City of Dreams," a phrase many people used to describe Los Angeles. However, Struss' dreams of success had eluded him in New York; his vision of a successful career with a camera had been realized in Hollywood instead, and in motion picture photography.

As he looked back at the New York he had. left behind, he apparently felt no regrets about his decision. Returning home from Europe after completing the filming of Ben-Hur, Struss began work on F. W. Murnau's Sunrise as co-cinematographer with Charles Rosher, whom he had met eleven years earlier in Bermuda. Contemporary scholars considered Sunrise to be the "pinnacle of visual beauty in the cinema,"[110] and Struss and Rosher were invited to represent their field as founding members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. At the organization dinner for the Academy, Struss listened as Fred Niblo (his director in Ben-Hur) related how the idea for the Academy had sprung from a dinner conversation about the past war and a general feeling that wars were caused by a lack of understanding. Struss' first employer in Hollywood, Cecil B. De Mille, spoke compellingly about the importance of the film business. "The world is more influenced by the little group in this room tonight than by any other power in the world. . . . Our ideals have got to be high." Responding to Niblo's comments about war, De Mille described the effect of their medium, "It is the greatest unifier in the world . . . It is our job to support the idea of unity and intelligently and efficiently communicate it to the world."[111]

Himself a victim of wartime misunderstanding and unable to use his skills to improve the situation, Struss probably was inspired by this speech. He realized that motion picture photography offered him a greater opportunity to influence the world than pictorial photography ever could. A few months later, at the first Academy Awards ceremony, Struss and Rosher shared the first award for cinematography -- and Struss, at the relatively young age of forty-two, was recognized as a respected artist in his new field (fig..31). As Richard Koszarski discusses in detail in his essay, in the the long career that followed, Struss continued to make contributions to imagemaking in photography, films, and eventually television. By the time he retired in 1970, he had photographed over one hundred films, two television series, and numerous commercials. He remained in demand into his eighties because of his commitment to the concept of pictorial beauty -- a concept first developed with a still camera. A writer for American Cinematographer may have best summed up his contribution in a 1935 profile: Struss turned everything he worked on into "a glowing epistle of life and beauty."[112]


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