The deep divide between the East and West Coast artistic communities was an undeniable fact of 20th-century creative life in America and was apparent in the realm of literature — poetry, especially — and was also at play in the field of photography. Alfred Stieglitz was likely the pinnacle of the Eastern establishment, while someone like Edward Weston or Ansel Adams might be designated as the standard-bearer for all sorts of Western preoccupations and subjects. And yet, in between these titanic figures were any number of major and minor artists, some known to the public, others working in complete obscurity. Focusing in on the Western "unknowns," who often blamed their obscurity on Eastern snobbery and aloofness, makes the point even more succinctly.
In this latter group must now be placed John Gutmann, the subject of a new book out from Yale University Press titled The Photographer at Work. Gutmann had the added strike against him — at least in terms of building a reputation — that he was a refugee from Nazi Germany. The fact that he decided to settle in San Francisco in the early 1930s, where he lived and worked for the remainder of his life, seems to have been the stroke that sealed his fate as a skilled and observant "outsider," both to American life and the artistic establishment.
If he had worked in New York, it appears, at least from the photos gathered in this generous and beautiful book, he would have been the toast of the town. His politics and sentiments dovetailed perfectly with the times, and wherever he pointed his camera he found subjects that critics would have hailed, since they praised these same things in other photographers of similar caliber.
Take the shot on the cover, for example. If I'd been handed it without being told who took it, I would say it was the work of Helen Levitt or Ruth Orkin or one of the other great New York street photographers. The piece called "The Artist Lives Dangerously, San Francisco, 1938" shows a child on all fours in the middle of the street. A car passes him by in the outer lane as he scrawls with a piece of chalk an outsized portrait of "an Indian," headband and feather in place. He seems totally unaware of the photographer just behind him on the sidewalk. What more perfect Levitt subject could be found?
But an interesting point made in the book's foreword by Douglas R. Nickel, a professor of art and architecture at Brown University, is that Gutmann had little pretense about being an artist or of using his camera to make art. "Photography for [Gutmann]," writes the professor, "was a way to make (or at least attempt to make) a living. He stated unequivocally at the time that his interest in the medium was monetary. He knew the picture agencies that bought and sold his work had expectations about what subjects and approaches were useful for their purposes, however implicity they may have operated. Once Gutmann established in America a version of the career he was thwarted from achieving in his homeland (art teacher), the financial imperative to travel as a working photographer lost its urgency, and by the '60s he was making no new commercial work at all. But circumstances conspired to give his photographic career a second chance. Gutmann lived a long time, long enough to retire from teaching and refashion himself as the editor and archivist of his own earlier production."
Now we have a sizable selection of those early photos and can see that Gutmann was a natural, and that he also gravitated to "outsider" subjects like union demonstrations, Chinese Americans, African-Americans, gay men and women, carnival workers, and words and pictures scrawled on city streets that put him right in line with great Depression photographers like Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans.
Taking all these photographers in at a single sitting, I was struck by how closely Gutmann resembled another émigré photographer to these shores — Robert Frank, whose postwar pictures of this country set a tone for so much of the photography that would follow in the 1950s and '60s. But Gutmann never had Frank's hard edge; it seemed unnecessary, far from his temperament. That's not to say that Gutmann is a lesser artist than Frank, just that he saw his adopted country in another light, with a certain humor and flair that perhaps Frank never allowed himself.
But there's little doubt that both men captured "the Americans" as they truly saw them.