Tuesday, October 1, 2013

"The Artist Lives Dangerously": the beguiling photography of John Gutmann

Reach, San Francisco, 1938
"Titles or captions are important to me. I try to either state a fact of reality, give information to the curious viewer or direct attention to what the picture means to me. As a rule I do not like to explain my photographs. I want my pictures to be read and explored. I believe a good picture is open to many individual (subjective) associations. I am usually pleased when a viewer finds interpretations that I myself had not been aware of. I believe that some of my best images have this ambiguity that is an essence of life. In this sense I am not interested in trying desperately to make Art but I am interested in relating to the marvelous extravagance of Life."—John Gutmann, 1979
The Game, New Orleans, 1937
Self-portrait, San Francisco, 1934
Trained as a painter (he was the prize student of German expressionist Otto Muller), John Gutmann (1905–1998) began photographing for picture agencies before being forced to leave Germany in 1933. After emigrating to the U.S., he became known for his vivid images of popular culture. Gutmann served as an important link between European modernism and the evolving artistic milieu of San Francisco. He brought a foreigner’s view to the vistas of California, where he saw with fresh eyes its multiracial crowds, drive-in movies, drum majorettes and parades, tattoo parlors, and iconic American cars. A professor at San Francisco State University from 1938 to 1973, Gutmann won a Guggenheim fellowship in 1978.
John Gutmann: The Photographer at Work, from which the images in this post come, is one of three major books on his body of work, which combines social comment, portraiture, and eloquent imagery in equal measure. His photographs are held by such institutions as San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art, the University of Arizona’s Center for Creative Photography, and the Seagram Collection in New York.
"One of the few European images … 'October Berlin' (1933), of a girl and her reflection caught in a shop window, reveals the compositional assurance of photographers such as Andre Kertesz and Man Ray in Gutmann’s work. 'Elevator Garage, Chicago' (1936) turns the vertical automobile garage into a column of Bauhaus might and sets it against one of the city’s fabled skyscrapers."—Lisa Kurzner, Atlanta Journal-Constitution
First Drive-In Theatre, Los Angeles, 1935
The Fleet Is In, San Francisco, 1934
The Artist Lives Dangerously, San Francisco, 1938
Majorette, 1939
Explore more wondrous books on photography here


  1. I completely appreciate the idea that the photographer does not like to explain his pieces because he wants viewers to take away their own interpretations. While it can be frustrating because many will want to know right off the bat what something means, I think it creates a more meaningful experience when one is able to analyze a piece and discover what it means to them.

  2. Wonderful photographs. Loved seeing these.

  3. The photo of the girl with the sailors looks like a young Elizabeth Taylor. Beautiful photographs.

  4. A+ for this post. I have had a postcard of “The Artist Lives Dangerously" on one of my file cabinets for years; never knew anything about the photographer. (The art postcard is slightly different – and I think better – than the version pictured here, but it is a terrific photo in any case.)