Karl Struss, A Tripod in Two Worlds: Part One—New York

It was a short end of 35 mm motion picture film that brought the two men together in Bermuda in early 1914. Fifteen years later, they shared the first Academy Award for cinematography for their work on German director F. W. Murnau’s American film debut, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. Cinematographers Karl Struss and Charles Rosher both began their careers as still photographers from very different backgrounds, but found a close collaboration on the movie that became the defining work of their lives.

Rosher was already a well-established Hollywood cinematographer with over 50 credits, beginning with a docudrama from 1912 called Life of Villa, produced by D.W. Griffith and Pancho Villa, and starring the Mexican revolutionary. During the filming in Ojinaga, Mexico, Rosher was captured by government forces; he feared summary execution as a spy, but the Mexican general, Mercado, spotted a Masonic pin on Rosher’s jacket and gave him the secret greeting. His Masonic brother treated him well; Rosher was later released after the American government made a deal to allow the Mexican Army entry into U.S. territory to outflank and attack Villa’s forces from the rear.

The English-born Rosher had come to Hollywood the year before the Villa film with David Horsely, who had started a small studio at the corner of Sunset and Gower. Rosher became the first professional cinematographer in Hollywood  several years before Billy Bitzer and D.W. Griffith came out from the east coast. Rosher was a founding member in January, 1919 of the American Society of Cinematographers and he served as its first vice-president. Eleven years later, it was Rosher who sponsored Struss’ nomination into the same organization, weeks after their Oscars for the cinematography of Sunrise. Rosher spent the last dozen years of his career at M-G-M, mainly photographing musicals such as Kiss Me Kate and Annie Get Your Gun. I never met Rosher but I did work as camera operator for his son, Charles Rosher, Jr. in the mid-seventies on several films for the Robert Altman Company, Lion’s Gate.

Karl Struss was American-born of strong German lineage, in 1886. (This heritage was to cause major difficulties for him when the U.S. entered WWI in April of 1917). Struss was the youngest of six children and, it was said, the most curious; while on summer vacation on Long Island in 1896, ten-year-old Karl watched his brother William taking photographs with his new Pony Premo camera. Back in the city for the fall, the two boys experimented in the darkroom with the negatives. Karl developed an immediate fascination with printing and the technical aspects of photography even though it was not until five years later that he began to take his own photos. From that point on his future course was set.

During his junior year in 1903 at De Witt Clinton High School in Manhattan, Karl developed a bad case of pneumonia and was out of school for three months. This childhood illness may be one reason why the mature Struss became a strong health advocate. He maintained a strict diet his entire adult life and played golf and tennis. He had to give up tennis at age eighty-eight when his ankles could no longer bear his weight. I met him at age ninety-one after his recovery from spinal meningitis. Frail, but tall and ramrod straight in bearing, he was still a commanding presence.

After his recovery from illness, his father, Henry, did not return Karl to school but set him to work in the family factory, Seybel & Struss, manufacturers of thread-wrapped bonnet wire. After embarking on studies as a photography student and then employment as a commercial photographer, Struss could not casually escape the family business. Even after he was invited by Alfred Stieglitz to exhibit his work at the 1910 “International Exhibition of Pictorial Photography” at the Albright Art Gallery in Buffalo, his father insisted he continue to work at the factory. Twelve of Struss’ gum and multiple platinum prints were chosen for this exhibition, more than any of the better-known members of the Photo-Secession group.

Whether or not resentment at such attention being given to an unknown artist may have contributed to Struss’ later troubles with his  Pictorial Photography colleagues, is still open to speculation. In any case, Alfred Stieglitz became a powerful ally of the emerging artist. Stieglitz’ 291 Gallery was located just across the street from Clarence White’s Studio at 5 W. 31st Street. Struss had taken night courses with White for four years at the Teachers College of Columbia University and had become extremely proficient in darkroom techniques and exotic printmaking, this at a time when photography was aspiring to attain the status of painting. It was likely that White (a member of the Photo-Secessionists) introduced Stieglitz to Struss; the younger man had already been a frequent visitor to the 291 Gallery.

Struss recalled Stieglitz’ reaction to the darkroom-intensive platinum prints that Struss showed him. Among his many experiments, Struss had coated both sides of the print paper with platinum emulsion and printed them in perfect registration; he continued this process up to thirteen times, finally producing a print of deep, rich blacks. When Stieglitz touched a wet finger to the emulsion edge to test it, he told Struss he had never seen anything like it. Stieglitz soon chose a half dozen of Struss’ images for printing in the April 1912 issue of the Photo-Secession publication, Camera Work. Struss was also invited by Stieglitz to become a member of the Photo-Secession, the last artist to join New York photography’s prestigious inner circle.

About a year later, Struss’ photographs were being printed not only in photography magazines, but in other publications such as the Edison Monthly, which included a portfolio of his Manhattan and Brooklyn views. He sold some of his earlier Lumière autochromes to the Evening Post for use as covers for their Saturday Magazine. These color autochromes were glass transparencies and, like daguerrotypes, could not be printed. Struss had been producing this color work since his days as a Clarence White student; the subtlety and richness of the color in an otherwise fragile medium was a testament to Struss’ ever-increasing technical expertise.

Always seeking new ways to express himself, Struss became one of the founders of Platinum Print, a new photo magazine whose first issue in October 1913 included articles by Struss on multiple platinum printing, by Alvin Langdon Coburn on photogravures, and by Paul Anderson on representing motion in stills photography. The second issue in December featured a large pullout photogravure, much like the ones from Camera Works, which showed a night shot of Columbia University. It was becoming clear that even though Struss was still nominally under the employ of his father, he was now becoming very much an independent artist, no longer concerned with his father’s desire for him to continue in the reliable family business.

In November 1913 Struss took a vacation to Bermuda where he made many photographs. He had been doing personal photographs during his travels since his earliest student days when he sailed to Europe with his sisters. Any portfolio of his work from 1909 until 1916 alternates Old World scenic and pastoral vistas with the harder-edged urban lines of New York City, especially its long, ominous night shadows and brilliant source lights.

Returning from Bermuda, Struss became involved with his teacher Clarence White’s opening of another show, this one being at the Ehrlich Galleries. Unlike the earlier Buffalo show, this one included work by European masters such as Evans, DeMachy and Annan, as well as the Americans White, Coburn, and Käsebier. At the same time, the third issue of Platinum Print appeared with Struss as the newly announced associate editor.

Struss returned to Bermuda to accept a job with the Bermuda Trade Development Board to make photographs for a tourists’ guidebook called Bermuda: Nature’s Fairyland. This is not as out of character as it may seem. For several years Struss had been working assiduously to promote himself as a commercial as well as an art photographer; his personal goal was to demonstrate that the two kinds of work were not incompatible. He took a new kind of camera with him on this second Bermuda trip. Previously, his work had been done mostly in larger formats: a 4x5 camera for making contact platinum prints, and a 3x4 for making enlargement prints. The new “multiple tourist camera” which he decided to use in Bermuda employed 50 ft. rolls of 35mm motion picture film, allowing about 750 exposures per load. Overshooting like crazy because it was so easy (think digital photography today), he used up the entire roll within the first week; it would take more than a week to get more film from New York.

Bermuda Guidebook, 1914.
Bermuda Guidebook, 1914.

The alternatives were to get larger, cumbersome view cameras, slowing down his mobility around the island, or to find motion picture film locally. He heard that there was a company filming on the south shore. It was there that he met the company’s cinematographer, Charles Rosher, who was photographing a film called The Mystery of the Poison Pool. Rosher generously gave him some short ends to continue his commercial assignment. It was not until twelve years later that Rosher actually worked with Struss— on Sparrows, a film starring Mary Pickford. Rosher was “Pickford’s cameraman.” They had done many films together going back to Johanna Enlists in 1918, a film directed by William Desmond Taylor, whose 1922 murder brought down many Hollywood careers and which remains unsolved today. Though Rosher had a strong history with Pickford, it was Struss she chose to photograph her first sound film, Coquette, in 1929.

In the summer of 1914 the threat of war was everywhere as the old regimes of Europe’s decaying and inbred aristocracy chose up sides in a fratricidal, internecine feud that soon would claim millions of lives. In June, Struss announced he was taking over Clarence White’s old studio when his teacher moved into a larger facility. Struss planned to have a working space, darkroom facilities and an outlet for several of his inventions, foremost of which was the single-element portrait lens that he called the Struss Pictorial Lens. He had adapted it from a projection lens and, much like a pinhole camera, it rendered extreme depth-of-field but not much resolution or sharpness. For Struss, this made it a perfect choice for portrait photography as it smoothed out many facial and skin imperfections esp. with the existing orthochromatic film. This overall softness was much in keeping with Struss’ preference at the time for softer “pictorial” photography, even long after the harder, cleaner edge of modernism had become the new aesthetic. Paul Strand and Edward Weston, who came late to the pictorial style, embraced the new technique; it gained greater prominence after WWI with the founding of the Bauhaus in Weimar in 1920.

When war was declared in August of 1914, imports from Germany dried up almost immediately. Photographic paper, lenses, cameras, were all in short supply. Rodinal, the preferred  German developer for most photographers, also became unavailable; Struss and his partner, the chemical whiz Paul Anderson, created a substitute film developer they called Kalogen. They hoped that this, along with sales of the Struss Pictorial Lens would provide steady income to sustain their new studio. One such lens was sold to cinematographer John Leezer who used it to great effect on several Hollywood films.  This was Struss’ only connection to Hollywood during this time though he did continue to be fascinated with motion pictures and even made short films of dancer Adolph Bolm and Vaslav Nijinsky.

Struss continued his work on Platinum Print magazine and this along with the magazines’ allied exhibition schedule, started to make Struss’ name well known out on the West Coast. In 1915-1917, he exhibited in twenty-three shows across the country. Struss, White and Dickson founded a new organization called the Pictorial Photographers of America. But even then, things were changing for photography in New York. The pragmatic needs of supporting the Triple Entente allies in the war, had turned many of America’s photographers from art to propaganda. Though still nominally neutral, anti-German sentiment was getting ever stronger, and Struss’ opposition to the war and his oft-times declaration of sympathy for Germany, began to turn things against him. The German-American immigrant community in the U.S. was by far the largest and the confusion and even ambivalence of many loyal Americans of German heritage was becoming a source of concern to the government and to many ultra-nationalist citizens.

The Photo-Secession effectively had ceased to exist as Camera Works magazine ended publication and Stieglitz stopped showing photography at Gallery 291; Stieglitz was now wholly enamored of modern art and would soon meet and become even more enamored—of Georgia O’Keffee. Moreover, it was becoming increasingly clear that photography’s coming mission would be in support of the war. Photographers and their equipment were being actively sought, as there was a severe shortage in equipment that came with the halt of German camera imports. The U.S. entered the war in April of 1917 and Selective Service became law on May 18. Struss registered promptly on June 5; he asked Paul Anderson to take over the business on W 31st Street. Once Struss found out that he would be more likely to find service for his photographic skills by enlisting rather than waiting for the draft, he did so on September 7 and reported for basic training at Camp Vail, New Jersey. Within a month he reported to Langley Field, Virginia, to the School of Aerial Photography. After graduation, the now Sgt. Struss was due to begin teaching at the School of Military Aeronautics in Ithaca, New York, at Cornell University. At each step of the way, Struss brought along and used his own camera equipment.

Within weeks trouble began. Struss’ past statements in sympathy of Germany, and his questioning the necessity of the war itself, began to be a problem for him. One after another, former friends, students and teachers were questioned by Military Intelligence concerning Struss’ loyalty. An acquaintance, David Jones, sent a letter to the Department of Justice saying 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 a great deal of harm.”

This was just the beginning of testimonies by professional colleagues and personal friends who in the next few months would portray Struss as a man of questionable loyalty. There was never any evidence presented beyond Struss’ sometimes ill-advised opinions. It almost seemed as if there were a cabal of former friends, including most painfully of all, his teacher Clarence White, who piled onto this dung pile of character assassination for reasons even now not easy to ascertain.  This sordid episode is covered in considerable detail in the late scholar Barbara McCandless’ moving essay called “A Commitment to Beauty” in the book:  “New York to Hollywood: The Photography of Karl Struss.”

Amazon.com link—New York to Hollywood: The Photography of Karl Struss

Catalog of Amon Carter Struss Collection.
Catalog of the Struss exhibition at the Amon Carter Museum.

On December 20, 1917, Secretary of War, Chief of Staff General Tasker Bliss, relieved Karl Struss of his duties. He was demoted to Private and transferred to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas to the United States Disciplinary Barracks Guards. He was not made a prisoner, but was assigned to guard duty. There was initially a flurry of letters and communications to politicians to intervene and there were declarations of injustice and violation of rights. But Struss demurred and decided to accept his fate. He tried to initiate a film production program at the prison and improve the darkroom facilities. He became the official photographer of new prisoners as a documentary exercise, much as the encyclopedic August Sander was doing in Weimar, Germany—but Struss did not employ his flattering Struss Pictorial Lens.

Paul Anderson was forced to close the studio and sell off the equipment. Struss had become persona non grata in New York photography circles. Clarence White, Francis Bruguière and even critic Sadakichi Hartmann were continuing to defame him. Struss became overtly philosophical about his situation. He said, “ What we consider fundamental American principles, are suspended for the period of the emergency and this applies to everything and everybody. One’s opinions must be nil or minus on all subjects…” What Struss may have felt in his own heart is not known, as he never spoke of it willingly, even in later years. He often referred, instead, to the “secret government work” he was doing at Fort Leavenworth in the area of infrared photography.

Even after the armistice was declared on November 11, 1918, a government review failed to exonerate Struss. And on January 15, 1919 the Acting Director of Military Intelligence Office suggested that, “in light of the demobilization, the easiest course would be to discharge him.” So it was that on February 15, Struss was given an honorable discharge. With little desire to return home to New York to confront those who had betrayed him, or to pick up the shards of his photography career, or even to see his family where relations, especially with his father, were strained, Karl Struss boarded a train headed west, made a stopover at the Grand Canyon to make some of his first photographs as a free man, then continued on to Los Angeles, where he hoped a new career and a new life awaited him.

(A look at Struss’ Hollywood years as a set photographer and a tyro feature cinematographer will constitute part two)



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