Born in German in 1905, John Gutmann trained and exhibited as a painter. Fleeing Nazi Germany in 1933, he immigrated to the United States. Before leaving Germany, he bought a camera and arranged to sell photographs of America to be used in German magazines. He turned to photography as a way of earning money during the Great Depression in America when jobs were scarce.
Gutmann was fascinated with the new way of seeing the world that photography provided. He thought of the camera as a human eye, which inspired him to photograph whatever he saw, however he saw it. When he looked up in wonder at a multistory parking garage (see Elevator Garage. Chicago, 1936), his camera looked up too.
Elevator Garage, Chicago, 1936
© John Gutmann
He described the American city as "foreign—a landscape in which buildings had replaced mountains, automobiles had replaced trees, and neon and painted signs had been substituted for flowers." His pictures showed startling new views of familiar scenes. American photographs were not always as daring and experimental with how they took photographs at that time, so his work was though of as bold and modern. Gutmann currently resides in northern California.
READING THE PHOTOGRAPH
Portrait of Count Basie. San Francisco, 1939
© John Gutmann
Photographing primarily in the street, Gutmann used his eye and his camera to capture the exuberance and rhythm of America. He found Americans exotic and optimistic despite the Depression and looming war. His interest in photographing things uniquely American inspired Portrait of Count Basie. San Francisco in 1939. Jazz was an American form of music popular for its modern sound. In this work, Gutmann has captured the flare and style of a jazz performance by the High Hatters, with Count Basie in the background. This scene was photographed during the World’s Fair in San Francisco.
Gutmann photographed his subject from a worm’s-eye view. Notice, also, how the framing of the image cuts or crops part of the singers from the view. At the time, this approach to angle and framing was not widely used by American photographers, but was a part of the new way of photographing that was being developed in Europe and making its way to America. Such use was considered odd and daring.
To guide your students in a discussion, ask questions like:
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