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Karl Struss (1886-1981)
Karl Struss (1886-1981)

Man's Construction, 1912

Karl Struss (1886-1981)
Man's Construction, 1912
platinum palladium print
signed, dated in pencil (on the recto); signed, dated in pencil (on the mount); titled, dated in ink, Hollywood credit stamp and 'Member Pictorial Photographers of America' label affixed (on the reverse of the mount)
image/sheet: 10 1/4 x 12 3/4in. (26 x 32.4cm.)
mount: 13 7/8 x 17in. (35.2 x 43.2cm.)
'Annual Salon of Photography', October-November 1921, Oakland California

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Darius Himes

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Lot Essay

Karl Struss’s masterpiece, Man’s Construction, 1912 provides a glimpse into a mature point in the artist’s photographic career, when his images, heretofore under the romantic spell of Pictorialism, began to incorporate some of the nuanced abstractions of Modernism.

Struss’s early works, especially those taken between 1909 and 1912, encapsulate the premises of Pictorialism—the late nineteenth-century movement later heralded by the patriarch of American photography, Alfred Stieglitz. The movement’s embrace by the leading figures in American photography is traced to 1902, when Stieglitz was called upon by the National Arts Club to amass an exhibition that featured the best in American photography.

Following a difference in interpretation of what constituted contemporary photography, Stieglitz chose to break away from the Club and form the Photo-Secession group. Other members of the group included the familiar names of Clarence H. White, Edward Steichen and Gertrude Käsebier, among others. The underlying tenets championed a Pictorialist approach to photography, in which photographs were carefully lit and staged (when possible) and printed in methods that would create a strong Impressionist feel. Some of the technical devices included soft focus, vibration of the shutter, long exposures, and a wide array of printing methods—most notably gum bichromate and platinum—that left the resulting images resembling paintings more so than photographs.

While Struss was not a member of the Photo-Secession until 1912 (indeed, he would become the last member to join the group), his early days in photography were guided by the principles of Pictorialism. His early foray into photography began in 1896, when, at the tender age of ten and alongside his older brother, he began experimenting with darkroom techniques. His early devotion paid off, when in 1910, twelve of his gum and multiple platinum prints were hand-picked by Stieglitz to be included in a show at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York, for the exhibition International Exhibition of Pictorial Photography. In 1912, six of his images were chosen for Stieglitz’s publication, Camera Work, a superb accomplishment for a relative unknown. Another landmark for Struss took place the following year, when the artist co-founded Platinum Print, a photography publication that championed the accomplishments of his favored medium.

As the decade progressed, Struss’s style began to incorporate a more Modernist approach by featuring hard lines and geometric abstractions, as seen in the current lot. Indeed, viewers of this work are met with a duality: the softly-lit city and bridges of New York that glimmer in the background, set against the hard-edged construction site that lends an almost-Cubist abstraction of lines and form in the foreground. While Struss never fully embraced Modernism, his impressive body of work, especially his nocturnal urban scenes, helped shape the evolving discourse around the medium.

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