Born in 1886, Karl Struss distinguished himself as a cinematographer in early black and white movies, working with Cecil B. Demille and Charlie Chaplin, among others.
But before his film career took off, he worked as a commercial photographer in his native New York City. His moody, atmospheric images capture the lights and shadows of a horse-powered, low-rise city as it enters the modern, mechanized 20th century.
[West Street, 1911]
As a child, Struss became entranced by his brother’s wooden folding camera. He then learned his way around the darkroom and taught himself printmaking. Later he took classes at Columbia University with Clarence White, a member of the Photo-Secessionists, a group of artists who argued that photography wasn’t about merely recording an image but capturing something artistic and creative.
Through White he met Alfred Stieglitz, who invited Struss to exhibit his work in a 1911 show.
[Manhattan Bridge, 1910]
“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,” states a profile of Struss on the American Society of Cinematographers website.
“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.”
[Herald Square, 1911]
His print photography days were numbered. In 1917, when the United States entered World War I, he enlisted in the Army but never left America because of rumors reportedly spread by his photography world colleagues that he was disloyal to his country.
[Mercedes Autobus, Fifth Avenue and 38th Street, New York, 1912]
“This ugly episode may have been the catalyst that led him to leave the chummy world of New York art photography for the freewheeling film scene in Hollywood,” states a New York Times article from 1995.
Struss remained in the movie industry, earning awards and working through the 1950s. He died in 1981, in time for his own resurgence as a leading photographer who helped elevate photographer to an art form—along with other pioneering picture-takers, like Paul Strand and the more abstract Langdon Coburn.
[Right: Karl Struss in 1912, by Clarence White