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John Gutmann
Date: American, 1905-1998
Biography:

John Gutmann received his bachelor's degree from the State Academy of Arts and Crafts in Breslau, Germany (now Wroclaw, Poland) and studied with master painter Otto Mueller, one of the founding members of the New Realist movement in Germany. Gutmann moved to Berlin in 1927 where he earned his master's degree at the State Institute for Higher Education. The arts were flourishing in Berlin, and the city's vibrant social scene provided inspiration for subject matter and aesthetic. Gutmann's paintings were done in the vein of well-known German painter Otto Dix, who represented Berlin nightlife as both dizzily exciting and darkly isolating. In 1933, due to the rise of the Nazi regime, Gutmann was no longer able to exhibit his paintings or teach and began to experiment with photography as a means of supporting himself. He bought a Rolleiflex camera, shot three rolls of film, and immediately secured a contract with a German agency, Presse-Foto, to photograph in America and send pictures back for German publications. That same year he arrived in San Francisco and started to document America from the detached eye of an anthropologist. By 1936 he had secured a teaching position at San Francisco State College, where a decade later he founded its creative photography program, one of the first in the country. By the end of the thirties, Gutmann switched agencies to Pix, Inc., a New York-based agency, which promoted his work for publication in magazines such as Time, The Saturday Evening Post, Life, and Look. During World War II, he studied at the Signal Corps Motion Picture School in Queens and made still and motion pictures for the United States Army Signal Corps. He focused much of his work during this time on China, Burma, and India. Gutmann retired from teaching in 1973 and began to print and edit his earlier work for exhibition and publication. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art held a two-man exhibition in 1976 of John Gutmann and Walker Evan's work focusing on images of the Great Depression and the American culture that emerged from it. Two years later he was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship. In 1984 his first publication titled The Restless Decade was published by Harry N. Abrams, showcasing his work from the 1930s. Beginning in 1989 a major retrospective, Beyond the Document, traveled from San Francisco Museum of Modern Art to the Museum of Modern Art in New York and then to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Gutmann died on June 12, 1998 in San Francisco.

Gutmann brings a strong modernist sensibility to his black-and-white documentary photographs. Using a Rolleiflex camera and shooting from the waist, he combines unusual angles, close cropping, and careful--almost classical--framing to create works that are as poetic as they are impactful. Like Walker Evans, he finds beauty in ordinary and everyday subjects such as advertisements, street scenes, and automobiles--subjects he would return to throughout his career. His straight-style depictions of Depression-era America often include an element of humor, capturing quiet moments of human drama, charged with anxiety, but also hope.