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Everyday Miracles in a Bygone America

Review * German emigre John Gutmann saw his new country as a series of wonders. His photos show us ourselves anew.

August 20, 2000|WILLIAM WILSON | William Wilson is a regular contributor to Calendar

Getting a fresh take on a faded fascination is a pleasure. "The Photography of John Gutmann: Culture Shock" at the Museum of Contemporary Art manages to light up several sleeping dreams at once, like a rejuvenated pinball machine.

The place is Northern California in the '30s and '40s. The photographic psyche dwelt on the Great Depression. WPA lens masters like Dorthea Lange bravely recorded the agrarian purgatory of migrant workers. Down in Carmel, f64 Group art photographers rose above it all with Ansel Adams' magnificent mountains and Edward Weston's perverse peppers. Nobody was doing much about San Francisco.

In 1934, the emigre German artist arrived in the city. A fledgling photographer, he made a self-portrait sitting on the windowsill of typical clapboard-firetrap digs with a drop-dead view of the Embarcadero. His big signet ring looks a bit aristocratic and he appears sort of arty with a beret-like shadow across his forehead and a wine bottle on the table. This was Gutmann, a painter trained in Expressionism and a Jew who left because the Nazis wouldn't let him work.

He learned to operate a Rolleiflex as a way of making a living. He didn't consider the results art. In her catalog essay, curator Sandra S. Phillips usefully compares Gutmann to an anthropologist. He does work like someone documenting the folkways of an outlandish people, but he does so with a decided Teutonic bias that longs to be crazy, wild and free while fearing the consequences.

He worked for Life magazine and long-lost journals like Coronet and Pix--Yankee equivalents of the kind of German popular press that glamorized Amerika, as they spelled it. In the years between the wars, there was less emphasis on servile celebrity-worship and more on everyday wonders.

In the German imagination, the Far West still had painted Indians. Germans were fascinated with Amerika's cities, gangsters, fast cars and black jazz musicians. For Gutmann, Count Basie's backup singers, New Orleans jitterbugs and dark-skinned men with a fabulous Cord convertible were the cool, joyous Noble Savage incarnate. Present culture forgets that caricature is often the ultimate form of admiration.

For Gutmann, the town everybody called Frisco combined a place of exile with a seedy carnival utopia full of cheap side-show exotica. All of it had a decidedly tribal twist.

Pervasive signage and graffiti serve as magical incantations. "Eat Horse Doovers" was an American candy-maker's put-down of pretentious foreign phrases like "hors d'oeuvres." Native Barnum ballyhoo is everywhere, from ads for "Ben's Individual Streamlined Hair-Cut from Hollywood" to the Asian picket-line walker's "We Want the 40 Hour Week." Voodoo objects range from a giant plaster chicken fecundity symbol in Petaluma to a Wyoming license plate bearing a bucking bronco and a flying red horse. When it comes to fetishes, however, none was bigger or more potent than a Detroit automobile.


In Germany, autos were still the purview of war profiteers and guys with von in their names. Here, people drove to pick up their welfare checks. A junket to crazy L.A. yielded images of the first drive-in movies and eateries. Gutmann shot Okies migrating in jalopies; he called a cluster of Dodge billboards "An American Altar"; and he noticed an elevator garage 11 stories tall. If none of that adequately implies America's grandiose scale, there's Gutmann's awesome "Maintenance Worker Moving Down Main Cable of Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco." Those who fear heights shouldn't even look at it.

A related shot reduces cars to insects, reminding us that big countries make for small individuals. Maybe that's why everybody Gutmann photographed seems to struggle for notice. An old couple wants government aid. A sideshow features "The World's Fattest Girl." Athletes are graceful and drum majorettes are dangerously sexy with their low boots and plump calves. Gutmann made fun of his weakness for them in "Voyeur, Alarmed." Nymphets aside, he suffered that timeless male attraction for dark, mysterious women who turn out to be crazy.

Gutmann selected the show's 100 or so images shortly before he died in 1998. They revivify a piece of the past so believably that it doesn't feel quaint or campy, just a little more human.

The traveling show was organized by Stanford's Cantor Center for the Visual Arts.


"THE PHOTOGRAPHY OF JOHN GUTMANN: CULTURE SHOCK," Museum of Contemporary Art, California Plaza, 250 S. Grand Ave., L.A. Dates: Through Nov. 5. Closed Mondays. Price: $6; students and seniors, $4. Phone: (213) 626-6222.

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