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Stanford Report, January 19, 2000

Photography of John Gutmann exhibit opens today

The Photography of John Gutmann: Culture Shock, which opens today at the Cantor Arts Center, looks at a half-century of achievements of the influential German-born photojournalist.

The new exhibition, on display in the Pigott Family Gallery through March 26, surveys Gutmann's documentary work in Asia, Europe and the United States during the 1930s and '40s.

Images such as Death Stalks Fillmore illustrate Gutmann's personal adaptation of surrealism as he gradually turned from recording the merely odd and marvelous to inventing and constructing new images.

Born in Germany in 1905 and trained as a painter under the tutelage of expressionist Otto Mueller, Gutmann took up photography in 1933 and supported himself as a photojournalist after immigrating to the United States. Unlike many artists who opted to stay in New York City, he went directly to San Francisco and remained in the Bay Area for many years.

"I was seeing America with an outsider's eyes -- the automobiles, the speed, the freedom, the graffiti," he said in a 1989 interview.

"Gutmann's street photography and his fascination with American culture in the 1930s was a precursor of the work of Robert Frank and there were many parallels in their work," Joel Leivick, curator of photography at the Cantor center, said. "Both were Jewish emigrants from Europe, both were acutely aware of the affluence present in American culture and both had keen eyes for ironic juxtapositions and the poetic possibilities of everyday objects."

After settling in San Francisco, Gutmann helped to link the "almost bizarre, exotic qualities" of the West Coast with European modernism. His capacity to disclose ambiguities and oddities within the commonplace inspired later generations of photographers.

But Leivick notes that Gutmann "had no interest whatsoever" in the work of California landscape photographers like Ansel Adams or Edward Weston.

"'Why photograph rocks and trees when all sorts of wild, surreal and unimaginable stuff is going on in the streets?' he must have asked himself. That's where he thought there were discoveries to be made, and that's where the raw material was to be found for original photographs."

In the illustrated catalog that accompanies the exhibition, Sandra Phillips, curator of photography at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, compares Gutmann's vision of American culture to the work of other photojournalists in such popular magazines as Life and Look. She also discusses his artistic development, tracing the works that link his images of the 1930s and '40s with the surrealism he espoused in the 1950s. SR