Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

'30s photographer sought the 'marvelous extravagance of life'; The Restless Decade: John Gutmann's Photographs of the Thirties, text by Max Kozloff, edited by Lew Thomas. New York: Harry N. Abrams. 160 pp. $29.95.

The 1930s is one of those decades we think of in stereotypes - stereotypes usually illustrated by the haunting faces seen in the work of such Farm Security Administration photographers as Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange.

But history is never so neatly assessed or packaged, and despite the Great Depression, the 1930s was a variegated epoch.

About these ads

The 175 photographs by John Gutmann in ''The Restless Decade'' erode, and in some cases dissolve, the stereotypes. The German-born photographer finds exuberance and energy everywhere and channels it to us. ''I am interested in relating to the marvelous extravagance of life,'' he said.

Gutmann was born in Breslau (now Wroclaw, Poland) in 1905, and his early training was in painting. Hitler's rise to power changed Gutmann's plan to be an art professor and painter, and like so many other Jewish artists and intellectuals he emigrated to America, settling in California.

It was the perfect spot for him, and Gutmann saw this new land with eyes as excited as those of a two-year-old boy seeing a large truck.

In his essay on Gutmann, Max Kozloff tells us that Gutmann discovered the first drive-in movies and restaurants (in southern California, 1935) and made their portraits. Glittering drum majorettes teased his camera. A giant historical pageant, replete with cowboys, Indians, and conquistadors, drew his bead. Nor would his world have been complete without Count Basie, the circus aerialists, the Winged Pegasus, the parking lots and golf links, the beauty contests, the tattoo parlors and graffiti artists, the movie marquees, and the early girlie magazines, which we know existed in the '30s but are startled to see there nonetheless.

Unlike the photographers of the Farm Security Administration, who were interested in the people living ordinary rural lives, Gutmann was ''engaged with . . . the icons of American popular culture,'' writes Kozloff.

The book's six sections reinforce Kozloff's claim. Gutmann examines ''Automobile Culture in the USA,'' ''Documents of the Street,'' ''Graffiti,'' ''The People,'' ''The Depression,'' ''The Human Spectacle.'' The result is a sprawling collection of wonderful and powerfully framed images alive with suggestions about what the decade was like.

''Professionally speaking, John Gutmann was a journalist; emotionally, a celebrant; intellectually, a historian,'' writes Max Kozloff. Having nothing to take for granted visually, Gutmann explored with excited eyes. The result: this kinetic and delightful book.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.