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How little details make up culture

John Gutmann's photographs are bold and mysterious. Fleeing the Nazi regime that would not let him teach or exhibit, Gutmann, a Jew, settled in San Francisco and began photographing on the streets. His fascination with American culture, which led him to often include shop signs and billboards within his viewfinder, imbues these tightly composed photographs with historical and sociological relevance.

Through Gutmann's eyes, everyday objects, like the headlamp of a car gleaming in the sun, become cultural icons. The mostly one-, two-, or three-word allegorical titles of the photographs connect the mind with the eye, creating a multi-layered viewing experience. For example, a picture from 1934 of three planes flying in formation above the silhouette of hatted men bears the title: "Omen."

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Gutmann is a master of the man-made landscape: the first drive-in theater in L.A., photographed in broad daylight, sans cars, appears strangely unglamorous. He delves into psychological landscapes as well: An elegantly attired woman, surrounded by sailor caps and distant ship parts, in "The Fleet Is In, San Francisco," bears an inscrutable expression.

John Nordell is on the Monitor's photo staff.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society