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The Restless Decade: John Gutmann's Photographs of the Thirties

Reviewed by Jim Sweeney

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Cover of The Restless DecadePhotographic images of the 1930s have been boiled down in the popular imagination to a few scenes, mostly by photographers working on federally funded arts projects. But many other photographers were working then and their images can give us a slightly different take on the era.

That's the best part of The Restless Decade: John Gutmann's Photographs of the Thirties (Abrams, $19.95, paperback): you get excellent photographs (Gutmann considered the work produced then to be his best) combined with a different angle on the period. The book is a paperback reissue of a book first published in the 1980s.

His work showed the influence of avant-garde art movements in Europe from the 1920s and 1930s, when he was studying to be a painter. Self-taught as a photographer, he had a slightly quirky cropping style with tilted angles.

He began teaching art at San Francisco State College in 1936, and founded its creative photography program a decade later. He taught at the college until 1973.

Gutmann, who died in 1998 at age 93, fled Nazi Germany in 1933, moving to San Francisco. He was fascinated by the very different world in which he found himself. The book's chapters cover common themes in Gutmann's work: automobile culture, street scenes and signs, graffiti, people, the Depression, the human spectacle.

"Cord in Harlem" shows both Gutmann's technique and his fascination with cars. It's a wide-angle view of two black men getting into a car on a Harlem street. Almost everything is dark: the men's suits, the street, the buildings. But there's enough light in the sky to highlight the light-colored car, which is the main subject.

He took photos of cars almost everywhere: at an Oregon beach, at a San Francisco high school, at a park. His fascination with vehicles also led to offbeat subjects, such as a close-up shot of a bicycle owned by a Mexican barber. It has lights, horns a speedometer, fur trim and a hood ornament.

Gutmann also photographed cultural monuments: the first drive-in restaurant and drive-in theater in Los Angeles.

Some of his photos will remind viewers of Berenice Abbott's work, especially the New York images. Among these are a cab parked under a bridge, and a Bowery barber school covered with large signs, with a view of the Empire State Building in the background.

Some of the best of the 175 images are offbeat scenes or things you don't associate with the Thirties. For instance, the graffiti he found doesn't look much different from today's, including vulgar images and words. He took several photos of a Reno gambling establishment during the 1936 election. A board on the wall gives the odds for various events you could bet on: whether FDR or Landon would win various states, who would win the election, the number of electoral votes each would get, the number of states each would carry.

Some photos are of subjects that rarely appear in books or exhibits of photography from this era. Such as a photo showing a lesbian couple kissing. Or a photo of a black policeman patrolling Harlem.

Gutmann's 1930s America is more ethnically diverse than that of many other photographers. And when other photographers did show an ethnically diverse population, it was often in the context of poverty. While Gutmann didn't avoid scenes of poverty--it was obviously hard to avoid in that time-he also showed everyday life.

Gutmann's technique varied, with close-up and distant views of the same subject, scenes shot from building windows, from a kneeling or crouched position, and many other angles. One of his best scenes of everyday fife shows a lunchtime game of baseball in an alley between two San Francisco office buildings. It's shot from an office window several stories up, in a building across the street.

Several photos show unemployed men on the streets of Mobile, Ala. One is a closeup of a man from the knees down: all you see are worn pants, ripped socks, battered shoes. You don't need to see the rest of the man to understand his situation. Another shows four men sitting outside a building. Three look at Gutmann, but the fourth covers his face in shame.

Other photos also include interaction with the subjects. In a photo of a military parade in San Francisco, a man in the audience scowls at Gutmann for some reason. In "Voyeur Alarmed," a man who has been ogling some majorettes glares angrily at Gutmann as he realizes he is being photographed.

This article originally appeared in Trans-Lux volume 18, number 4, December 2000.


Where to Find the Book

You can find The Restless Decade: John Gutmann's Photographs of the Thirties in local bookstores or purchase it on-line at a discount from Amazon.com Books.

ADSW offers this book in association with Amazon.com Books and receives a small commission on sales referred to them.

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Created Monday, January 29, 2001; Modified Thursday, September 18, 2003.