Book Review: John Gutmann: The Photographer at Work

The urban lensman

The Product Description above will tell you a bit about this interesting photo journalist. This book is one of three monographs that have been published over the years and because it's the most recent it has a reasonably comprehensive coverage of Gutmann's career. Predictably all three titles have a very similar photo content. Restless Decade: John Gutmann's Photographs of the Thirties (1984) has 167 duotones and The Photography of John Gutmann: Culture Shock (1999) has 100.

Sally Stein's 2009 book is the one I prefer because the reproduction of the 175 photos (200 screen duotones on a good matt art) is better than the other two. With more photos it's possible to appreciate the quality of Gutmann's work, in particular his coverage of cars (one of his favorite subjects) and man-made America, where he follows the style of FSA output by taking photos of commercial buildings and their signage. Plate thirty-six is a beautiful shot of a Hollywood drive-in restaurant; plate thirty-eight features a well framed image of the first Los Angeles drive-in theater. The weakest photos, I thought, are the five signs with white and neon type on a black background. They look simple enough to be student photographic college material.

The book's essay by Stein, over thirty-nine pages is as comprehensive as you'll want and like the essay in 'The photography of John Gutmann' title it's illustrated with spreads from magazines with photos that influenced him. One minor point I noticed with Stein's essay are the footnotes, there are ninety-two of them and amazingly the numbers in the text are the smallest I've ever seen: three point and at that size they are virtually unreadable. Actually that's not the only rather unreadable type in the book: the imprint, footnotes and list of plates are also a strain on the eyes and the photo captions seem to be printed grey ink (someone at the Center for Creative Photography was asleep at the wheel when the proofs were checked!).

John Gutmann was born in Germany (1905) and he arrived in the US during 1933. As he had the eye of a European I think it gives his work a fresh take on the everyday American urban scene especially during the Thirties. This handsomely produced book proves it.

John Gutmann: The Photographer at Work is available at Amazon (US | CA | UK | DE | FR | IT | ES | JP | CN) and Book Depository

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Title spread.

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Left: Gutmann looking at what he's up against.

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Left: Gutmann at his best.

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Right: another stunning photo.

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These seem not much more than art college studies.

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The back of the book has nine pages about the John Gutmann Archive.

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