Photographer of S.F.s fearless spirit getting BJE exhibit

The young Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany couldn’t get enough of 1930s San Francisco.

Every corner, every storefront, every oddball on Market Street offered photographer John Gutmann a dazzling view of liberty. And he took advantage, capturing the city in glorious black and white.

Now, 12 years after his death at age 93, Gutmann will be honored with a comprehensive exhibition, lecture and screening of a film about his life and work.

John Gutmann self-portrait, San Francisco, 1934 photos/courtesy of the john gutmann photography fellowship trust, a fund of the san francisco foundation, © 1998 the center of creative photography, arizona board of regents, the university of arizona

“An Emigrant’s Visual Discovery of a New World” is on display through Dec. 16 at the BJE Jewish Community Library in San Francisco.

“He wanted to be as full of moxie as the objects that most attracted him,” notes Sally Stein, a retired U.C. Irvine art history professor who wrote a biography of Gutmann. “He was inspired to emulate that kind of fresh-faced, fearless spirit.”

Stein will deliver a presentation of Gutmann’s work in an Oct. 21 program at the BJE. She titles her lecture “A Gulliver in America” because of the photographer’s “strange sea change” between the old and new worlds.

He came from a family of prosperous assimilated Jews. Gutmann’s hometown of Breslau was a Nazi stronghold, so the young artist saw the writing on the wall early on. Just as Hitler came to power, Gutmann fled Germany, but not before he captured in early photographs his homeland’s fast-changing society.

“He saw himself as a kind of reporter of all that was out of kilter with the European Old World,” Stein notes. “This was when he decided he was going to completely change allegiance. He had just come to this country, and when we go to a new place we’re extremely excited. He was excited by everything he saw.”

Once in the United States, he trained his lens mostly on his adopted home of San Francisco. He loved to shoot people and landmarks –– such as a half-completed Bay Bridge. He was equally drawn to the signage that defined the American background.

“The Lesson,” Central Park, New York, 1936

One image of a storefront has a sign that describes a candy company’s product as “Awful Fresh.” Another urges customers to eat “Horse Doovers.”

He also went overseas, photographing battles in China during World War II, burqa-draped Muslim women in Calcutta and an outdoor Catholic confession in Mexico.

Perhaps Gutmann made his biggest impact in the classroom. In 1937, he’d begun teaching photography part-time at San Francisco State College, and by 1949 he was a full-time associate professor, a post he held for decades.

He never stopped taking pictures, though illness slowed him down by the 1960s. In his last 20 years, Gutmann traveled, organized exhibitions of his work, and accepted accolades from around the world. He died in June of 1998 in San Francisco.

“The News Photographer,” San Francisco City Hall, 1935

Those just discovering Gutmann’s work at the BJE exhibition may marvel at the contemporary look to his images, even though many are nearly 80 years old.

That reaction would not surprise Stein. “There is this romantic, boosterish quality,” she says of Gutmann’s pictures. “He saw the streets paved not with gold but individual freedom.”

“An Emigrant’s Visual Discovery of a New World” is on display through Dec. 16 at the Bureau of Jewish Education Library, 1835 Ellis St., S.F. A screening of “My Eyes Were Fresh: The Life and Photographs of John Gutmann” takes place 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 21, followed by Sally Stein’s lecture at 7:30 p.m. Information: (415) 567-3327 or www.bjesf.org.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.