Karl Struss (1886-1981) was a talented American photographer who played a key role in the early development of cinematography. He won the first Academy Award in that category.
Karl Fischer Struss was born on November 30, 1886, in New York City, the youngest of six children born to Henry W. Struss and his wife Marie. The family was of German background. Henry Struss owned a silk mill. After his economic fortunes took a downturn in the early 1890s, he owned and ran a bonnet-wire manufacturing plant.
According to some sources, Struss did not finish high school because of illness. Others stated that he graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School in New York City. In either case, as early as 1903, Struss became employed at his father's plant, where he worked for the next ten years. Looking for a hobby, Struss began attending night classes in photography at Columbia University Teacher's College in 1908. He spent the next four years studying photography, primarily as a student of Clarence White, a famous pictorial photographer.
Beyond a mere hobbyist, Struss proved to be very talented as a photographer. His early work was extremely stylized. These pictures, including some significant shots he took during a trip to Europe in 1909, were in the Pictorial style. Soft focus lenses and related printing techniques were used to create photographs that were blurry and diffuse. To create this diffused look, Struss developed the Struss Pictorial Lens in 1909. It was later manufactured and used in film productions. He was also responsible for other innovative techniques, such as the autochrome, which produced positive transparencies on glass. Another technique was the Hess-Ives process that created color prints on paper. In addition to developing his photographic techniques, Struss taught at Columbia University and the Brooklyn Academy of Arts and Sciences, published writings on photography, and edited a photography magazine, Platinum Print.
Struss's talent was noticed by leading photographers in New York City, including Edward Weston and Alfred Stieglitz. The latter owned a gallery, the Albright Art Gallery International Exhibition of Pictorial Photography, and was a key figure in the Photo-Secession group. Stieglitz and his friends founded this organization in 1902 with the goal of advancing photography as a fine art. Struss was asked to join the Photo-Secessionists. Stieglitz sponsored an early exhibit of Struss's work in 1910 as part of a larger exhibit of Photo-Secession. This led to further publication of his pictures.
Struss's style evolved in the early 1910s, when some critics believe he reached an early peak as a photographer. Unlike most Photo-Secessionists, Struss photographed many pictures of urban architecture, primarily of New York City, in a style that predated modernist photographs, particularly in his overhead views of New York City. His bold, linear photographs focused on principles of design and abstract composition. In a review of a late-twentieth century exhibition of Struss's work from this period, New York Times art reviewer Ken Johnson wrote "His rigorously composed views of the city are animated by the tension between timeless reverie and modern urgencies that would soon render Pictoralism obsolete."
Leaving his father's employ in 1913, Struss opened his own photographic studio in Manhattan the following year. For three years, Struss shot portraits, work for advertisements, and pictorial illustrations for magazines such as Vanity Fair, Harpers Bazaar, and Vogue. He also produced publicity stills for organizations like the Metropolitan Opera Company.
In 1917, Struss's career was interrupted when he was drafted by the U.S. Army for service during World War I. He was originally assigned to the Signal Corps where he taught photography. Struss also worked with the War Department in developing a secret infrared photographic process to be used in air-based reconnaissance. Struss was transferred because of anti-German sentiment. He was accused of being a German sympathizer and underwent an investigation while serving at the Fort Leavenworth Military Prison's Barracks Guard Unit. Though Struss was ultimately found innocent of any wrongdoing, the accusations lingered and he was unable to completely clear his name. The situation negatively affected his standing in New York City and contributed to his post-military move.
In 1919, after his discharge from the military, Struss left New York City and still photography behind. He moved to Hollywood, then a burgeoning film community. The Famous Players-Lasky Studio hired him to create publicity portraits. Within a month, Struss was working as a cameraman. Seven months later he had become a cinematographer. Struss's first film was Something to Think About (1920). Cecil B. DeMille put him under contract, where he worked for the next three years. Although Struss was primarily a cinematographer, he also took portraits of stars and other important Hollywood figures including DeMille, Gloria Swanson, and Bebe Daniels. Throughout his career, Struss also dabbled in other forms of still photography and exhibited his work through organizations such as Pictorial Photographers of America. At this time, Struss married Ethel Wall, with whom he had one child.
After Struss's contract with DeMille ended in 1922, he continued to work as a cinematographer on a freelance basis. Over time, Struss developed his own distinctive style. As a cinematographer, Struss was primarily concerned with the lighting, camera angles, sets, and related production details. He left the actual operation of the camera to its operator. Stylistically, Struss favored a soft, romantic presentation of images in a series of gray tonalities. Struss was quoted by Scott Eyman in Five American Cinematographers as saying "every picture was always something different; I tried not to use the same formula. It depended on the story. The way I look at it is this: the director is the captain of the ship; I'm the first lieutenant, and the rest of the crew worked directly under me. The director shouldn't care a whoop about anything else; he's got his own problems. I'm his interpreter and I have to give him what I think is good for that story."
Some of Struss's best known work was done on Ben Hur (1926), which was shot in Rome. When he joined the project, the film had already been in production for six weeks. Struss was one of 13 cameramen who worked on the film. While he was the lead cinematographer and shot about 60 percent of the final product, another cinematographer, Rene Guissart, received the main credit because of a contractual agreement.
Struss received much acclaim for his work on Ben Hur because of his use of filters to create visual effects. In the famed healing of the lepers sequence, red makeup was used to create the sores on the characters. Struss used a red filter to make the sores suddenly disappear, an optical transition. One of Struss's major contributions to cinematography was the use of filters to affect change in tone in black and white film.
Another film in which Struss did acclaimed work was Sunrise (1927), directed by F.W. Murnau. Regarded as one of the best silent films ever made, Struss worked with a second cinematographer, Charles Rosher. He used graduated gauze filters to create the lighting effects. For he and Rosher's work on Sunrise, the pair won the first Academy Award given for cinematography. Struss was a founding member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the body that gives out the Academy Awards.
Struss's career gradually declined in the late 1920s and 1930s, in terms of the quality of his films. In the late 1920s, he worked on most of Mary Pickford's films, including Taming of the Shrew. In 1931, Struss was hired by Paramount, where he spent the next 18 years. He worked on many films starring Mae West, Claudette Colbert, Miriam Hopkins, and the musical comedies of Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour.
While most of Struss's assignments at Paramount were B pictures, he did make some significant films as well. Struss earned another Academy Award nomination for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1932). He created another spectacular special effect using color filters to change the appearance of the actor who played the title character. Working in combination with the actor's make-up, a graduated red-green filter moved across the lens to alter the appearance of his face. Other important films for Struss in the early 1930s were Island of Lost Souls (1932) which featured white-on-white fog, and The Story of Temple Drake (1933), an adaptation of William Faulkner's Sanctuary, which was darkly lit.
Struss's final years at Paramount were rather lean. He did earn another Academy Award nomination for best cinematographer for his first Technicolor film, Aloma of the South Seas (1941). After his tenure ended in 1948, Struss continued to work intermittently. He garnered his final Academy Award nomination in 1950 for Limelight, directed by silent film comedic genius Charlie Chaplin. In 1953, Struss worked on his first 3-D film, Cavalleria Rusticana, which was shot in Rome and starred Anthony Quinn. After filming was completed, Struss remained in Italy for some time, working on comedies starring Sophia Loren.
Struss ended his film career in 1959. His last film was The Rebel Set. In 1959, he produced a two-minute Chevrolet commercial that won the first Grand Prix Award at the Cannes Film Festival. While continuing to work on commercials, Struss was also employed as a television photographer. He worked on such shows as Broken Arrow (1956-60) and My Friend Flicka (1956-57). He retired completely in 1972.
Struss died of heart failure on December 16, 1981, at St. John's Hospital, in Santa Monica, California. He was 95 at the time of his death. In summarizing Struss's career, Julian Petley of International Dictionary of Films and Film-makers: Writers and Production Artists wrote, "Never typecast, and always adaptable, he made the very best of changed circumstances and styles, though it's hard to avoid the conclusion that his was a talent that gave of its best in the conditions of traditional Hollywood in its heyday."
American National Biography: Volume 21, edited by John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, Oxford University Press, 1999.
The Annual Obituary 1981, edited by Janet Podell, St. Martin's Press, 1982.
Eyman, Scott, Five American Cinematographers: Interviews with Karl Struss, Joseph Ruttenberg, James Wong Howe, Linwood Dunn, and William H. Clothier, Scarecrow Press, 1987.
International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers-4: Writers and Production Artists, edited by Grace Jeromski, St. James Press, 1997.
Katz, Ephraim, The Film Encyclopedia, Harper Perennial, 1998.
New York Times, December 19, 1981; August 11, 1995; February 27, 1998.
Palm Beach Post, September 24, 1995.