Struss, Karl

views updated May 17 2018


Cinematographer. Nationality: American. Born: Karl Fischer Struss in New York City, 30 November 1886. Education: Attended night classes in photography with Clarence White, Columbia University, New York, 1908–12. Family: Married Ethel Wall, 1921. Career: 1903–14—worked in his father's bonnet-wire factory; 1914–17—studio photographer, New York; 1916—cofounder, Pictorial Photographers of America; 1917–19—served in World War I: did experiments on infrared photography; 1919–22—still photographer, then cameraman, for Cecil B. DeMille at Famous Players-Lasky, Hollywood, then worked for B.P. Schulberg, 1922–24, other companies, D.W. Griffith, 1927–30, and for Paramount after 1931; TV work includes the series Broken Arrow, 1950, and My Friend Flicka, 1957; exhibited his still photographs throughout his career. Award: Academy Award for Sunrise, 1928–29. Died: 16 December 1981.

Films as Cinematographer:


Something to Think About (C. DeMille)


The Affairs of Anatol (C. DeMille); Fool's Paradise (C. DeMille) (co); The Law and the Woman (Stanlaws)


Fools First (Neilan) (co); Minnie (Neilan) (co); Rich Men's Wives (Gasnier); Saturday Night (C. DeMille) (co); Thorns and Orange Blossoms (Gasnier)


Daughters of the Rich (Gasnier); The Hero (Gasnier); Maytime (Gasnier); Mothers-in-Law (Gasnier); Poor Men's Wives (Gasnier)


Idle Tongues (Hillyer); The Legend of Hollywood (Hoffman); Poisoned Paradise: The Forbidden Story of Monte Carlo (Gasnier); White Man (Gasnier)


The Winding Stair (Wray)


Ben-Hur (Niblo) (co); Forever After (Weight); Hell's 400 (Wray); Meet the Prince (Henabery); Sparrows (Beaudine) (co)


Babe Comes Home (Wilde); Sunrise (Murnau) (co)


The Battle of the Sexes (Griffith) (co); Drums of Love (Griffith) (co); The Night Watch (A. Korda)


Coquette (Taylor); Lady of the Pavements (Griffith); Taming of the Shrew (Taylor)


Abraham Lincoln (Griffith); The Bad One (Fitzmaurice); Be Yourself (Freeland) (co); Danger Lights (Seitz) (co); Lummox (Brenon); One Romantic Night (The Swan) (Stein)


Kiki (Taylor); Skippy (Taurog); Up Pops the Devil (Sutherland); Women Love Once (Goodman); Murder by the Clock (Sloman); The Road to Reno (Wallace)


Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Mamoulian); Two Kinds of Women (W. De Mille); Dancers in the Dark (Burton); The World and the Flesh (Cromwell); Forgotten Commandments (Gasnier and Schorr); The Man from Yesterday (Viertel); Guilty As Hell (Kenton); The Sign of the Cross (C. DeMille); Island of Lost Souls (Kenton)


The Girl in 419 (Identity Unknown) (Hall and Somnes); Tonight Is Ours (Walker); The Woman Accused (Sloane); The Story of Temple Drake (Roberts); Disgraced (Kenton); Torch Singer (Hall and Somnes)


Four Frightened People (C. DeMille); Belle of the Nineties (McCarey); The Pursuit of Happiness (Hall); Here Is My Heart (Tuttle)


Goin' to Town (Hall); Two for Tonight (Tuttle)


Anything Goes (Milestone); The Preview Murder Mystery (Florey); Too Many Parents (McGowan); Rhythm of the Range (Taurog); Hollywood Boulevard (Florey); Go West, Young Man (Hathaway); Let's Make a Million (McCarey)


Waikiki Wedding (Tuttle); Mountain Music (Florey); Double or Nothing (Reed); Thunder Trail (Barton)


Every Day's a Holiday (Sutherland); Thanks for the Memory (Archainbaud); Sing, You Sinners (Ruggles)


Paris Honeymoon (Tuttle); Zenobia (Douglas); Some Like It Hot (Archainbaud); Island of Lost Men (Neumann); The Star Maker (Del Ruth)


The Great Dictator (Chaplin) (co)


Caught in the Draft (Butler); Aloma of the South Seas (Santell) (co)


Happy Go Lucky (Bernhardt) (co); Journey into Fear (Foster); Riding High (Marshall) (co)


And the Angels Sing (Marshall); Rainbow Island (Murphy); For Whom the Bell Tolls (Wood) (2nd unit)


Bring on the Girls (Lanfield); Tarzan and the Leopard Woman (Neumann)


Suspense (Tuttle); Mister Ace (Marin)


The Macomber Affair (Z. Korda) (co); Heaven Only Knows (Rogell)


The Dude Goes West (Neumann); Siren of Atlantis (Ripley and Tallas); Tarzan's Magic Fountain (Sholem)


Bad Boy (Neumann)


Rocket Ship X-M (Neumann); It's a Small World (Castle); The Return of Jesse James (Hilton); The Texan Meets Calamity Jane (Lamb); Father's Wild Game (Leeds)


Tarzan's Peril (Haskin)


Rose of Cimarron (Keller); Tarzan's Savage Fury (Endfield); Limelight (Chaplin); Lady Possessed (Spier and Kellino); Mesa of Lost Women (Tevos and Ormond)


Tarzan and the She Devil (Neumann); Il piu comico spettacolo del mondo (Mattoli) (co); Il Turco napoletano (Mattoli) (co); Cavalleria rusticana (Gallone) (co); "The Secret Shame" ep. of Face to Face (Brahm)


Attila (Francisci) (co); Due notte con Cleopatra (Mattoli) (co)


Mohawk (Neumann)


She Devil (Neumann); Kronos (Neumann); The Deerslayer (Neumann)


The Rawhide Trail (Gordon); The Fly (Neumann); Machete (Neumann); The Hot Angel (Parker)


Here Come the Jets (Fowler); The Sad Horse (Clark); The Rebel Set (Fowler); The Alligator People (Del Ruth); Counterplot (Neumann)


By STRUSS: book—

Pictured with the Struss Pictorial Lens (catalogue), New York, 1915.

By STRUSS: articles—

"Color Photography," in American Photography, August 1917.

"Photographic Modernism and the Cinematographer," in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), November 1934.

In Sources of Light, edited by Charles Higham, London, 1970.

Journal of Popular Film (Bowling Green, Ohio), vol. 4, no. 4, 1975.

On STRUSS: books—

Harvith, Susan, and John, Karl Struss: Man with a Camera, Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1976.

McCandless, Barbara, Yochelson, Bonnie, and Koszarski, Richard, New York to Hollywood: The Photography of Karl Struss, Fort Worth, TX, Amon Carter Museum, 1995.

On STRUSS: articles—

Fritz, James L., in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), February 1935.

Blanchard, Walter, in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), June 1941.

Rosenberg, Bernard, and Harry Silverstein, in The Real Tinsel, New York, 1970.

Film Comment (New York), Summer 1972.

American Cinematographer (Hollywood), July 1973.

American Cinematographer (Hollywood), March 1977.

Everson, William K., in Variety (New York), 10 September 1980.

The Annual Obituary 1981, New York, 1982.

Carcassonne, P., in Cinématographe (Paris), January 1982.

American Cinematographer (Hollywood), February 1982.

Eyman, Scott, in Five American Cinematographers, Metuchen, New Jersey, 1987.

Loke, Margarett, "Karl Struss," in ARTnews, February 1993.

Naugrette, Jean-Pierre, and Michel Ciment, "Cinémas, cinéma: Un jour à New York," in Positif (Paris), November 1995.

* * *

Karl Struss has been accurately described as "by temperament a pictorialist, by instinct an illusionist, and by accomplishment one of the great cameramen in the floridly creative quarter-century of filmmaking that followed The Birth of a Nation," and is probably best-known as the winner (along with Charles Rosher) of the first Academy Award for cinematography, for his work on Murnau's Sunrise. However, his undoubted triumphs as a cinematographer in Hollywood's golden age have somewhat eclipsed his earlier achievements as a still photographer, and it was not until a few years before his death, thanks to a pioneering exhibition at the University of Michigan Museum of Art, that his photographs received any kind of critical recognition at all.

Fleeing his father's manufacturing business, Struss enrolled in art photography classes at Columbia University in 1909. These were under the direction of the renowned photographer Clarence H. White, making him one of the youngest members of Alfred Stieglitz's Photo-Secession and a contributor to the seminal journal Camera Work. In 1914 he set up his own studio and began doing pictorial photography—mostly illustrations for stories—for Vogue, Vanity Fair and Harpers Bazaar, much of it drawn from material gathered on a long photographic vacation in Europe in 1909. He also photographed New York, and did portraits of the stars of the Metropolitan Opera Company for publicity purposes. According to the New York Times photography critic Gene Thornton, "Struss was one of the great photographers of New York. Some of his Whistleresque impressions of the city at twilight rank with anything in that mode by Stieglitz and Steichen."

It was no accident, then, that Struss started off in Hollywood as a still photographer—with Cecil B. DeMille on St. Patrick's Day, 1919. After a month or so he became a third cameraman, and was shortly thereafter put under contract. He still did the occasional portraits (of DeMille, Gloria Swanson, Bebe Daniels, and Sunrise star George O'Brien, for example), and there exist some fascinating studies done on the set of Sunrise, but his main career from then on was as a cinematographer, working with directors such as Griffith, Mamoulian, Welles, Chaplin, and stars of the calibre of Mary Pickford, Mae West, Charles Laughton, Fredric March, Cary Grant, and Bing Crosby. Amongst his best known films are Ben-Hur (of which he reckons to have shot around 60 percent of the finished picture, although René Guissart received the main credit for the cinematography), Abraham Lincoln, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Sign of the Cross, Island of Lost Souls, Belle of the Nineties, The Great Dictator and Limelight.

Struss left the operation of the camera to his operator, concentrating himself on lighting, camera angles, sets and other production work. When once asked whether he considered directors a hindrance or a help, he replied "they were usually a help. Every picture was 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." Of Griffith he remarked that "the photography was independent of the direction. He never bothered you about the lighting. He was mainly concerned with the actors," while on Sunrise "Murnau left the whole visual side of the picture to us; he concentrated entirely on the actors. Of course, he'd see what size the image was, and he was interested in the permanently moving camera . . . he was the first director I ever worked with who really knew what was going on when he started to move the camera. He not only knew when to move but how long to move." Is there, then, such a thing as a Struss "look?" Some clue may be found in the technical innovations which he developed, such as a soft-focus lens which nevertheless provided the foundation of an essentially sharp image, the Lupe reflector which became extremely popular in face lighting, the graduated red-green filter which, used in conjunction with certain makeup facilitated the smooth transformation scenes in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and the healing of the lepers in Ben-Hur, and the graduated gauze filters which facilitated the characteristic changing lighting effects in Sunrise. Struss' trademarks, then, at the height of his career, are a myriad of grey tonalities avoiding grittiness or harsh contrasts, a gauzed, romantic approach to the image (witness especially The Sign of the Cross, which was filmed entirely through bright red gauze "to give a feeling of a world remembered"), and, in general, all those qualities one associates with classical photography and the Hollywood studio system at their respective peaks. It is significant, for example, that what he most admired about the director Louis Gasnier was his "European sense of composition—lovely tableaux," that in the opening scene of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde he used an oval gauze with soft edges "to make every shot of every student look like a portrait," and that of his work on Sunrise he remarked that "today it's all mechanised; then we were artists."

By the time his contract with Paramount expired in the early 1940s, Struss already had his finest work behind him, although Journey Into Fear and Limelight are both notable films. However, he still continued to experiment (with 3-D, for example, and with special lenses and filters on Rocketship X-M), and to display his customary versatility by working in television on series such as My Friend Flicka and Broken Arrow. Never typecast, and always adaptable, he made the very best of changed circumstances and styles, though it is hard to avoid the conclusion that his was a talent that gave of its best in the conditions of traditional Hollywood in its heyday.

—Julian Petley

Karl Struss

views updated Jun 27 2018

Karl Struss

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.

Became Professional 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.

Served in World War I

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.

Began Cinematography Career

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.

Won Academy Award

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.

Worked in Television

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. □