Karl Fischer Struss in New York City, 30 November 1886.
Attended night classes in photography with Clarence White, Columbia
University, New York, 1908–12.
Married Ethel Wall, 1921.
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
, 1950, and
My Friend Flicka
, 1957; exhibited his still photographs throughout his career.
Academy Award for
16 December 1981.
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)
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)
Pictured with the Struss Pictorial Lens (catalogue), New York, 1915.
"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.
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.
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.