(Photographic Materials) Pictorialist Experiments of Karl Struss, by Sarah Casto

By Ashley Stanford posted 06-04-2019 16:39


Link: https://sched.co/IumY  

Sarah Casto, Photograph Conservation Fellow at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, Texas presented her investigation into a series of seven photographic prints by Karl Struss (1886 -1981) titled "New Hampshire Landscape". Her research involved finding the negative used and uncovering the different printing processes Struss employed for his experimental photographs by utilizing XRF and the Amon Carter’s newly acquired VSC8000 forensic imaging tool.

The presentation began with a short history of Struss to give a better context in which his works were created. Karl Struss was born in 1886 and at the age of 17 began to work long hours in his father’s factory. After the death of his brother at age 22, and in an effort to push back against the hard hours endured at the factory, Struss began studying photography by taking evening classes with Clarence White at Columbia University’s Teachers College in New York City. While in New York, Struss’s style was as a Pictorialist specializing in platinum printing. He created atmospheric photographs of New York City, often working to enhance the mood of his photographs by experimenting and printing in different processes. His platinum process garnered the attention of Alfred Stieglitz who invited the artist to join Stieglitz’s group of Photo-Secession photographers. Struss perfected a multi-layered platinum printing process and also patented the Struss Pictorial Lens, which became the first soft-focus lens used in motion pictures.

“New Hampshire Landscape”, a series of seven prints, was created between 1907 and 1910 while Struss was enrolled in White’s courses. The seven prints were experimental in nature and intentionally abstracted, typical of Struss’s style. Although all of the prints were printed from the same negative, each employed a different process. Working from the Amon Carter’s collection of negatives, prints, and archives related to the series, Sarah worked to uncover and characterize the processes and materials of these seven photographs. Sarah found multiple glass plate negatives that appeared to be candidates for the one Struss used. She worked to narrow down the exact negative used and his process by looking closely at the scene depicted and key features found in the final prints, namely a cart and shed. This made it easy for her to figure out which negative was ultimately used. She then concluded that the original 4x5 negative was then used to create another 4x5 glass plate negative interpolation which was then slightly retouched. The interpolation was then used to create larger 8x10 negative that was then used to contact print the final prints.

After discovering the method of negative to positive printing, Sarah then worked to confirm the processes of each print through XRF analysis. XRF showed mercury toning in all platinum prints, a finding she found unusual and believes was applied as an intensification experiment by the artist. IR was also used to indicate sulfur toning in some areas. In the end Sarah confirmed that each of the works involved a different process, or combination of processes. She found these to include platinum printing, gelatin silver printed through fabric, selected toning, gum dichromate with texture, and very thick gum.

Sarah continued her talk with some more historical background on Struss. Through her investigation into the archives held at the Amon Carter, she found more information on Struss’s life after his time as a student. Archival materials revealed that while Struss was deployed during WWI, he was found to have had German sympathies and was essentially shunned by his photographic colleagues in New York upon his return. This lead the artist to leave the field of photography to work on movies in Los Angeles, ultimately becoming a successful cinematographer.  

Overall, Sarah’s method of research was well thought out and her presentation clear and understandable. It seemed like a fun study to undertake along with leading to a better understanding of Struss’s work as an artist. I was able to learn a lot about this particular artist that I was unfamiliar with prior to Sarah’s presentation and now I am eager to learn more about the artist and his cohort. I am particularly interested in experimental processes myself and was very interested to learn more about another artist’s methods. Another important take away I had was that you can’t always trust notes regarding printing process without confirming yourself, even notes left by the artist. In Sarah’s case, on one of Struss’s prints he wrote on the verso that his process was platinum, but was actually discovered by Sarah to be a gelatin silver print. Sarah believes this was just a misremembering by the artist during his many trials, but important to note that processes should still be confirmed by the conservator.

This study, did lead to further questions and areas of possible research. Sarah is still eager to learn of other instances in photography where Mercury was used as a toner in silver gelatin prints. She is also interested to learn if other students of White and classmates of Struss may have experimented similarly. Her research and methods of analysis could possibly help answer questions about the processes used by other students and classmates.