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HomeContents > People > Photographers > Karl Struss

Born: Karl Fischer Struss 
Other: Karl F. Struss 
Dates:  1886, 30 November - 1981, 15 December
Born:  US, NY, New York City
Died:  US, CA, Los Angeles
Active:  US
Early American pictorialist - he later became a successful cinematographer (e.g. ‘Limelight‘, ‘Ben Hur‘, ‘The Great Dictator‘)

Preparing biographies

Approved biography for Karl Struss
(Courtesy of Christian Peterson)

Struss was one of the few Photo-Secessionists to continue making pictorial photographs after World War I. His work from the 1910s focused on the distinctive light and new structures of Manhattan, while his later images featured the personalities of Hollywood and the landscape of California. He worked as a cameraman for films and television for half a century, from about 1920 through the sixties.
Karl Fischer Struss was born on November 30, 1886, in New York and made his first photographs at about age ten. He took extension classes at Teachers College of Columbia University with Clarence H. White and in 1910 twelve of his prints were included in the International Exhibition of Pictorial Photography, held at the Albright Art Gallery, Buffalo. Though this exhibition signaled the effective end of Stieglitz’s Photo-Secession, Struss "joined" the group two years later and saw eight of his images appear as photogravures in the April 1912 issue of Camera Work.
Struss soon became closely associated with Clarence H. White and Edward R. Dickson and supported their efforts to continue the tradition of pictorial photography. In 1913, he contributed an article on multiple-gum printing to Dickson’s short-lived but noteworthy periodical Platinum Print. The next year he was listed as an associate of the magazine, and a few of his photographs were subsequently reproduced on its cover and in its pages. In 1912, the year he finished studying with White, he himself taught a summer class on photography at Teachers College. Four years later, he joined White and a handful of others to found the Pictorial Photographers of America.
During this time, Struss made his living as a professional photographer. In 1914, he took over White’s former studio space, where he made portrait, advertising, and commercial photographs for three years. He offered his Struss Pictorial Lens for sale, after manufacturing it privately for a while. During his military service, from 1917 to 1919, Struss experimented with infrared photography.
After World War I, Struss headed directly to Hollywood, determined to get into the motion-picture industry. He was initially hired by Cecil B. DeMille to make still shots and soon found himself working behind a film camera on the set. His long career as a cinematographer began when he signed a two-year contract with DeMille. In 1924-25, he was one of the cameraman for Ben-Hur, and a few years later he and Charles Rosher shared the first-ever Academy Award for cinematography—for their Camera Work on Sunrise, directed by F. W. Murnau. Struss subsequently filmed more than a hundred pictures for United Artists, Paramount, and other studios. His credits include The Great Dictator and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; among the stars he shot were Charlie Chaplin, Bing Crosby, and Mae West.
Struss resumed salon exhibiting in 1921, associating with the second generation of pictorialists in California. He joined the Camera Pictorialists of Los Angeles and presented a solo show of his work at San Francisco’s California Camera Club in 1929. His pictures also were seen at photographic salons in Buffalo, London, New York, Oakland, San Antonio, San Diego, Seattle, Tokyo, and Los Angeles, where he sometime served on the jury. In 1926 and 1929, reproductions of his pictures graced the pages of Pictorial Photography in America, the annual of the Pictorial Photographers of America. England’s Photograms of the Year included images by him in 1914, 1917/18, 1921, and 1922.
During the 1950s and 1960s, Struss did cinematography for television programs and commercials. At the same time, he made color slides, which he submitted to exhibitions. In 1970, Struss retired, and on December 15, 1981, he died in Los Angeles. 
Christian A. Peterson Pictorial Photography at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (Christian A. Peterson: Privately printed, 2012) 
This biography is courtesy and copyright of Christian Peterson and is included here with permission. 
Date last updated: 1 June 2013. 
We welcome institutions and scholars willing to test the sharing of biographies for the benefit of the photo-history community. The biography above is a part of this trial.
If you find any errors please email us details so they can be corrected as soon as possible.

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Kurt Edward Fishback
Karl Struss 
Family history 
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Supplemental information


Karl Struss
American, 1886-1981

At the age of 17 Struss left his father's bonnet-wire factory "in self-defense" to pursue his interest in photography. He studied with his mentor, Clarence White from 1908 to 1912 at Columbia University. His talent was soon discovered by Alfred Stieglitz who published eight photogravures by Struss in the April 1912 issue of Camera Work, and in that same year Struss became a member of Stieglitz's Photo-Secession. Struss was one of the first photographers to use modernist compositions in his pictorialist photographs. In 1914 Struss was commissioned by the government of Bermuda to be the official photographer.
He continued to exhibit his art work and was represented by major galleries throughout the United States. He soon took over the studio space once occupied by White and set up a commercial business. Some of his images from this period appeared in Vogue and Vanity Fair. In 1916 he was a co-founder of Pictorial Photographers of America. With the onset of WWI Struss joined the armed services and did work in infrared photography. After the war, he traveled to Hollywood to fulfill a new dream of becoming a cinematographer, and realized his dream in just eight months. He worked from 1919 to 1922 for Cecil B. DeMille and then continued to flourish in films including "Ben Hur" and "Sunrise", winning an Academy Award in 1928 for the former. Struss also had some credits as director of photography on "The Fly", and "Taming of the Shrew". Although Struss' career in film seems to surpass his still photography, he is still remembered today as a talented artist whose work can be found in collections at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Modern Art and IMP/GEH in NY and many others. For more information on Struss see Karl Struss: Man with a Camera by Susan and John Harvith.
[Contributed by Lee Gallery] 

Internet biographies

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Getty Research, Los Angeles, USA has an ULAN (Union List of Artists Names Online) entry for this photographer. This is useful for checking names and they frequently provide a brief biography. Go to website
The Cleveland Museum of Art, USA has a biography on this photographer. [Scroll down the page on this website as the biography may not be immediately visible.] Go to website

Printed biographies

The following books are useful starting points to obtain brief biographies but they are not substitutes for the monographs on individual photographers.

• Capa, Cornell (ed.) 1984 The International Center of Photography: Encyclopedia of Photography (New York, Crown Publishers, Inc. - A Pound Press Book) p.494-495 
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