Karl Struss

Karl Struss, A.S.C. (November 30, 1886 – December 15, 1981) was an American photographer and a cinematographer of the 1900s through the 1950s. He was also one of the earliest pioneers of 3-D films. While he mostly worked on films, such as F. W. Murnau's Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans and Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator and Limelight, he was also one of the cinematographers for the television series Broken Arrow and photographed 19 episodes of My Friend Flicka.

Karl Struss
Photographer and cinematographer Karl Struss in 1912, photographed by Clarence H. White.
Born(1886-11-30)November 30, 1886
DiedDecember 15, 1981(1981-12-15) (aged 95)
Burial placeWoodlawn Cemetery, Bronx, New York
EducationColumbia University
AwardsAcademy Award for Best Cinematography
1928 Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (co-winner Charles Rosher)

Life and career

Karl Struss was born in New York, New York, in 1886. After an illness in high school, Karl's father, Henry, removed his son from school and placed him as a labor operator at Seybel & Struss bonnet wire factory.[1] He began to develop an interest in photography, experimenting with an 8 x 10 camera, and, beginning in 1908, attended Clarence H. White's evening art photography course at Teachers College, Columbia University, concluding his studies in 1912[2] Early in his studies, he explored the properties of camera lenses and eventually invented, in 1909, what he attempted to patent as the Struss Pictorial Lens, a soft-focus lens[3] This lens was considered popular with pictorial photographers of the time. The Struss Pictorial lens was the first soft-focus lens introduced into the motion picture industry in 1916.[4]

Initially, Struss gained attention in the photo world when twelve of his pictorial works were chosen by Alfred Stieglitz for the Albright Art Gallery International Exhibition of Pictorial Photography in 1910. This was the final exhibition of the Photo-Secession, an organization that promoted photography as fine art.[4] Struss' reputation was solidified by his inclusion in the exhibition "What the Camera Does in the Hand of the Artist" at the Newark Art Museum, held in April 1911, and an invitation by the Teacher's College for Struss to organize a one-person exhibition of his views of New York as well as to teach White's course in the summer of 1912 while White was away.[5] Struss was invited by Stieglitz to join the Photo-Secession in 1912, which led to the publication of Struss' photographs in the group's magazine Camera Work. In 1913 Struss, in collaboration with Edward Dickson, Clarence White, Alvin Langdon Coburn, and Paul Anderson, began their own publication, Platinum Print. In 1914, he resigned his position at the family business and asserted his identity as a professional photographer by assuming Clarence White's former studio space in June of that year [6]

At the suggestion of Coburn, Struss submitted prints to the American Invitational Section of the annual exhibition of the Royal Photographic Society in London, initiating an exhibiting practice he would continue into the 1920s.[7] He also participated in numerous exhibitions organized by photography clubs and other associations, including the Pittsburgh Salon of National Photographic Art and the annual photography display organized by the Philadelphia department store Wanamaker's.[8] As Struss continued his exhibitions and specialized commissions, he produced commercial photography for magazines including Vogue, Vanity Fair, and Harper's Bazaar.[4] (However, he was quick to insist that he was not doing fashion photography.) His photographic practice was interrupted by World War I. In 1917, he registered for the draft and then enlisted with the aim of fulfilling his military service through photography.[9] He trained to teach aerial photography but an investigation into Struss's German affiliations launched by the Military Intelligence Department led to his demotion from the rank of Sergeant to private and, after a limbo period in confinement in Ithaca, New York, where he had originally gone to teach in the new School of Military Aeronautics, a transfer to Fort Leavenworth to serve as a prison guard and then as a file clerk.[10] In the latter role, he took up photography again, documenting the prisoners. Near the close of the war, in an attempt to clear his record of rumors of anti-Americanism, he applied and was accepted into Officer's Training Camp at the rank of corporal.[11] While Struss was eventually honorably discharged, it is likely that the failure of his business in New York in his absence and the fracturing of many of his professional relationships in the wake of the military investigation led him to be disinclined to resume his former roles in New York.[12]

In 1919, after his discharge, he moved to Los Angeles and signed on with Cecil B. DeMille as a cameraman, initially for the film For Better, For Worse starring Gloria Swanson, followed by another Swanson film Male and Female and leading to a two-year contract with the studio[13] In early 1921, he married Ethel Wall, who helped to support him in his photographic work independent of the film studios, which included pictorial views set in California[14] In the 1920s, Struss worked on such films as Ben-Hur and F. W. Murnau's Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. In 1927, he contracted with United Artists, where he worked with D. W. Griffith on such films as Drums of Love and also filmed Mary Pickford's first talking film Coquette[15] He continued his experimental work with camera technology, developing the "Lupe Light" and a new bracket system for the Bell & Howell camera [16]

From 1931 through 1945, Struss worked as a cameraman for Paramount, where he worked on a variety of material including films featuring Mae West, Bing Crosby, and Dorothy Lamour[17] Struss also aimed to shape the field through publishing; for example, in 1934 he authored "Photographic Modernism and the Cinematographer" for American Cinematographer. Struss was later admitted to the American Society of Cinematographers, and was a founding member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts.[18] In 1949, while working as a freelancer, he began his work in "stereo cinematography", becoming one of the first proponents of that art form. Unfortunately, he did most of his 3D film work in Italy and none of his films were subsequently released in 3D in the United States.

Struss's photographic archive of exhibition prints, film stills, negatives and papers (3 linear feet of materials) is available at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art located in Fort Worth, Texas.[19]


In his career, Struss was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Cinematography four times. The first time, and the only time he won, was for F. W. Murnau's Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans in 1929, sharing that award with Charles Rosher. He was nominated again in 1932 for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, in 1934 for The Sign of the Cross, and in 1942 for Aloma of the South Seas with Wilfred M. Cline, A.S.C. and William E. Snyder, A.S.C.

Partial filmography


  1. McCandless, Barbara; Yochelson, Bonnie; Koszarski, Richard (1995). New York to Hollywood, The Photography of Karl Struss. "A Commitment to Beauty". Fort Worth, TX: Amon Carter Museum. pp. 14, 17. ISBN 0-8263-1637-9.
  2. New York to Hollywood 1995, pp. 19, 92.
  3. New York to Hollywood 1995, pp. 20-21.
  4. McCandless, Barbara (1999). Struss, Karl Fischer. Cary, North Carolina: American National Biography. pp. 57–59.
  5. New York to Hollywood 1995, pp. 24-25.
  6. New York to Hollywood 1995, p. 30.
  7. New York to Hollywood 1995, p. 33.
  8. New York to Hollywood 1995, pp. 226-228. See the appendix (pp. 225-235) for Struss' Lifetime Exhibition Record
  9. New York to Hollywood 1995, pp. 34-35.
  10. New York to Hollywood 1995, pp. 35-41.
  11. New York to Hollywood 1995, p. 42.
  12. New York to Hollywood 1995, p. 43.
  13. New York to Hollywood 1995, p. 48.
  14. New York to Hollywood 1995, p. 50.
  15. New York to Hollywood 1995, pp. 179-180.
  16. New York to Hollywood 1995, p. 181.
  17. New York to Hollywood 1995, p. 182-183.
  18. Brown, Turner; Partnow, Elaine (1983). "Karl Struss". MacMillan Biographical Encyclopedia of Photographic Artists and Innovators. MacMillan Publishing Co. ISBN 978-0-02-517500-6.
  19. Amon Carter Museum Library & Archives
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