Sigismund Blumann - Spring 2002 History of Photography - Christian Peterson Article

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Sigismund Blumann, California Editor and Photographer Christian A. Peterson Sigismund Blumann (1872-1956) (figure 1) was a prominent taste maker in Californian photography during the 1920s and 1930s. Based in the San Francisco Bay Area for his entire career, he edited magazines, wrote books, and made creative photographs. From 1924 to 1933 Blumann edited Camera Craft, the leading West Coast photographic monthly. Subsequently he established his own periodical, Photo Art Monthly, which he published until 1940. In these two magazines - for over fifteen years - Blumann found a large audience of mainstream pictorial photographers. In addition, he wrote five instructional books on photography, providing a substantial Figure 1. Sigismllnd Billmann. Self-Portrait, c. 1930. Minneapolis Institute of Arts, gift of Dr Donald and Alice Lappe. HISTORY OF PHOTOGRAPHY, VOLUME 26. NUMBER I, SI>RING 2002 amount of technical information for committed picturemakers. During the 1920s, Blumann also made accomplished pictorial photographs of his own, concentrating on landscape work. After the middle of the twentieth century, however, his visibility diminished quickly, due to his own inactivity and a growing disdain for pictorialism. Nonetheless, he established a place for himself in American photography that now deserves recognition. Sigismund was born Simon Blumann on 13 or 14 September 1872, in New York City.l Nine years later, as an only child, he moved with his German-born father, Alexander, and his Polish-born mother, Rosalie (Price), to San Francisco. According to Thomas W. High, Blumann's grandson, Sigismund's mother encouraged her son to study music seriously at an early age, hoping he would become a concert pianist. He developed his talents sufficiently to perform in a public concert at age sixteen but in order to make a living started teaching music a few years later, in 1890. Blumann continued to teach and perform for the next thirty years, enjoying a full career in music before turning to photography. In 1894 he was the musical director of both the California School of Elocution and Oratory and a musical production that travelled out of state. Ten years later he helped form a 'music bureau' that booked bands and represented a music publisher. In the 191Os, when he was at the height of his musical career, he led his own orchestra, which played at venues such as the 1916 annual banquet of the Fire Underwriters Association of the Pacific. Blumann met his future wife, HiJda Johansson, while teaching music, sometime during the 1890s. Sigismund and Hilda fell in love but were initially thwarted by both sets of parents owing to their different religions, the Blumanns beingJewish. Hilda was sent back to her native Sweden but managed to return to the United States and marry Sigismund in 1901. The couple lived with Blumann's parents for about five years but in 1907, shortly after the San Francisco earthquake and fire, they bought their own house across the bay in the Fruitvale section of Oakland. They had four girls: Ethel, born in 1902; ISSN 0308-7298 2002 Taylor & Francis Ltd. 53 Christian A. Peterson Amy, born in 1906; Lorna, born in 1908; and Vera, born in 1911. In about 1915, badly needing more space, the Blumanns reconfigured their modest one-storey, six-room cottage into an impressive three-storey, sixteen-room house. Interestingly, the original storey was raised to the top of the house, and the new Roors inserted underneath. Blumann remained at this residence, situated on the crest of a small hill, for the rest of his life. Blumann's enlarged house better accommodated one of his most serious avocations - letterpress printing. Foreshadowing his interest in photographic publishing, Blumann maintained a home printing press from at least 1889. In that year, still living with his parents in San Francisco, he handprinted a pamphlet promoting his musical services. To Music Teachers and Students: A New System oj Musical Theory in Hand-Book Form utilized red and black ink and old-style type on deckle-edged paper, evoking the designs of Englishman William Morris. Appropriately dubbed the Home Press, Blumann's print shop produced other small, well-designed pieces on music, poetry, and photography, his three main life passions. Early Years in Photography Blumann became interested in photography during the 1890s, early in his musical career. He first used his wife's Kodak camera to make snapshots and soon began searching the photographic periodicals for information and advice. He appreciated the 'spirit of helpfulness that pervaded' The American Annual oj Photography,2 but was most drawn to Photo-Beacon, a photographic monthly published in Chicago until 1907. In later years he frequently reminisced about how much he learned from the magazine's editor, F. Dundas Todd, who supplied both technical information and critiques of Blumann's prints. Todd promoted a conservative aesthetic agenda that Blumann would later continue in his own magazines. By 1906, when the San Francisco earthquake hit, Blumann owned his own, more sophisticated camera, which he used to document the quake's aftermath. According to his family, Blumann wished to get so close to the action that he volunteered in rescue efforts in order to get behind police lines. Once there he photographed hundreds of destroyed buildings, blocks, and streets. Only a small number of 5 x 7-inch prints of these subjects remain, however, for Blumann later destroyed most of them, fearing that they might be used by insurance companies as evidence against property owners. About the time he moved to Oakland, in 1907, Blumann became a part-time portrait photographer, as a sideline to his musical career. He joined with Jacques Tillmany, a fellow musician, to offer home portraiture, a line of portrait photography popularized by such advanced East-Coast workers as Clarence H. White. The advantages of this genre were that it relieved the photographer of maintaining a permanent studio and it elicited more relaxed poses from the subjects. The firm of Blumann and Tillmany promoted themselves in a small brochure, At Home Portraiture, undoubtedly printed at Blumann's Home Press. It featured tipped-in original photographs as samples of their work and the phrase 'We Come To You' printed on every other page. The brochure's text contrasted the activity of going to a photographer's studio for a portrait with the experience of having one's picture made at home. The former was described as time consuming and unnerving, in part, because of the foreign environment. Home portraiture, on the other hand, provided ease and comfort for the sitter. The brochure also stated: 'You know your own home and safe to say you like it. The walls are familiar, the furniture is intimate, the atmosphere is your own, and if under such conditions you are not smoothed and patted into a benignant mood it were indeed strange03 Blumann believed that a portrait reRected the way a subject felt and commented that, in five years experience, he had never had to ask someone to look pleasant in their own home. Blumann and Tillmany also appealed to entertainers to have their portraits made at their place of work, where make-up and wardrobes were conveniently located. And they declared that their type of portraiture was truly artistic a step above nonnal, studio work, where faces were often heavy retouched. Their work was 'of the freest, pictorial portraiture; perhaps too unusual for general taste, but it serves here to show how near the camera can come to simulating the methods of the painter'.4 It is likely that Blumann wrote the text in the Blumann and Tillmany brochure, for he soon began penning fullblown articles for photographic magazines. His first known contribution appeared in 1911, and over the next thirteen years - while he continued to make his living primarily in music - he wrote over fifty articles. They appeared in Photo-Era, a Boston monthly, The American Animal oj Photography, published in New York City, Wilson's Photographic Magazine, also from New York, and Camera CraJt, issued across the bay in San Francisco. The latter, not surprisingly included more than half of his early articles. During this period Hlumann addressed many of the topics he would continue to essay during his later career as an editor: technique, photography as an art, camera clubs, the role of critics, nude photography, and others. B1umann's first known article, 'Cutting Masks for Border Printing', appeared in the March 1911 issue of Camera Craft. In it he explained the procedure for creating templates and using them to print decorative borders, which he used for many of his own photographs. The fact that his initial contribution to a magazine was technically oriented affIrmed his early and abiding interest in the science of photography. His second article, which appeared two years later in the same journal, pointedly emphasized the importance of laboratory work. He chided photographers who used prepared chemicals for not fully understanding their materials and claimed that, for him, laboratory work was the most pleasurable part of photography. Blumann boasted that he was the ultimate 54 expert on kallitype pnntlng (better known today as vandyke brown) and extremely knowledgeable about other photographic processes: 'When it comes to the darkroom I have you all beaten; beaten all the way and back. There isn't a chemical H. D' Arcy Power [technical editor of Camera Crafl] has mentioned in the past ftve years that is not on my shelves'.5 In 1914 Blumann penned four articles. He continued to promote good technique, writing, for instance, about the economic and artistic advantages of sensitizing one's own photographic paper.6 In other articles he railed against the Photographers Association of America for their proposal to license all photographers, amateur and professional alike,7 and essayed the work and personality of Ohio photographer Nancy Ford Cones.8 The article, 'Constructive, Helpful Criticism', however, was his most important of the year and his first in Photo-Era. It began: 'Judgement tempered with mercy, criticism mellowed with sympathy, advice made acceptable with kindness these are the qualities which, when added to knowledge of the subject, make an ideal critic,.9 Blumann believed strongly in constructive criticism, and the values he listed guided him for the rest of his career as a writer on photography. In the article, he mentioned the patience and positive outlook of magazine editors F. Dundas Todd, of Photo Beacon, and Fayette]. Clute, of Camera Crafl, both of whom were role models for him. He observed that critics who lacked appreciation often became bitter and those who were too severe usually lost respect, fates he wished to avoid. Blumann also noted that - at this early stage in his writing - he had already been acknowledged for the value of his 'kind words' about several prominent photographers. Yet, curiously, he then admitted to a 'pitiful lack of real art education', an attribute that might have given pause to those he passed judgement upon. . Despite Blumann's lack "of artistic training, he felt strongly that p,hotography could be an art. He weighed in on the subject for the fIrSt time in 1915 with a simply titled article, 'Photography a Fine Art', in which he made the familiar claim that it was the individual, not the materials, that created a work of art. If a photographer infused an image with perception, discernment, sympathy, understanding, and spirituality, it, most probably, rose to artistic heights. Blumann knew from personal experience how many choices a photographer had to make in order to succeed: 'Let us never forget that back of the ground glass is the eye of an artist, and that along every material step in the procedure a mind with dreams of an ultimate conception, the spirit of a master is the dominating force that rightly compounds the chemicals, measures the seconds accurately for the purpose, selects the paper of the proper tone, surface and finish, and at the last, so trims that the idea, emotion, or what you will, shall gain in its conveyance'. He believed the spirit of a thing decreed its creative standing and that the' Muse may smile through a photographic print'.10 Blumann allied himself Sigismund Blumann, Editor and Photographer with Alfred Stieglitz, who was still ftghting for acceptance of photography as an art in his exquisite quarterly Camera Work. He closed his 1915 article with 'a word of tribute to Mr. Stieglitz, who, with inflexible (stiff-necked, if you will) persistence, has disdained all argument and bravely gone ahead, maintaining that where photography is not a flOe art it is not to be considered at all' .11 'He neither argues nor debates', Blumann wrote, 'And I go with him'. Blumann, however, felt that artistic photographers should not manipulate their imagery. His second article for Photo-Era, published in 1915, asked in its title, 'Is there a Place Left for Straight Photography'? He declared that 'however broadly a photographer works he must conftne himself to the limits of his branch of art or confess that he is reaching in extremis for help elsewhere, anywhere. The painter works broadly, but with paints. He does not, for instance, put on plaster-moldings to get relief'.12 He felt that use of a 'doctored' negative excluded the resulting picture from classiftcation as a photograph, and he even objected to enlargements, preferring the classic, small and intimate contact print. Blumann was well aware that he stood counter to many prominent pictorialists who performed extensive handwork on their negatives and prints to make them look more painterly. But he disparaged the practice as misguided and found much of their work to be mere curiosities that did not enrich photography as an art form. In addition to writing in 1915 about straight photography and photography as an art, Blumann wrote at least four articles on San Francisco's Panama-Paciftc Exposition and one on how to organize a camera club. His articles on the exposition, which appeared in the New York Tribune and the Photographic Journal oj America, surveyed the buildings and exhibits without regard to photographic issues. His piece on camera clubs, however, vividly addressed a key element of American photography at the time. From the late nineteenth century to the middle of the t'\:ventieth, amateurs, pictorialists, and professionals organized hundreds of clubs around the country. They offered equipment, instruction, and comradeship, met regularly, and were bastions of social activity. By the First War most sizeable American cities had at least one camera club, a phenomenon that greatly spread serious interest in photography. Blumann's article on camera clubs recounted his experience organizing a short-lived group in OakJand a few years earlier. It appeared in Camera Crafl and was one of the few critical articles to appear on the subject. He related how he had taken on the primary responsibility of writing letters to prospective members, renting club rooms, and running meetings. Soon, however, the club was consumed with debates over such non-photographic issues as its name and constitution, and its expenses began to exceed income. Exasperated, Blumann resigned as president and pledged to never try forming a club again. 'Don't do it', he wrote. 'To the pioneer in such a movement comes all the expenses, trouble, annoyance, 55 Christian A. Peterson blame and heartburnings, and none of the credit, profit, glory or pleasure'.13 He advised photographers to devote their time, money, and energy to their work, and, if they needed the facilities of a club, to avoid getting involved in its business affairs. The very next year Blumann went against his own advice and participated in at least t""o organizations of photographers. In February 1916 Blumann wrote a lead article for Camera Craft praising the work ofJ. C. Strauss, a prominent St Louis portrait photographer. He compared Strauss's work to the paintings of Sir Joshua Reynolds and John Singer Sargent and boasted that he had successfully recruited Strauss for membership in a group called the Photo Fellows of the World. Blumann indicated that he was, in fact, the 'Dean' of the group, which circulated work among its members and kept a low profile. Later that year Blumann spoke at the California Camera Club, which had been based in San Francisco since its founding in 1890. On a special evening devoted to Nancy Ford Cones, he critiqued her eighty pictures on display and conducted his orchestra, craftily combining his interests in photography and music. It seems that Blumann quickly got over his aversion to photographic organizations, probably because such groups were so pervasive and active. In 1917 Blumann wrote his first article on nude photography and, separately, his first for The American Annual [1 Photography. Revealing his conservative outlook, Blumann initia1ly was somewhat sceptical of the nude as a subject for photography. He recommended it only for advanced pictorialists, rather than average amateurs, and warned that photographers were always in danger of presenting plain nakedness because of the verisimilitude of the medium. 'The camera is too frank and too handy. It shows, for aU the technique of the most skillful, a tendency to record, with .disconcerting keenness, the body - not the soul'.14 He feft that women photographers like Anne Brigman and Kate Smith did the best nude work, but not a single illustration accompanied his article, suggesting the equal conservatism of the editor of Camera Craft. His contribution to the A nnual, the country's leading yearly digest, was ostensibly about studio Lighting, but, instead, essayed the influence creative amateurs were having on professional portraiture. BLumann pointed out that the best portraitists, such as John H. Garo, Elias Goldensky, and J. C. Strauss, had adopted the relaxed poses, natural lighting, diffused backgrounds, and artistic mounts used by pictorialists. The article also exemplified the author's inclination to write unconventionally. In its last paragraph, Blumann included a whopping 114-word sentence that, despite its length, was still incomplete. Over time his writing style would become increasingly idiosyncratic. In 1918 Blumann again contributed heavily to periodicals, with seven articles. He wrote about his own role as a critic, revisited the subject of nudes, and penned two articles inspired by the First World War. His patriotic pieces, one for Camera Cralt and one for Photo-Era. both appealed to photographers to sell to the government the lenses it badly needed for the war effort. He pointed out that the mi.litary needed only certain types of lenses and that most photographers who owned them could easily spare them. Blumann, who was then forty-six years old, did not try to recruit soldiers but did declare that he wished he was young enough to enlist. Blumann's 1918 articles about nude photography were more encouraging than his piece on the same subject the year before. In Photo-Era he addressed the problems that many people had with the nude as a subject for artists. He suggested that most of those who objected to the nude were, in fact, not opposed to all nudity, only to particular nude pictures that were artistically unjustifiable. 'When they are led to consider each instance by itself and to judge it as an instance rather than a comprehensive basis, they will find that there is no evil in Art, and that there never was from its inception,.ls In his article for The American Annual of Photography 1918, Blumann advised photographers how to make successful images of the nude. According to him, the most important elements were generic settings, natural poses, and idealized models. And he analysed how these features were present in the work that illustrated his article - photographs by Anne Brigman, Louis A. Goetz, and Percy Neymann, all fellow Californians. Blumann's other main topic in 1918 was the photographic critic - his own position. Such self awareness kept his ego partially in check and made for interesting reading. Earlier in the year Blumann had criticized a particular photographer's nude work as inferior to his landscape work. In retrospect, however, Blumann apparently felt his words had been too harsh, so he wrote a rebuttal to his own article, criticizing both himself and the role of the critic. Penned under a pseudonym, he pulled no punches, charging himself with being glib, illogical, and a 'self-ordained arbiter of photographic destinies'.16 He went on to wish he could get the critics to attack one another, but knew that that would never happen because they maintained a code that kept them from doing so. This probably explains why Blumann did not sign his own name to the piece, hiding the fact that he was roasting himself. In another article, he suggested eliminating the position and influence of the exhibition judge (another form of critic), leaving decisions in the collective hands of the sponsoring organization. He even questioned his own standing in the field at the time, modestly stating that 'my time is limited, my position in photography precarious and obscure . .. I have no affiliations and no standing'. 17 Perhaps humbled, Blumann wrote less than half a dozen articles during the next two years. In 1919 he focused on the work of other photographers, avoiding any references to himself. Once again, he praised Nancy Ford Cones, in a lead article for Camera Craft that noted 56 her Inner urge to create and the necessity of such inspiration for all successful photographers. He also transcribed the thoughts of Percy Neymann, a close friend who, apparently, was more comfortable as a photographer than as a writer. Their joint article addressed how artistic photographers imbued their work with personal vision, a point well illustrated by the accompanying reproductions. Neymann asked four of the country's leading pictorialists - A. D. Chaffee, Louis Fleckenstein, Louis A. Goetz, and Wilbur H. Porterfield - to craft a print from the same negative, resulting in four vastly different interpretations of the same image, each of which, tellingly, reflected the maker's own style. The next year, Blumann concentrated on photographic technique, writing a few articles on the old kallitype process he still favoured. In 1921, however, some ofBlumann's verve returned, and he enthusiastically addressed amateur photography as a relaxing pastime. Blumann paid equal attention to amateur and professional photographers in these early years. Knowing that snapshooting amateurs comprised the largest class of photographers, he identified with them and praised their simple, healthy ways: 'I set up my tripod, look at the ground glass, expose, and, when the sun is setting, go home with a clean, soothed mind, lungs filled with oxygen, and a good appetite' .18 He claimed that photography was just one of the many hobbies that made his life feel richer than that of a Carnegie or Rockefeller. And he expressed childlike excitement over the experience of both finding subjects out in the open and watching prints develop in the darkroom. Sometime in the early 1920s Blumann retired from music to become an efficiency engineer, apparently setting up his own office. In this position he studied businesses and devised ways to increase the production of their equipment and personnel. His new profession, however, must have given him more, time to write about photography, because in 1922 he put out no less than eleven articles, by far the most in any year so far. His main topics were professional photography, the laws of art, and exhibition judging. Despite Blumann's love for amateur photographers, he also appealed to professionals. He had, after all, been a portrait photographer himself, and he felt that many issues applied equally to both groups of workers. In 1922 he wrote articles for both Camera Craft and Photo-Era on making a living as a professional, encouraging serious photographers to try their hand at it. He believed professionals had to artistically differentiate their work from their competitors in order to succeed fll1ancially, but warned them not to go extremes. 'If you are selling pictures, know Art, practice Art, deliver Art; but do not confound Art with Oddity', he wrote. 'Selling portraits is a profession; a profession is a trade; a trade is a defmed practice, not a debauch'.19 He continued to mention Garo and Strauss as professionals he admired and added to his list Dudley Hoyt of New York and H. H. Pierce of Providence, Rhode Island. Sigismund a/umann, Editor and Photoxrapher Blumann considered nature the ultimate goal of art, and he wrote two articles stressing his belief in rigid artistic standards. In one, he contrasted the laws of art and individual taste: 'The rules of Art are not made arbitrarily and intended to curb individuality. They are arrived at by experience, and mature, patient study and consideration. They are based on laws of nature: basic and fundamental'. And, he asserted that art had but one creed: 'To hold the mirror up to Nature,20 In the second article, however, he admitted that images which merely duplicated or simulated nature were not enough, for selection and tntth were also necessary. Blumann's attitudes about art and nature were traditional, but he expressed pride in his conservatism, asserting that it was a solid rock upon which to base judgements. By this time Blumann was judging exhibitions as well as writing about photographs. In 1922 he sat on the jury for the San Francisco photographic salon, an exhibition about which he wrote an article for Photo Era. In it he noted that photographic judges from the West, like himself, were more independent than those from the East. Western judges 'conscientiously and persistently refused to accept formulae instead of conceptions and arbitrary standards as a substitute for broader ideas', he wrote. They 'cannot be awed by names or distinctions not su bstantiated in the work shown. The pictures were judged as pictures and not as the product of any person. Names were as nothing to us; previous honors were not considered'21 As a result, he proudly proclaimed that some established photographers saw their pictures rejected while some new talent had its work accepted. In 1923 Blumann churned out more than half a dozen articles, most of them on technique. He wrote about many brand-name products (such as the Verito lens and Cyko p;lper), but fdt compelled to defend this seemingly promotional practice as an important informational service for his readers. Early in the year he spoke to the Photographers' Association of California on ethics, the text of which Camera Craft subsequently published. Blumann was introduced to this group of professionals as having complete technical knowledge of photography. After telling them he felt at home in their midst, he encouraged each of them to defend good work and decent prices, to appreciate competition as healthy, and to work for the good of both the organization and the field as a whole. Call/era Crt!!i, 1924-33 In early 1924 Blumann continued to write articles for Camera Cra)i and a few other magazines on a freelance basis. But in August of that year Camera Craft appointed him editor, allowing him to give up his job as an efficiency engineer and devote himself full-time to photography. The year before he had written his last article for The Aml'l';wn Annual of Photography and once he took over the reins of Camera Craft he rarely contributed articles to other periodicals, owing to the heavy workload of his 57 Christian A. Peterson own magazine. At fifty-two years of age, Blumann embarked on his career as a photographic editor - his most important contribution to the field of photography. Camera CraJi had begun publishing in 1900 and became the longest lasting and most significant photographic monthly west of the Mississippi during its time. Fayette J. Clute edited the magazine from almost its beginning until late in 1920, accepting many ofBlumann's early articles and serving as a role model for him. After Clute's departure the magazine had two other editors, each for short periods of time, before Blumann took over. Blumann went on to edit Camera CraJi longer than anyone except Clute, running it for nine years. From 1924 to 1933 he covered all the major concerns of amateur, pictorial, and professional photographers in a lively and timely manner. He enjoyed his work immensely and was widely regarded among photographers as a leading tastemaker in the 1920s and 1930s. Blumann's first issue as editor of Camera Croft appeared in August 1924 (figure 2). In his first editorial he acknowledged the previous editor, P. Douglas Anderson, affirmed the stability of the magazine, and indicated that he looked forward to serving his readers. The magazine featured a lead article by commercial - - - - ~ - - - - - - - - - - - , F f - - - -VoL XXXJ No. II AUGUST, 1924 Q, Pri


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