Edward Sturr: Urban Modernist
Just as the fabled “New York School” of street photographers visually defined Gotham throughout the 1940s and ’50s, so did the “Chicago School” document life on the streets of the Windy City in the 1960s. But whereas the former sprang mainly from the social-humanist mold of the Photo League, the latter were products of Chicago’s Institute of Design, which had its roots firmly planted in the detached modernism of the Bauhaus. One such photographer was Chicago native Edward Sturr, whose 1960s images of the city are charged with an expressionist power comprised of angular compositions, bold contrasts and beguiling thematic irony. After moving to Kansas in 1974, Sturr taught photography for more than two decades at Kansas State University. While his personal work transitioned from gritty urban images to elegant, hand-colored landscapes, he retains a close emotional attachment to the black-and-white imagery that initially defined him.
Do you remember your first camera?
My first camera was a simple box "Donald Duck" camera that was given to me at
about age eight. I remember taking a picture of my older brother throwing a pocketknife
at the ground and the resulting photograph showing the knife in midair. I thought that was terrific. Years later my father bought me a 35mm Ansco
rangefinder camera. I read the instructions and then used it to take informal, available-light photographs for my school yearbook. Shortly after that I built a darkroom and made
black-and-white prints, learning the process pretty much on my own. About that time I bought my first 35mmm SLR camera and started doing street photography.
How long did it take you to develop a personal style?
It took about a year of intense “field work.” My feeling about style
is that it’s not just a result of technical knowledge and skill, though that
is necessary, but rather a reflection of the person behind the camera
, with all of the individual’s idiosyncratic tastes, past experiences, and
sensitivities, not to mention mental and physical capabilities. Given
extended production, personal style will flow as naturally as the
character of one’s handwriting. When I taught photography it would
take only a few months before I was able to identify who made which
photographs even in the largest classes. This is not to say, however,
that style by itself automatically confers quality or aesthetic significance.
What was the biggest challenge in finding your voice?
The challenge for me was not how to create a style, since that is basically
an intuitive, non-verbal, right-hemisphere response, but rather to be
in the right locations that would be conducive for my personal photographic explorations. It was largely a matter of just walking and observing until some activity on the street would trigger an
internal switch to start looking through the viewfinder and begin
shooting. It was an intuitive response that just seemed right, and
for whatever reason, framing and composing was quick and effortless,
unlike any other art media I had studied. Facing people on the street with my camera never caused a bit of concern nor hesitation to shoot, though I’m sure that much of what I did could never be done today without first having a model release.
How would you characterize your 1960s street photography?
I was trying to express a personal response to a particular environment and its subjects in a way that was visually
satisfying and possessed emotive dimensions. Form and content, each important and inseparable, were experienced as a new thing in itself, i.e., a particular black-and-white photographic print. The experience of a photograph as a print has always been very important to me.
Regarding content, my work was in many a natural byproduct
and reflection of the 1960s, a troubled decade, to be sure. We had the Kennedy and Martin Luther King assassinations, Vietnam War protests, rioting at the Democratic convention in Chicago, deep-seated racial conflict, to name just a few of the political and
social upheavals. It was a tense time, and the ambiance was frequently angst, especially in the big city.
How did the physical and emotional character of the city of Chicago influence your work?
The character of Chicago in the 1960s, and particularly the old town
and the near North Side, where I lived and photographed, surely influenced many aspects of my work, some of which I still cannot describe. Housing was inexpensive, often gritty, with a mix of cultures and populations, and laced with artists. I lived in more than a few apartments. One was an old, converted cobbler shop; another
was an art studio (and later a co-op art gallery) above a storefront. Rent was affordable, even if I had to check my shoes for roaches in the morning. Yet this was the city, and perfect for my photography,
however uncomfortable, rough and tough, and even dangerous it could be
at times. Once, while walking in a marginal area with my camera under my jacket so it wouldn’t be tempting to thugs, I was followed by a
slow-moving car. It suddenly stopped and two men jumped out on each side of me. One drew a handgun and aimed it at me; the other flashed a police badge and asked what was under my coat. Raising my arms, I told them it was only my camera, whereupon I was told to “get out of the neighborhood.” Today, this area is hardly recognizable, with fine restaurants, bistros, expensive shops and apartments that even now I could hardly afford. Moreover, where have all the artists gone?
Grant Park, Chicago, 1968
The subjects in many of your photographs seem to be connected and yet disconnected from one another. Is this something you’ve thought about much, or does it proceed intuitively?
That disconnect is found in a number of my photographs. I’ve always felt that while people appear
unaware of each other and disconnected, which creates a sense of alienation, they are all on the same stage. I can see the relationships
even if they can’t, so there is a tension that’s created. The viewer can see in my photos the disconnect or the threads that tie people together...or
both. It’s interesting that one can live in a city apartment for years
with people living ten feet above, below, and to the sides
of you, yet you never ever talk to them. Now that’s a disconnect.
Your pictures often feature one or more elements that dominate the frame visually, but which tend to be thematically ambiguous.
The ambiguity allows, perhaps even forces, the viewer to fill in the blanks and by so
doing participate in the visual process. Such images are open-ended in that
regard, but hopefully are satisfying enough on their own terms to justify their existence.
Do you perceive the world and/or people as fundamentally mysterious and unexplainable?
Yes, I do. Actually, many of the most important aspects of our
world are not fully understood, but that’s
what makes it all so interesting.
The visual complexity and abstraction of these pictures is balanced by what I would call an unsentimental compassion.
I was deliberate about the inclusion of those
elements, but rejected total abstraction while also avoiding any content that was maudlin or sentimental. My response was to the visual environment, but also to the human element. The integration of the two in a finished photographic print was my utmost priority and satisfaction.
Your work has a fluid yet discordant visual rhythm reminiscent of avant-garde jazz artists like Eric Dolphy and Ornette Coleman. Are you influenced by music, and do you try to impart a musically inspired rhythm to your images?
Jazz was my musical choice as a listener even while in high school,
though I’m not sure that there was any conscious attempt to include
musical structure in my photographic work. I did, however, intentionally create
a visual structure that can be considered discordant, e.g.,
figures cut off at the waist, people in the corner of a frame, objects
and things off balance, etc.
You studied with giants like Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind at Chicago’s Institute of Design. What did you learn from them?
Callahan made me aware that everything in a photograph
counts, and that the first thing we experience when seeing a photograph
is the visual gestalt. From Siskind I learned that the photograph is first a print, an end unto itself and not primarily a “window to the world.” A number of other photographers were influential in my development, with
bits and pieces making their impact from both formal and informal
experience. From Eugene
Smith, the importance of the craft of printing; from Cartier-Bresson, the
need for sensitivity and the readiness to react to the flow of life that comes together within the camera viewfinder for only a fraction of a second; from Robert Frank, that form and technique can seriously impact content.
Chicago street, 1968
Have you primarily supported yourself through teaching?
Yes, teaching has been my primary source of income. Very few of my 1960s photographs sold back then. The subject matter was not considered “attractive” enough to hang in one’s home, as photography had not yet attained its full status as an art form. Income from sales of my work is now considerably
improved, though still not sufficient to be my sole source. My example is not unlike many photographers who are oriented more towards personal expression in photography.
No complaints, it’s just a statement of fact and the result of life choices one makes.
Has teaching photography informed your own work?
Teaching helped me sharpen the discipline and craft of darkroom
printing. After all, as one does, so one teaches, and vice versa.
Is there a philosophy or outlook that you have tried to communicate to your students?
Yes, some basic principles regarding the creative process—that progress as a productive artist results from personal commitment and hard work; that the artist should expect and tolerate frustration and even failure; that one must develop one’s craft but
understand that it is only the means to expression and not the end;
and that doing original work in any medium is rarely comfortable, upsetting to some, and requires one to take chances. It’s a risky business.
Are you happy to be identified with the “Chicago school” of 1960s street photographers?
Yes, although I wasn’t even aware that I was part of it until many years later. Aaron Siskind
was a visiting artist were I was teaching (years after he retired), and said to me, “Hey, Ed, do they (the faculty) know that you were part of the Chicago group of street photographers back then?”
Chicago L, 1960s
Are you still doing black-and-white street photography?
Not presently, as I live in a town that is not conducive
to street photography. Having said that, I did some street
work when I first moved here and in other locations, and I have recently made some limited-edition prints of my 1960s negatives.
Unfortunately, my favorite paper that I used back then—Agfa double-weight fiber with a glossy surface—is no longer manufactured.
Such beautiful paper. I feel sad for its demise and treasure the little I have remaining.
Do you feel you’ve expressed all that you wanted to in that genre?
Well, I’m not sure whether the well has run dry or not in that genre. Maybe not if given the right environment. Though if I did return to street photography, I’m sure there would be some major differences in the content
of my work.
Do you think photography has as much impact as it once did in terms of getting people to think about the human condition?
The answer to that is best left to someone other than myself, like a critic or historian who has a worldview of photography that I just don't have.
(Visit www.josephbellows.com/artists/edward-sturr to see more of Edward Sturr's documentary work and/or purchase a copy of his book, “The Photographs of Edward Sturr: 1961-1970.” To see his color landscape imagery, which is radically different in conception and execution, visit www.prairielight.com.)