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, wh