Because You Never Heard of Him...

May I add an annex to The Original Copy: Photography of Sculpture, 1839 to Today, which is now on in New York at The Museum of Modern Art? The MoMA show features works by lotsa biggies -- Atget, Bellmer, Brancusi, Brassaï, Duchamp, Frank, Friedlander, Gaillard, Höch, Kertész, Man Ray, Nauman, and too many others to cite. Straight Up features Stephen Deutch (1908-1997). He's so little known this is the best biographical link I can find for him.

A longtime friend of Nelson Algren's, Deutch was born in Budapest, Hungary. He studied sculpture there at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts.

In the '80s, when Steve and I became best of friends, in Chicago, he was always carving wood pieces. They were invariably sensual abstractions of the human form, as you can see from the photos. But while he kept his hand in as a sculptor, he made his living as a commercial photographer.

Archer, 1933-34, Wood sculpture, Paris

Steve and his wife Helene arrived in Chicago in 1936, from Paris, where she had been working as a fashion photographer. Helene taught him her trade. "I was a pretty good photographer," she recalled in an interview for a retrospective essay by Abigail Foerstner in Stephen Deutch, Photographer. "With his sense of lighting, Steve brought everything alive." Foerstner writes:

Lovers, ca. 1989, Wood carving

They opened their first studio in Chicago within weeks of their move to the city. They had arrived during a remarkable era of American photography. In 1935, a corps of photographers began roaming the country in what would become an eight-year odyssey to record the ravages of the depression for the Farm Security Administration. ...

Most photographers signed up for a career in the arts, the studio or on the streets as photojournalists. But Deutch straddled all three camps with his magazine photo essays about Lena Horne, Joe Louis and Duke Ellington and his maverick studio style that gave commercial shots an unstaged spontaneity. Most poignant of all was his work as an artist on self-assigned projects that captured the life of a city from its blustering politicians to its mentally wounded. From start to finish, from Paris to Chicago, he sculpted with light in photographs that tell a story of the connectedness of all things.

Kama Sutra #2, ca. 1989, Wood carving
Compassion was perhaps an even greater touchstone of his work than sensuality. This is especially clear in his photojournalism, whether it was his "Twilight World" series of 1964-65 about the Dixon School for the Mentally Retarded, which was published by the Chicago Daily News and nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, or his "Bench Sitter" series of the mid-1950s, about which Studs Terkel wrote:

Aside from Edward Hopper and his use of light in accentuating loneliness, I know of no one else who has so poignantly captured that feeling as Deutch does in his bench people. We see two elderly ones sharing a park bench, yet they are at a distance from one another: far apart and back to back. In the background, casually dominant, is a sports-car dealership; "JAGUAR" is the only word we see. It is enough. At the school for retarded children, we see one: she has bedecked herself with assorted dolls as elegantly as a young society matron in sable furs. She, too, is someone to reckon with.

Stephen Deutch [Photo: Helene Deutch]
There could have been no warmer friend than Steve. But his warmth was available to anyone. This is evident not just in his work as a photojournalist. Consider "Clochard," a concrete casting from the early 1930s, which portrays a blind accordion player he saw in the Paris metro. Steve captured the humanity of the figure, it seems to me, while avoiding the least hint of sentimentality. Not too shabby.

Clochard, ca. early 1930s, Paris [Photo: JH]

And just for the record, Steve was no pushover. See this:

The Boss, South Side polling station, Chicago, 1964 [Photo: Stephen Deutch]

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