Historic Prints

Historic Prints of the PSA Print Collection:

The Photographer at the Guggenheim, 1959, by Otto Litzel


Over the many years I have functioned as a curator, gallery owner, and art consultant specializing in photography, I have had the opportunity to review numerous fine art portfolios. Young aspiring photographers typically ask, “What do you look for first in a photograph?” My response is always, “A new perspective on every subject I've seen before.” The photograph I'm discussing in this column, Otto Litzel's The Photographer at the Guggenheim, 1959, represents a perfect example of what I mean. Considering all the images that I can remember of this landmark building designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, I don't recall seeing anything close to Litzel's composition. Most photographers focus on a wider view of the museum's architecture; the round, funnel-like shape of its exterior, and inside, its unique winding ramps connecting six floors. Looking up from the ground floor or down from the top floor, and from behind the curving half-walls that spiral around the interior galleries, it would appear that the structure has no hard edges. It becomes abstract, which is one of the things that attracts photographers. That and the beautiful natural light provided by a massive skylight. 

Counter to most photographs made at the Guggenheim, Otto Litzel's subject is not the architecture, but ironically, another photographer who is making the typical photograph I just described. Litzel's viewpoint is from an upper floor, looking down on the full figure of the photographer at work with both hands on his camera attached to a tripod and his eye pressed to the viewfinder. The photographer as the primary subject is positioned at the far left of the frame, but cleverly Litzel has included a second figure on the far right, that of a woman who stands one floor below. The bottom edge of the half-wall the photographer looks out over crops the woman's head, yet there is enough of her figure to give the composition added perspective. Beyond the strong contrast of blacks and whites that was a hallmark of Litzel's style, he has used the hard edges and strong lines that do exist within the walls of the museum to abstract his composition.

Litzel's The Photographer at the Guggenheim, 1959 is successful on many levels. He has obviously given much thought to the composition, selecting just the right location at which to stand that provides an atypical angle. Using the element of the human figure in architectural studies always provides perspective, in Litzel's photograph, it also preserves a moment – the act of another photographer at work – while at the same time, it offers a bit of humor in the juxtaposition of the photographer and the beheaded woman. Finally, I like the movement that is created by the floor in the image. It leads the viewer's eye in and out of the frame. Such photographs encourage the viewer to look, and look again. They draw you into the experience of seeing as the photographer saw.   

Within the PSA collection, there are a total of 56 Otto Litzel prints representing a broad look at this artist and Fellow of the Photographic Society of America who first pursued painting but turned to photography in 1950 and ended his career teaching at New York University. Before his death in 1981, Litzel had become one of the Society's most prestigious members, authoring two books: Darkroom Magic, 1967, and On Photographic Composition, 1974. Sadly, he lost his eyesight in the 1970's but it didn't prevent him from lecturing and giving presentations on his thirty years in photography. Most commonly, Otto Litzel was associated with his experimentation with high contrast imagery that eliminated all mid-values in his photographs, turning them into pure black and white and highly abstracts works. He documented the process extensively in his first book and fully half of the prints in the PSA collection are examples of this.