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Karl Struss was born in New York and studied photography with Clarence White. In 1910 he exhibited with members of the Photo-Secession and later had work reproduced in Camera Work. He took over White's studio from 1914 to 1917 where he made portraits as well as advertising and magazine illustrations. During these same years he continued to exhibit in pictorial salons and invented the Struss Pictorial Lens, a soft-focus lens popular with artist-photographers of the period.

In 1919 Struss moved to Hollywood where he worked as a still photographer for Cecil B. DeMille, advancing to film cameraman after only three months. Unlike most other cameramen and still photographers working in Hollywood at the time, Struss himself was trained as an artist-photographer. With his aesthetic orientation and technical ability, Struss produced some of the first highly stylized portraits and production stills in Hollywood. He won the first Academy Award for cinematography in 1929 for his work on "Sunrise" and went on the photograph well over one hundred films.