Artist Stephen Deutch is mostly head and hands now. At age 86, like one of his own sculptures, he’s been pared down to the essentials, his spare, arthritic body just a connecting link. His face is hawklike, intense, and his hands are huge, with knuckles like walnuts and fingers as flat and long as paddles.
These are the hands Helene Beck Deutch fell in love with when she first saw them nearly 70 years ago in Paris. “They were like sculpture,” she says, “beautifully shaped, very strong. I wanted to take photographs of them.”
Like Deutch, Helene had come to Paris from Hungary. A lighthearted, chestnut-haired flirt from a relatively well-to-do family, she had studied at the Sorbonne, apprenticed in the photography department at Vogue, and had a plum job with an elite commercial studio. Stephen, serious, quiet, and penniless, had trained as a wood-carver. He came to Paris with dreams of becoming a sculptor, but was supporting himself by selling pretzels to delicatessens. They married, she opened a photography studio, and he started working for her. Helene taught him everything she knew about photographic technique, and he brought his sculptor’s three-dimensional vision to the task.
In 1936, with news of Nazi activity seeping out of Germany and Stephen’s parents imploring them to emigrate, they applied for a visa to the States. They arrived in Chicago in December of that year, the beginning of a cold, dark winter. Stephen began making the rounds of the ad agencies with his own fractured English and their portfolio. The art directors were encouraging, but no one offered them any work for six months.
The only money they would earn that first year came unexpectedly. “By chance,” Deutch says, “someone introduced me to the art director of Esquire.” The publishers of Esquire were starting a new magazine called Coronet, and the art director liked what he saw. “For the next six or seven years,” Deutch says, “I don’t believe there were any issues of Coronet without my photographs.” Deutch also found a market for the arty nudes he’d started shooting in Paris. He sold them to American “girlie” publications, which, with democratic disregard for artistic merit, ran his photos alongside the rest of their cheesecake. A complaint by the Legion of Decency led to a police raid on Deutch’s studio and an obscenity charge, but a judge threw the case out.
Then the commercial assignments began to come in–from Abbott Laboratories, Container Corporation of America, Marshall Field’s. In 1943, with the birth of their third daughter, Helene retired, leaving Stephen at the helm of the business. “A ship can only have one captain,” she explains, “and he was it.”
But the captain wasn’t entirely comfortable. Deutch worried, as he does now, that there were “too many people with too much money, and too many people with no money.” He joined the Communist party and hosted a few fund-raisers at the family’s apartment (with entertainment provided by Leadbelly, Josh White, and Woody Guthrie). He eventually resigned from the party after deciding it was too doctrinaire, but the conflict between making money and making art continued to gnaw at him.
By the late 1950s, when his parents and brother were dying, Deutch was deeply discontented. He became involved with another woman, and in 1960 he asked Helene for a divorce. She was devastated, but she didn’t fight it.
Deutch was driven in the years following his divorce. He began sculpting again, and took what he considers to be his most important pictures–a series of startling images documenting the grim life of residents jammed into Illinois hospitals for the mentally ill. The series, called “Twilight World,” ran for five days in the Chicago Daily News (which submitted it for Pulitzer Prize consideration) and prompted the state to budget more money for mental institutions.
But he was miserable. “I fell in love,” he says, “and later I fell out of love. Then the only thing that mattered was the family I abandoned.” To Helene’s amazement, in 1965 Deutch announced he was divorcing his new wife and wanted to see her again. “That will be the day,” she told herself, but they were soon remarried, just in time to stand together as man and wife at a daughter’s nuptials.
“And that,” Helene says, “was the beginning of our second episode.” With the family grown, there were fewer financial pressures and more time for the music, travel, and art they both loved. Deutch became close friends with Nelson Algren, a long association that started when he was hired to photograph the author in 1960. Algren dedicated his last book, The Devil’s Stocking, to Deutch. These days Deutch and Helene divide their time between a Chicago apartment and a home in Michigan, where he continues to carve the human figures that have challenged him since his days in Paris.
“They’re based on bisected circles,” he says, running his hand along a wooden curve, smooth as a baby’s skin. “Some are so dressed down, they don’t have arms, they don’t have hands, they don’t have feet. All they have is torsos.” In sculpture like this, Deutch says, you start from zero. “There’s nothing except maybe a thought, a visualization.” Like music, “you’re creating something out of nothing,” and that’s what he likes about it. Traditional photography, in contrast, is “always in reference to something concrete, always reflecting the outside world.”
He’s clearly had enough of that. Deutch’s apartment is devoid of his own photographs. He doesn’t need to look anymore at what he saw so well: the mother’s smooch, the junkie’s arm, the unforgettable eye of a mad child. But we can reacquaint ourselves with his vision when a show of Stephen Deutch’s photos and sculpture, “Form and Light,” opens next Thursday, November 17, at the Renaissance Court Gallery of the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington. The exhibit will run through December 23. Deutch will present a gallery talk at 11:15 AM on November 30. The show and talk are free; call 744-4550 for information.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Loren Santow.