Eva Watson Schutze, a portraitist in league with Alfred Stieglitz and his photo secessionist movement, exemplified late-19th-century ideals of the “new woman” as well as the era’s “new photography.” A dedicated pictorialist, she embraced an artistic style of subjective, soft-focus lyricism, derided as “fuzzography” by mainstream photographers of the time, who espoused sharp-focus realism.
Born in New Jersey, she originally studied painting with Thomas Eakins at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, but found her “imaginative impulses all paralyzed.” Turning to photography, she opened her own studio in Philadelphia in 1897. “There will be a new era and women will fly to photography,” Watson Schutze wrote to Frances Benjamin Johnston, a pioneering Washington photojournalist.
In 1901, Johnston included her work in a collection of photography by 29 American women that she took to Paris and for which she organized a flurry of acclaimed exhibitions. By then, Watson Schutze had married a German professor and moved to Chicago, where she began photographing local luminaries such as Jane Addams and John Dewey and returned to painting. Elected president of the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago in 1929, Watson Schutze defined its mission “as an independent, experimental laboratory for [the] search of legitimate meaning in art.” During her tenure the society exhibited Fernand Leger’s film Ballet mecanique, architectural renderings of skyscrapers, chalk drawings by south-side schoolchildren, and Alexander Calder’s mobiles. When Watson Schutze died in 1935 her role as one of the original proponents of American pictorialism (or “the Cause” as she called it in her correspondence with Stieglitz) was largely forgotten, as was Johnston’s pathbreaking role as one of America’s first magazine photographers. The following year Margaret Bourke-White played a historic part in launching another, better-remembered photographic endeavor when she helped start Life Magazine and shot its first cover.
Work by Watson Schutze is on display in the exhibition “Ambassadors of Progress: American Women Photographers in Paris, 1900-1901” at the Terra Museum of American Art, 664 N. Michigan. The museum is open 10 to 8 Tuesday, 10 to 6 Wednesday through Saturday, and 10 to 5 Sunday. Admission is $7.50, $3.50 for students, seniors, teachers, veterans, and kids under 14. On Tuesday, March 19, curator Verna Curtis will give a lecture titled “Portrait of the Lady Photographer in 1900: Frances Benjamin Johnston and the New American Woman in Paris” at 6 PM. Admission is $7, $5 for members and educators, and free for students. Call 312-664-3939.