The major portrait photographer of St. Louis from 1880 until 1920, J.C. Strauss was born in Cleveland and began working as a studio boy in a tintype gallery when he was twelve. When he struck out for St. Louis as a teenager seeking his fortune, he gravitated to a photograph gallery on 4th Street. In 1879 he opened his own studio at 1313 Franklin Avenue. His business was public portraiture, and with admirable application, he studied how to make his images seem agreeable to the sitters while seeming artful to the professional community. His use of back paintings was tactful. He preferred bust shots with neutral backgrounds.
St. Louis was a significant center of theatrical activity, but Strauss did not cultivate performer images until late in the 1880s. In 1896 he erected a custom-designed Studio-Gallery at 3514 Franklin, an ornate wedding cake of a photo palace that became a national landmark. In its basement he held meetings where a Bohemian assortment of artists, writers, performers, and photographers gathered. A fire gutted the building in 1900, but the negatives had been saved, and the edifice was immediately rebuilt.
Celebrity portraiture never mattered so much for J.C. Strauss as civic portraiture. No archive has a representative collection of his theatrical work, but his images of St. Louis' important citizens make up the J.C. Strauss Collection of the St. Louis Public Library. Strauss bestowed these 250 masculine portraits to the city in 1916.
In 1916 Strauss published an essay summarizing his portrait aesthetics. He called attention to the psychological problems of portraiture, the fact that the photographer rarely has any acquaintance with a sitter before his or her appearance at the studio, and that the time of interaction is always short, much shorter than had prevailed when patrons sat for painters. These circumstances force a photographer to resort to styles of representation and artistic formats. Strauss reviled one such tendency, the reduction of the skin surface of the face to featureless expanses of tone by retouching. Strauss, however, did not regret other intrusions of the photographer in the image. In 1901 he began issuing what he called Lyrit portraits that combined photographic and graphic elements. At the edges of a vignette head, the lines of the photograph transmuted into drawn lines.
Strauss' talent as a child photographer caused theatrical mothers to send photogenic young performers to his studio. Certain of these portraits—those of Bijou Fernandez for instance—he published and released to cabinet card dealers. But most of his performer portraits were commissioned by the sitters themselves, and forwarded to magazine editors when used as publicity.
J.C. Strauss' business continued after his death run by his son, Louis Strauss.
NOTES: J.C. Strauss, http://www.thomasyanul.com/strauss1index.html (Thomas Yanul’s site devoted to "The Sun of St. Louis"). J.C. Strauss, "Photographic Portraiture as an Art," Wilson's Photographic Magazine vol 53 (1916), 241-42. Sadakichi Hartmann, "J.C. Strauss, the Man Behind the Gun," The Valiant Knights of Daguerre (Berkeley: U of California P, 1976), 234-36. "Editor's Notes," The Photographic Times (May 1902), 225. Sigismund Blumann, "Strauss, Artist Photographer," Camera Craft vol 23.2 (Feb 1916), 45-51. David S. Shields/ALS