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Anton Bruehl - Introduction page


Anton Bruehl

The Anton Bruehl Junior gift to the National Gallery of Australia

Gael Newton

From the late 1920s through to the fifties, Anton Bruehl was to become widely acclaimed as one of the top international advertising and illustration photographers. Like so many photographers, Antons passion for camera work had started as a boy when he was given a box camera at ten years by his brother Martin.

In 2006, through The American Friends of the National Gallery of Australia, Anton Bruehl Jr presented over a hundred prints from his personal collection covering his father's career from the 1920s to the 1950s as well as a trove of archival material.

Anton Bruehl was a dapper young electrical engineer when he arrived in New York in 1918 to take up a job with Western Electric, the electrical manufacturing arm of AT&T telephony company and Bell Laboratories. Such modern-style giant corporations with their advanced mass production methods were flourishing in America and attracting the most skilled and ambitious staff.

The Big Apple was also the worlds most switched on city both in terms of lighting technologies and sound transmission. A few years earlier in 1913 the Western Electric Co. had ushered in the electronic age with the marketing of their vacuum tube which revolutionised sound transmission and they later developed the loudspeaker which brought an end to silent movies. The rotary dial telephone had just been released.

Electrical engineering was an obvious but still adventurous move for any ambitious young man so soon after the war, but it was Bruehls hobby as a photographer and not his first training which would end up determining his vocation in New York. Despite his German name, Anton Bruehl was Australian.

He had arrived in New York from Melbourne, Victoria where he had been working in electrical engineering. He was really a country boy, the son of a country doctor. He was the second son of German-born doctor Siegwart Bruehl, who had arrived in Adelaide from Germany in 1882 shortly after his graduation in Berlin. Dr Bruehl had evidently been naturalised in 1891 and returned to Germany around 1895 where he married Minna Viesel.

On their return the Bruehls lived at Hawkeron the edge of the arid South Australian desertwhere their son Siegwart Martin was born in 1895. A second son, John David born in 1897 died aged one and perhaps this sadness prompted the couples relocation to Naracoorte in 1900 where Anton Justus was born on 11 March.

Although long established in Hawker and well regarded, Dr Bruehl may have had problems and there were a number of moves over the next decade or so. The Bruehls were at Denial Bay in 1903 then moved interstate to Rupanyup in Victoria in 1906 followed by stays in Moyhu, Woods Point and Beech Forest then suburban Melbourne from 1914. Dr Bruehl was evidently inventive and these skills carried over to his sons.

By around 1917 Martin had trained as a structural engineer and Anton was training in electrical engineering possibly at the Melbourne Working Mens College. His first job was with an as yet unnamed American-owned engineering firm (not Western Electric which was still to set up in Australia) where the company staff had their own camera club. As Bruehl was already adept at photography, he became an active member.

It is not known what sort of photographic style Bruehl favoured in these years. Rather than sharp technical work it was just as likely to include elements of the impressionistic Pictorialism then the latest fashion in the local salons.

Professional photographer John Kauffmann, also from South Australia, had moved to Melbourne and had a one man show of his soft focus art photographic works in 1914.

World War I brought unexpected disruption to the family with a far-reaching impact. During 1916 and 1917, Dr Bruehl with his heavy accent came under scrutiny as an alien for his apparently strong enemy sympathies. There appears to be no substance to these suspicions of disloyalty but unable to find his naturalisation papers, in November 1917 Dr Bruehl was disfranchised by the Commonwealth Electoral Department for not being a British Subject.

He and Mrs Bruehl returned to Hawker during 1917-1919. A letter written by the doctor to Johann Viesel in Germany and intercepted by the censors in March 1919, told how 'We are heartily tired of this country & We cannot here enjoy the companionable and brotherly love which makes life worth living at home'.

In December 1920 a permit was granted to Dr S. Bruehl and Mrs Bruehl to leave Australia by boat for the USA. They were following their son to a new life. After working for several years in engineering in New York, in 1923 Anton Bruehl attended a photography exhibition by the students of the Clarence H. White School of Photography.

The school attracted students from Canada and Japan and many prominent American photographers trained there including Paul Outerbridge Jr, Karl Struss and women such as Doris Ulmann, Laura Gilpin, Anne W. Brigman, Margaret Watkins and Clara E. Sipprell. The founder Clarence White was a well-known exhibitor in art photography salons in Europe and America but the curriculum he taught was very progressive for the time. He encouraged students to apply their talents and art photography skills to commercial work and professional portraiture. Anton Bruehl was obviously enthused by White the man and teacher and the commercial application of camera art that his School promoted.

Bruehl persuaded White to give him private lessons, taking six months leave from Western Electric to study with White in the mornings and work in the afternoons for Jessie Tarbox Beals, one of the few women then in professional practice. Bruehls early photographs are related to the distinctive soft graceful forms of Whites art photography. White later asked Bruehl to assist him in his classes and when White died in 1925, Bruehl took over running the basic course at the White School.

In 1926 he opened his own studio in 47th Street, later moving to larger premises on Lexington Avenue. The Bruehl studio put the mission of Whites teaching into operation and showed how style and engaging content could be brought to the new field of mass advertising.

Initially Bruehl was in partnership with Ralph Steiner, another White graduate, but in 1927 was doing well enough to ask his brother to join him in the business. The Bruehl studio began to supply images regularly for the top Conde Nast publications Vogue, Vanity Fair and House and Garden.

One ingenious and amusing series of images for fabric makers Weber & Heilbroner was run in the New Yorker magazine and proved very popular. Called The Fabric Groupthe series showed the misadventures of a dapper trio of paper cut-out male figures through which their clothes triumphed; it won Bruehl the prestigious Art Directors Club Medal for 1928.

The Bruehl brothers continued to flourish during the Depression and their parents moved to New York as well. Under commission from Conde Nast magazines, Bruehl worked with photo-technician Fernand Bourges to perfect a separation process for high quality colour reproductions, the first of which appeared in the May 1932 issue of Vogue. Bringing his electrical skills to bear on the problem of generating enough light for the very slow exposures needed for colour processing work, Bruehl assembled his own flash equipment.

The studio produced some 200 colour photographs, each costing a small fortune and Bruehl studio production methods were unrivalled until 1935 when Kodak released Kodachrome colour film. Anton's infinite patience and ingenuity in devising the necessary lighting and props for little narratives was the basis for the Bruehl studio forte in studio-controlled tableaux. One advertisement for Four Roses whisky defied logic with a glass floating in the air, as in a conjuring trick. Bruehl had a rapport with sets and dramas and fantasytheatre, dance and stills.

His approach however, was normally to re-create the set in the studio and to make changes as needed for camera art. In some ways many of his best productions, so elaborately devised and lit in rich saturated colours, had the fantasy and magic of childhood storybooks and games with toys. Bruehl also gained recognition in the world of fine art photography. Ten of his photographs were shown in the landmark modernist photography exhibition Film und Foto in Stuttgart in 1929, and in 1932 he appeared in New York by New Yorkers at Julien Levys new private dealer gallery.

In 1931 Bruehl mounted a one-person exhibition of his more personal and documentary work at the Delphic Studios in New York where two years later he showed remarkable direct portraits and still life studies from his trip to Mexico. The prints were published in Bruehl's personal book Mexico, a handsome large folio with high quality photogravure plates published by Delphic Studios, which won best illustrated book of the year from the American Institute of Graphic Arts.

In 1936 photo-historian and curator Beaumont Newhall included six of Bruehl's modernist studies in the Museum of Modern Arts landmark show Photography 1839 to 1937, also published as a major reference book.

Anton Bruehl was a pioneer in colour photography and for 40 years he remained at the top of the advertising field, operating until 1966. He proved to be a model pupil in realising Clarence Whites ambition to show that advertising and illustration work could be approached creatively and with the highest rigour as an artist and technician.

However, in the 1960s new fast colour film which enabled more spontaneous and outdoor shoots for illustration work was introduced. This was better suited to the Pop spontaneity of the era but was somewhat alien to Bruehl's carefully constructed and staged works. He retired to Florida in the 1970s making one last personal book on topical flower studies, and died in 1982 in San Francisco.

While highly successful in his working life for both his commercial and personal work, Bruehl's reputation and importance in the development of colour and advertising photography has not been fully recognised since his death. A small monograph written by curator Bonnie Yochelson was produced for a show of Bruehl's work at the Howard Greenberg dealer gallery in New York in 1999.

Anton Bruehl did not retain his connections with Australia and became an American citizen in 1940 when he married Sara Barnes. They had three children, Steven, David and Tony. However, something of his Australian upbringing lingered. He named his beloved boat The Yarra and perhaps the wide open spaces and dry lands of Australia gave Bruehl the rapport with the scenes and character of Mexico for his great opus on that land of harsh light and ancient deserts.

In 2001 Anton Bruehl's son Anton Jr (Tony) of San Francisco called in at the National Gallery of Australia having heard that some of his father's pictures had been acquired from the Howard Greenberg Gallery. These works had been acquired using funds provided by Australian Dr Peter Farrell, founder of ResMed with headquarters in San Diego, and a major benefactor of the NGA Photography Fund. It seemed appropriate to put the funds to use buying works by an Australian who had established a business in America.

When in San Francisco, I was able to visit his home and meet the family. On the last visit I heard how Anton felt that his personal collection of his father's work should come to his homeland. Much still remains to be researched about this remarkably generous gift. Nic Klaassen of the Flinders Ranges Historical Society has assisted with researching the family history in Hawker and more information may turn up about Bruehls early works.

The Bruehl archive joins a small collection of American advertising photography and both collections will form the basis for a future exhibition and monograph on Bruehl at the National Gallery of Australia.

Gael Newton was the Senior Curator, Australian and International Photography
National Gallery of Australia

this text originally published in 2008 on the former NGA site


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