Interviews with ASMP Founder: Karl Gullers

Interview and transcript © 1990 by Kay Reese & Mimi Leipzig. ASMP staff edited the transcript for online presentation and added supplemental biographic information.

Biography

Karl W. Gullers (? – 1998) was among the earliest members of the ASMP. Although a frequent visitor to the U.S., he was a citizen of Sweden, and there he served for ten years as president of the Nordic Photographers Association. He was also a founding member of Europhot, an international organization for professional photographers in 16 European countries.

Primarily known as a photographer, Gullers was also an author. His many books — there are well over 90 of them — have been translated into eleven languages.

Gullers also figured in the writings of at least one other author: Stieg Trenter, a Swedish journalist and mystery writer. (Trenter is credited with establishing the whodunnit genre in Sweden.) The protagonist of Trenter’s Farlig Fåfänga (1944) is photographer-sleuth Harry Fribeg, whose character was said to be modeled after Gullers.

Interview

ASMP: Gjon Mili said he remembered you standing up like a tree, speaking up for rights.

Gullers: That was when Philippe Halsman was president. I think it definitely was in the ’40s — ‘47, ‘48, ‘49; I really can’t tell.

ASMP: Were you at the first meeting of the ASMP when it was founded? That was at Bradley Smith’s house in Freeport?

Gullers: No, I don’t think so. I think I was among the 40, 50 first members, definitely. There were not many when I came.

ASMP: You and Bill Vanderberg decided not to join Magnum, which had started just at that time.

Gullers: Well, I joined Magnum for a while, then I left. They were holding a pile of my pictures in their office. But no one had showed them, and I took them back.

“I thought it was very right to be a member of a professional organization.”

ASMP: Did you go to any ASMP negotiating meetings with publishers here?

Gullers: No, really not. I came here twice a year, you know, for four or five days.

ASMP: But, you represented ASMP at Europhot, and tried to get the groups to work together.

Gullers: Oh, yes. Very much so. I was very active in Europhot for about 28 years. I was on the board in Sweden. And, we had to contact the ASMP all the time, also.

ASMP: So, why did you join ASMP?

Gullers: I thought it was very right to be a member of a professional organization. My son doesn’t; he’s never understood why I spend so much time. I never regretted anything. It took lots of time, but it was also lots of fun. Met with interesting people.

ASMP: Did the American photographers teach you anything about photography? You taught them, I guess?

Gullers: It was mutual.

ASMP: Did you go to more than one meeting?

Gullers: Oh, yes I went to three or four meetings, in the ’40s.

ASMP: Do you remember who was there besides Gjon Mili?

Gullers: I remember Capa. And Philippe and I became more and more friendly, you know. We went together to the U.S. Virgin Islands with our wives. So we were really quite close.

ASMP: You met him at the ASMP.

Gullers: Yes. And then he stopped over in Sweden on a job for Life Magazine, “Women Around the World,” and I helped him along there. We kept in touch.

“It doubled my prices right away.”

ASMP: The photographers told me that, after World War II, they were able to use 35mm cameras, that it made a very great difference. Because, during the war, ones who were working for the U.S. Army used big cameras. But you were using Hasselblads?

Gullers: I used Rolleiflex on the early ’30s. And, when Hasselblad came along, in ‘49, I gradually came over. And, especially when they came out with the super-wide angle. That really opened up a new world. And the prints were twice as big, you know. It doubled my prices right away.

ASMP: When did you first visit this country?

Gullers: My first connection with this country was 1939. My wife was representing the Mrs. Sweden at the New York World’s Fair in 1939.

ASMP: Oh, how lovely.

Gullers: I came over again in September ‘45, on an American bomber, ten hours via Iceland and Newfoundland, and come to La Guardia. And, then I got in touch with photographers, too. I met John Whiting, and he introduced me around; he invited me to a Life party for their photographers.

ASMP: So, you began to get acquainted here. Then you worked for Inland Steel?

Gullers: That was later. I had an exhibition first in New York from Sweden, “Modern Sweden.” Then, I went to Chicago. And, there Ziff-Davis’s Mr. Davis came down. And, so I got my first book contract in early 1946 in Chicago.

I also found my second wife in Chicago, too — thirty years later.
Chicago is a very important spot for me.

“I would never sell my files unless they’re open and available for research work.”

ASMP: I would like to do an article for the ASMP Bulletin this spring on what to do about photographers’ files. And, I would like to say, look at Gullers: He has sold them to the government of Sweden. But I don’t want to say any figures.

Gullers: But, you know, Yousef Karsh did the same.

ASMP: Yes, to the government of Canada. The American government should be doing more. And, I would like to put it together. Because, Gjon Mili’s files are at Time and Life. And, they’re almost out of the question. You can’t get them except for a lot of money.

Gullers:
You know, you mentioned something important. I would never sell my files unless they’re open and available for research work, for scientists who want to find out something about Sweden during the war, or whatever. So, that’s a condition of the sale, that it’s open and available for the public. And, then they can pay for the prints and so on. And, you see, it’s a big business in Nordic Museum, which is a top museum in Sweden. It is, so to say, the “mother museum” for all the others. They have a big laboratory and big architecture.

ASMP: And it is open as a research space.

Gullers: Oh, yes. Space for researchers, and people can look in the files.

I’ve got something here I’ll show you. I invited my sister to come and visit me. She stopped in Washington on the way, and she met a lady at the Library of Congress. I have never thought about ever going there. She went there and said, “You must have pictures by my brother.” And, you know, they started looking. You know how many books they had of mine? They had 59. So, I was very happy about that.

ASMP: The Library of Congress has some photographic files. But now they will not take pictures. The American photographers cannot deal with them. They have to put everything on microfiche and caption it. The original material is stored eight miles outside of Washington in a warehouse, in cardboard boxes.

Gullers: I hate that kind of stuff. Hidden so nobody can find it, even if they want.

“For years, I’ve done it eight or nine times, and that’s too many.”

ASMP: The other thing ASMP is going to do is to publish a calendar, a date book, with photographs by people who were working for ASMP in the ’50s and ’40s. And, they would like to have a black and white picture from Gullers, something that’s pretty to look at. It will need 52 pictures. And, I think it’s very ambitious. But, it’s going to be a nice calendar.

Gullers: It’s a great business, you know. In this country, it’s enormous. The New York Times has half a page each year reviewing the different calendars. They have dogs, beauties, horses, women, Arizona highways …

ASMP: Any passion that anyone has is reproduced in a calendar.

Gullers: But I sold my calendar business in 1979. Now I want to disband my book business when I come to Sweden this month.

ASMP: What will you do then?

Gullers: I can have my American publishing. I’m going to sell the Swedish section.

ASMP: So, you won’t commute over the North Pole any more?

Gullers: Only twice a year. For years, I’ve done it eight or nine times, and that’s too many.

“I’m working on my 93rd or 94th book, and the goal is 100.”

ASMP: How did you become a photographer?

Gullers: When I stole my brother’s box camera. I was 12 and fascinated by it. My brother would shoot and then develop, and there were pictures he didn’t recognize. So my father said, “I’d better buy you your own camera. You’re brothers; don’t fight.”

And then I got my first box camera. It was about $1.50, a Brownie. And after that I never had any doubts. When I was 15 or 16, I took a summer job as a laboratory person in Stockholm. They developed 500 films a day in their big tanks. After that, I didn’t want to go back to school. Then I went to evening schools, five nights a week. I studied Swedish, German, English and Russian.

ASMP: Good Lord.

Gullers: I did that for three or four years. And then I won a scholarship to go to England. I never went back to that school. I went more and more into photography.

ASMP: Was it a photographic scholarship?

Gullers: No. It was a standard scholarship in English.

The big break came with the pictures for New York World’s Fair in 1939. I have it documented from the very beginning in this book. I went to England and took pictures in Oxford. Then I became an aerial photographer for three summers, fixed-wing aircraft — it was before the helicopter. I took 15,000 aerial pictures. I was 19. [Sound of leafing through pages in the book.] Then I went into the service, the air force.

This is one of my first pictures in New York. We had a neighbor in Phoenix who put a sign on his roof in big letters every Christmas, “Happy Birthday Jesus.”

And, then I made a book in Italy. Now I’m working on my 93rd or 94th book, and the goal is 100. Well, maybe 101. Philippe made 101.

“It was good grounding for the photojournalism that was developing.”

ASMP: One of the problems with the ASMP was, they told me, that every member was supposed to bring in some other members so the society would begin to grow. And, by 1950, as best we can find out, they had 300. The photographers came in very quickly because they realized they were being robbed. And, the reason they felt that way, as I understand it, was that the publishers were not paying them properly. Is that right?

Gullers: Life Magazine was a big enemy. You were always fighting with Life.

ASMP: What was Life doing wrong?

Gullers: They cheated, you know, and were not generous at all. They were really tough with travel expenses, and they’d try to always to [inaudible] freelancers. Their top guys, Eisenstadt and those guys, were taken care of. But freelancers had always a fight.

I didn’t have that many pictures in Life at all, because I gave up. I had a few stories in Life and I was happy about that. But Lennart Nilsson (biog), my Swedish colleague, he was really a star in Life. He got one zero more than most other photographers.

ASMP: Yes, there were certain stars at Life.

Gullers: He still is, you know. We are very close friends. We live next to each other in Stockholm. He’s always talking about the picture of tomorrow. Yesterday was nothing; but tomorrow, tomorrow, always tomorrow. He is five years younger than me. I tried to hire him in 1944. I took him to my new house in Stockholm and talked for four hours. But he never has been employed by anybody. He has always been his own.

ASMP: Could you have been employed by someone else? Would you have worked for someone else?

Gullers: I worked for aerial photographers. I worked for a portrait photographer when I was even younger. That was very good training. It also was good grounding for the photojournalism that was developing in those ages. There was Picture Post in England and Life Magazine here, and Bildebladet in Denmark; and in Berlin and Stockholm, they popped up all the time.

ASMP: So, it was really in the early ’50s that photojournalism began.

Gullers: In the ’30s, really, when Life began.

“Even in Life Magazine, the writer gets a bigger credit line than the photographer.”

ASMP: Do you do much shooting in black and white now?

Gullers: You know, I don’t do much shooting at all. I’m a little camera-rusty. But my son is damn good. He takes the pictures for me. And I direct him, you see. I’m more proud of his pictures than my own, really.

ASMP: Well that’s what we want for our sons, don’t we?

Gullers: I’m making one book for Sweden’s PTT, the telephone company. It will come out at the end of March this year, 80,000 copies; 60,000 in Swedish and 20,000 in English. It’s 99 percent my son’s pictures and one percent mine.

ASMP: Do you think, going back to the ASMP, do you think that the ASMP changed your life in any way?

Gullers: When I started photography, it was looked down upon. The journalists got an order, “Go on the job, bring your toothbrush and a photographer.”

ASMP: Philippe said he was treated like a waiter when he came here.

Gullers: Exactly. That was all over Europe, too, you know. Steichen and Stieglitz are famous names today, but in those days, they were pushed around, at least if they called themselves photographers.

I fought that in Scandinavia. Especially the right to photographers for publicity. Why should the journalist always get his credit line and not the photographer? And, I still look in The New York Times for the credit line. Even in Life Magazine, the writer gets a bigger credit line than the photographer.

ASMP: At least they get credit, which they didn’t used to.

Gullers: No, but it is quite different today. And, today, a favorite profession for young kids in Scandinavian is photography. They dream of traveling around the world, you know, and living it up. But many of them come to a hospital and stand in the dark taking x-rays. Not quite the same.

ASMP: Do you have any other proteges besides your son? Is there anyone else that you particularly have promoted or helped as a young photographer?

Gullers: Oh, I’ve had about a dozen over the years, and I keep in touch with them.

When I was real young, I looked up to senior artists and writers, you know. But, when I came up myself, I looked to the youngsters. They give you inspiration in a different way. I mix with my children and their friends, and I think that’s very important too. I don’t believe that old people should move into retirement communities, like the Sun City that we have in Phoenix. You have to be over 55 to live there, and you mustn’t have any children, because they don’t want to have schools. I think that’s very dangerous. I adore my 12 grandchildren and play with them.

“An artist signs; why can’t I sign in the corner?”

ASMP: I think you saw that advertising photographers had great troubles with the ASMP, because they thought they were editorial people. So, for a while, they were together. And, now, the New York advertising photographers have their own group. But, it is really silly, because there is so much they should do together. But, it is really, it’s a difficult thing. I remember that Mili said, “We are all photographers.” And that brought them together. Do you remember any arguments at those early meetings that stick in your mind?

Gullers: There was always arguing about prices and to get paid enough for your work, and get your photographer’s byline. That wasn’t at all common. It took a long time. And we started to talk about this. It’s still a problem in the New York Times today. Why the hell can’t we get a readable credit.

I started signing mine, you know. My signature, “Gullers,” in the corners.

ASMP: You sign it on the photograph?

Gullers: Yes. An artist signs; why can’t I sign in the corner? And, then it was there, you see. That helped a lot.

ASMP: They couldn’t cut it out.

Gullers: But, still, there’s lots to do.

“I think you are playing with dangerous fire.”

ASMP: One of the questions I personally would like to ask you is, what are you doing about cataloging all these pictures that you know exist? Do you have a system that you’ve worked out so other people know what there is?

Gullers: Well, I had one, which I think my son is changing. My system was that every little square in the slide book should have a number. If you’re 35mm, you number the film with the year and a roll number.

ASMP: And a title? A description. That’s the problem.

Gullers: A description of the subject. Sometimes I have big collections of stories. Or in my case nowadays, where a book is involved.

ASMP: So, what is your son doing to change it?

Gullers: Oh, he is giving Hasselblad films a number, too. But not each square. And, then I think you are playing with dangerous fire.

“Now they use it in Brazil, where they have a terrible copyright problem.”

ASMP: This book is a perfect size, because It’s comfortable. You can put it on a shelf.

Gullers: If they get this big and this big, and wide, 12 pounds, you’ll break your back if you take the book off the bookshelf. It’s a coffee-table book.

And, this you make this kind one inch high.

ASMP: A Day In the Life of … . And the bigger books are lost.

Gullers: They’re something. They sell. Why did they print 100,000 copies of mine? I don’t know. I think it’s because, in this country, most people don’t have bookshelves. Then they are on the coffee table, you see. If you’re going after the Swedes in Minnesota, they have a coffee table. So, there, the books have to be big and heavy.

It’s not easy to sell books in this country. I sold that book in Minnesota to Carlson. I think 38,000 were published. But the Swedish PTT takes 80,000.

ASMP: Bravo. Well, I hope we can sell the ASMP book [10,000 Eyes], because I think it will be interesting to many people besides photographers. It would go to schools. Cornell has 1,000 children a month, young people coming in and out of that museum now. They take classes and talk to people like you.

Gullers: And, there are over 157,000 libraries in this eountry. I’ve always tried to get after that quantity.

ASMP: Yes, I think the ASMP book would be very useful in libraries, because there is no other record of what you people did.

Gullers: But, you have to educate people and get them to understand the importance of the books.

ASMP: Yes, the books and photographs and history. In addition, I think of our young ASMP members who don’t think that history is important.

Gullers: And they take many things for granted.

ASMP: So, they are very impatient because they wonder what they’re getting.

Gullers: We had to fight for it in our time.

ASMP: Also, you see, it shows them how to fight. I wrote an article about how the ASMP organized with members bringing in new members. Now they use it in Brazil, where they have a terrible copyright problem. So, the photographers, each one is talking to another one, and they come to a meeting. They understand it can be done when they see what the Americans and the Swedes have done.