John Gutmann was born to prosperous German-Jewish parents. He specialized in humanities and studied philosophy and art history for a year. At the same time, he enrolled at the Academy of Arts and Crafts, where he studied under the Expressionist painter Otto Müller. In 1927, after graduating, he moved to Berlin, where he worked as an art teacher and exhibited his paintings. Some of his drawings were published in the magazine Neue Revue.
With the rise to power of Nazism in 1933, Gutmann left Europe and decided to settle in San Francisco. His case is a unique one as he used his camera for the first time as a pretext for obtaining a press pass to flee Germany. Photojournalism was initially a means of earning a living, but he engaged in this work with an avant-garde European sensitivity that provided a unique perspective which differed greatly from that of Walker Evans. He also continued with his painting. In 1935 he exhibited his drawings at the Paul Elder Gallery. The following year, he secured a teaching position at the San Francisco State college and began a long trip around different parts of the United States. He was interested in the cultural and racial diversity of America, in stark contrast to that of Germany.
While photography paid the bills, it was his drawings and paintings that continued to be exhibited. He came into contact with European artists who passed through the United States such as George Grosz, Férnand Léger and László Moholy-Nágy. In 1983 he exhibited his photography for the first time in Colorful America, at the M. H. De Young Museum in San Francisco, which would be followed by the Wondrous World exhibition three years later.
From the 1940s his photographs were published in magazines such as the Saturday Evening Post, Life, Time, Look and National Geographic. When the United States entered the Second World War he served in the U.S. army. Out of this experience emerged his series entitled The Face of the Orient in 1947.
In the 1950s he promoted diverse activities related to the cinema, and he slowly distanced himself from photography as a public medium. In the next few years he gained growing recognition, with an exhibition at the Light Gallery in New York (1974), a joint exhibition with Walker Evans at the Phoenix Gallery in San Francisco and his individual As I Saw It exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco (both in 1976).Exhibitions followed during the 1980s in institutions such as the Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco (1980), Castelli Graphics in New York (1981), the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego (together with Berenice Abbot, in 1984) and, outside of the United States, in institutions such as the Art Gallery of Ontario (Canada, 1985), Galería Visor (Valencia, 1985), and Fundación La Caixa (Barcelona, 1989).
John Gutmann died in 1998 in San Francisco, the city where he had lived for more than six decades. Only one year earlier the John Gutmann: Parallels in Focus exhibition had been held at the San Francisco State University, which brought his photography together with his art work and recognized his cosmopolitan output as an artist. The Center for Creative Photography of the University of Arizona (Tucson) has had his archive in its custody ever since then.