Seeing At f.64

I have been involved in photography since I was 14 years old. My father gave me his Korean War-era Canon 35mm, a knock-off of a Leica model D, and I began a somewhat haphazard career which never quite went where I thought it would or should.  By the time I was 21 I had replaced that Canon with a pair of Minoltas, a Mamiya Universal (2 1/4 format), and a Linhof 4X5 view camera, plus the darkroom accoutrements to go with it all, including a massive Besseler 45M enlarger (which I still have) and pretensions of being a modern manifestation of a member of the Group f.64.

All I really knew about this group were the photographs and some names, and not even all of them.  Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham.  Names to conjure with.  Sharp, full-tonal range images of landscapes, portraits, and details of objects made sublime by the attention of these artists of the lens.

In time I learned about other names—Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, Paul Strand, Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Ben Shahn—and picked up a bit of the history.  To be honest, photographing and printing were what interested me and I used the work of these past giants as goals and guides.  I bought a full set of Ansel Adams’s Basic Photo series, gleaned what I could, and set forth to do what he did, at least in my own small and considerably more modest way.  He had Yosemite, I had, when I got to it, the Ozarks.  Edward Weston had Big Sur, I had the Missouri and Meramec Rivers.  I spent too much time trying to duplicate their work and too little time finding what was worthwhile in my own backyard.

Which I did eventually and I’ve done some work of which I’m proud.  Ah, but there were giants in those days, and I wasn’t even getting to their shoulders.  The magical, mystical Group f.64 occupied in some sense the same place as the Fellowship of the Ring.  They were the first, the best, the most interesting.

And yet, little was available to be known about them between two covers.  Articles here and there, anecdotes, essays in their monographs, coincidental stories.  A great deal of myth can evolve from such piecemeal history.

Mary Street Alinder, who has previously written a biography of Ansel Adams, has published a history of the Group. Group f.64: Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham, and the Community of Artists Who Revolutionized American Photography fills in the gaps of biography and history of this unlikely cadre of artists who took photography away from the Pictorialists who were dominant in the 1910s and 20s and gave it back to itself.

Beginning with the disdain East Coast photographers, dominated by the towering personality of Alfred Stieglitz, who was one of the principle gallerists and arbiters of what constituted art in America, for so-called “western photographers,” the primary movers came together in and around San Fransisco to establish their own hallmark on what they thought photography should be.  Dedicated to “pure” photography—that is, photographs that were themselves, making full use of the unique medium of lens, film, and chemistry, rather than the popular form of photographs that imitated paintings, with soft-focus and elaborate stage settings—Ansel Adams, Willard Van Dyke, and, somewhat reluctantly, Edward Weston (who was simply not a joiner, and yet philosophically supported what the group was trying to do, and ended up lending his name to it because of them all he was already well known and respected) formed the Group, Adams wrote a manifesto, and they set about arranging exhibits and establishing themselves as arbiters of a new vision of photography.

Young, enthusiastic, and perhaps a bit pretentious, the group eventually included Connie Kanaga, Dorothea Lange, Henry Swift, Alma Lavenson, Brett Weston, and a few others.  Both Van Dyke and Adams were aggressive about exhibits, and even opened their own (short-lived) galleries.  Eventually, though, they knew they had to break into the East Coast and convince Stieglitz of their worth.  Adams was the first to do so and after that the tastes of the country began to shift.

What emerges from the pages of Alinder’s book is in many ways the same struggles and passions that come with any artistic movement.  Also the conflicting personalities, the petty wars, the affairs, and the eventually dissolution of the Group as its members, all gifted and hard-working artistic obsessives, went their own ways.  The kind of work they did today is accepted as the given in what photography should be, at least as a base.  Adams and Weston shared a philosophy that the photograph should allow the subject to reveal its true nature.  For that to happen, the kind of standard obliteration of detail that the Pictorialists held as necessary had to go away.  Clarity, sharpness, richness of detail and tonality.  Hence the name of the group, f.64, which is one of the smallest apertures a large format lens can achieve (though not the smallest—f.128 is common for large format lenses), and by which the widest possible depth-of-field (meaning the range of acuity from nearest to farthest) and therefore the greates sharpness throughout the image.  By calling themselves this, they announced that stood in direct opposition to the fuzzy, false images that dominated galleries and public awareness.  (The elaborate staging of the Pictorialists moved easily and naturally into Madison Avenue advertising photography, but even there Group f.64 became the dominant æsthetic in terms of detail and clarity.)

The successes of all these artists would probably have occurred in any event, but not this way and not so soon and not so magnificently.  Obviously, some emerged as superstars while others have faded from our memory.  Alinder does service here by reminding us of them and placing them in their proper relation to the history.

One remarkable aspect of the Group is, in some ways perhaps, minor, but led to major consequences as the 20th Century unfolded.  Namely, they were the first artistic movement in the United States that made no distinction between male and female members.  All they cared about was the work and none of them seemed to have any retrograde ideas about women being lesser artists.  Right from the start more or less half the group was female, and we remember them well.  Imogen Cunningham and Dorothea Lange, certainly, but others now somewhat forgotten, like Consuela Kanaga and Sonia Noskowiak and Alma Lavenson informed the dialogue of 20th Century photography in powerful and significant ways.

The other thing that was a surprise to me was to now realize who wasn’t in the Group.  Based on the work alone, seeing it all the first time as a young photographer, I just assumed membership on the part of photographers like Walker Evan, Paul Strand, and Margaret Bourke-White.  Walker Evan, according to Alinder, did not care for Group f.64.  Ironically, he thought they were too  concerned with making”pretty” pictures, which was one of the complaints Group f.64 had toward the Pictorialists.  Evan was a chronicler—nothing should distract from the subject as found, not cropping, not composition, not fine printing.  Strand predated the group (and actually inspired Adams to change how he made images and prints) and Margaret Bourke-White was always a working commercial photographer following her own path.

Reading this and seeing how these people at the time had to modify and adapt their philosophy to account for some of the inconsistencies in their original intent and to make sure they did not exclude excellent work by too narrow a set of constraints was revelatory.  Alinder’s book has allowed me to better understand my own sources of inspiration.  As well, her prose are, like the people she writes about, examples of clarity, sharpness, and acuity.