What is the purpose of photography as a medium, and photographers as its authors? In the America of the interwar years, there were two distinguished opinions on the matter - Alfred Stieglitz’s Pictorialism on the East Coast, and the f64 group on the West Coast. While the art-makers of New York’s gallery 291 aimed to turn the technique of photo-making into an artistic project, the photographers based in San Francisco wanted to break away from such tendencies and use their camera for the sole purpose of documenting reality as it is. Their images built an extraordinary archive of a struggling nation and breathtaking landscapes, at a time of a social and political unrest in the United States in the late 1920s and early 1930s. The eleven individuals of the f64 group wanted to promote a new modernist aesthetic that was based on precisely exposed images of natural forms and found objects.
During the Great Depression, the citizens of America looked towards the West and the opportunities it offered, particularly through massive public works projects. This is why it was important for individuals like Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham, Edward Weston, Willard Van Dyke, Henry Swift, John Paul Edwards, Brett Weston, Consuelo Kanaga, Alma Lavenson, Sonya Noskowiak, and Preston Holder, who were the original f64 group members, to present it to the rest of the country in the most realistic, revealing way. The first attempt in spreading their visual ideas was the 1932 exhibition of eighty of their photographs held at the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco which lasted six weeks and introduced stark, comprehensive imagery in a variety of topics. This is why, in fact, the group’s name derives from a small aperture setting on a large format camera, which secures great depth of field and renders a photograph evenly sharp from foreground to background.
Following the characteristics of modernist art movements of the 20th century, the f64 group decided to publish a proper manifesto, stating their creative intentions and declaring a kind of war against the Pictorialist photographic powers that were dominant at the time. While Pictorialism endorsed soft-focus lenses and luscious papers which would make images look like drawings and even paintings, the California photographers believed in what they called “pure photography” - sharp lenses, pictures printed on glossy papers and using extensive depth of field to allow extreme sharpness throughout the image. Their photographs were made to impress the viewers with texture, composition, complete tonal range and light in all its glory, calling to mind earlier works like Eugène Atget’s portraits of Paris of Walker Evans’s “straight” approach in street photography.
The f64 group had a focus as clear as their imagery; their idea was to document the world around them, the landscape, the organic growth, the still viable rural life. The photographer became the one to decide which portion of reality he would allow us to see, in a way, at the same time making sure we see all of it, its every detail. According to Weston himself, “the camera should be used for a recording of life, for rendering the very substance and quintessence of the thing itself, whether it be polished steel or palpitating flesh.” Standing as the examples of this vision are the dramatic images of the Yosemite National Park by Ansel Adams, the studies of calla lilies of Imogen Cunningham, or Weston’s own dunes, nudes and close-ups of lush vegetables.
Although the goal was to capture the world around us as the eyes see it, the photographers of the f64 group managed to turn their images to art nevertheless, through an impeccable knowledge of the technique and a remarkable use of light, contrasts and composition. In fact, in the words of Ansel Adams, ”Our individual tendencies are encouraged; the Group Exhibits suggest distinctive individual view-points, technical and emotional, achieved without departure from the simplest aspects of straight photographic procedure.” Theirs wasn’t a school with rigid limitations, but an expression of life as it actually is, through the reasonable statements of straight photography.
One of the important aspects of the f64 group was the strong presence of female photographers  Although the roster of members changed from time to time, women were always there, starting with Cunningham who was the most famous to Alma Lavenson, Sonya Noskowiak, Consuelo Kanaga and Dorothea Lange. They too continued their career successfully after the dissolution of the initiative prior to World War II. By 1935, the Great Depression had reached California too, leaving little space for an artistic production as such and forcing some of the members to move away. Still, what made the f64 group as one of the most famous collectives in the history of photography is their ability to provide the medium with more flexibility and possibilities. Their mastering of the technique of both photographing and printing delivered pure, unmanipulated imagery that came to influence the famous photojournalism and documentary photography of the 1950s. Today, we can enjoy their works through solo exhibitions of their members of the extensive collections housed by the Center for Creative Photography and, of course, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
Editors’ Tip: Group f.64: Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham, and the Community of Artists Who Revolutionized American Photography
A former assistant to Ansel Adams, Mary Street Alinder knew most of those featured in this first group biography. Just as important, she understands the art. Featuring close to one hundred photographs by and of its members, Group f.64 details a transformative period in art history with narrative brilliance. Group f.64 is perhaps the most famous movement in the history of photography, counting among its members Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham, Dorothea Lange, Willard Van Dyke, and Edward Weston. Revolutionary in its day, Group f.64 was one of the first modern art movements equally defined by women and men working as equals. From the San Francisco Bay Area, its influence extended internationally, contributing significantly to the recognition of photography as a fine art. The group was comprised of strongly individualist names, brought together by a common philosophy and held together in a tangle of dynamic relationships.
Featured images: Ansel Adams - Half Dome, Apple Orchard, Yosemite trees with snow on branches, April 1933. Image via US National Archives. All images used for illustrative purposes only.
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