Monthly Archives: March 2015

Still Seeing Straight

I recently read Group f.64: Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham, and the Community of Artists Who Revolutionized American Photography by Mary Street Alinder. It’s an excellent book, detailing the development, personalities, and some of the lesser-known aspects of the well-known photography “movement” known as Group f.64.

More a loose association of like-minded friends than a formal organization, Group f.64 came together in the Bay Area in 1932. It was named (primarily symbolically) for a very small lens aperture that provides great depth of field in a photograph (the areas in sharp focus). The members of Group f.64 shared a conviction that photography should capitalize on and celebrate the medium’s inherent strengths of sharp focus and detail, as manifested through finely crafted prints. This was in opposition to pictorialism, in vogue at the time, which emphasized soft-focus and unabashedly manipulated images, usually presented on heavily textured papers. Pictorialism attempted to use photography to mimic or reference other art forms, while the straight photography of Group f.64 celebrated the medium’s own unique strengths.

While the members shared these basic tenets, they were far from a homogenous group. Differing opinions about photography’s social relevance and responsibility developed as time (and the Depression) wore on. Some (such as Willard Van Dyke and Dorothea Lange) felt photographers had a duty to expose society’s ills to the world, while others (such as Ansel Adams and Edward Weston) believed their primary duty was to creativity and self-expression.

Although the group itself was fluid and fairly short-lived – its last exhibition was in 1939 – its influence lives on. Referred to as straight photography, pure photography, or West Coast photography, the style still has many admirers, advocates, and practitioners. It also continues to have its detractors and those who question its relevance.

I’m a great admirer of this aesthetic, and it has undoubtedly influenced the way I photograph. Although I now embrace modern digital technology in image capture and printing, my ultimate goal remains the same: to capture and print expressive images based on reality and the innate characteristics of photography.

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