Category Archives: Black and White

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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Appreciating Black and White

My early experiences in photography were purely in color.  I don’t think I understood the point of black and white photography for quite some time (presumably due to a lack of exposure to it).

I was a Freshman at the University of Arizona in Tucson in 1975.  This was the year that the Center for Creative Photography, founded by Ansel Adams and the University, was established.  I was vaguely aware that the new Center was being constructed in a former bank building on Fourth Street near campus.  Although I knew very little about it, I thought it sounded interesting, and I did go there once it opened its doors.

Regretfully (and embarrassingly) I went in, took a fairly quick look around, and then walked out.  I didn’t have the background to appreciate what must have been on those walls.   I remember that the prints were fairly large, and that many were black and white, but they really didn’t catch my attention.  I’m now saddened to think about the opportunities I may have missed.

I first began to become really aware of black and white photography about nine years later, as a result of the all the news coverage following Ansel Adams’ death in the spring of 1984.  Although I knew who he was through his TV commercial for Datsun and his environmental activism, I didn’t know much about his photography.  After his death, I remember being moved by his black and white images, shown in newspapers and magazines and on television.

The following year for Christmas my parents gave me his Autobiography, and I was hooked on black and white photography.  The first chance I had to see his prints in person was when my wife and I took the train from Los Angeles to San Diego to see an exhibit at the Museum of Photographic Art in Balboa Park.  I have since seen countless exhibits of black and white photographs (of Ansel’s and many others).

Although I enjoy looking at color photography, for my own creative photography I exclusively work in black and white.  From my own experience, I have come to the conclusion that black and white photography may be an acquired taste.

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