GROUP f.64 + Ansel Adams

by Tom Reaume August. 02, 2017 488 views

A Small Yellow

A Small Yellow

Group f.64 is a 400-page, illustrated history book by Mary Street Alinder, published by Bloomsbury, New York in 2014. She has written 3 books on Ansel Adams (1902–1984), and was his assistant during the last 5 years of his life.

The book covers the period of transition in still photography (late 1800s into the early 1900s) from the Pictorialist style into pure or straight photography championed by Group f.64, as they named themselves. Actually, f 64 was only a name. Many of the group’s photographs were taken at f 16 or 11. Outdoors, clouds and trees are often moving, which requires a short exposure time to eliminate the dreaded blur. The book is filled with arguments on one side of the same coin as to which one style of still photography should prevail. Even though both philosophies were trying to raise still photography to the status of a fine art, equal to painting and etching, each was certain their own style was the only style that should exist. How odd a conclusion for a medium thought of as fine art? Is only one style allowed, because a camera should only be used one way? Is photography about the camera, or a person?

In this book they use the ridiculous phrase – A clear sharp image is the way a “camera sees.” I didn’t realize the camera saw anything. Modern cameras are built to auto-focus on a subject. If the focus is off, the picture is deemed a failure and deleted. The camera did not see the way it was trained.

Both styles were concocted using a camera the same way – taking images using reflected light. And many members of Group f.64 began as Pictorialists, make fuzzy, soft-focused, artistic prints. Pictorialists “strive for the syntax of painting and etching in the language of the camera.” Group f.64 had their own philosophy, “Pure [straight] photography is defined as possessing no quality of technic, composition or idea derivative of any other art form.” Such a statement is laughable. It resembles something Donald Trump would say. If a still photographer pictures a landscape, person, nude or still life, these ideas were taken from painters. And similar compositions are common to all forms of art. One get’s visually exhausted from looking at hundreds of perfectly focused, exposed and composed still photograph in magazines and on web galleries day after day. A soft-focused image is a visual relief.

In the East, specifically New York City, Alfred Stieglitz was the reigning god of Pictorialism, showing both photography and new styles of paintings at his galleries, 291, and An American Place. His publications were also used to reinforce his photographic stance, ignoring the west coast artists trying to find their place in the rule-laced world of photography. Camera Craft, a popular publication, was the ring where the two stylistic camps of still photography exchanged blows. Working together, Group f.64 formed a union of several still photographers, including Imogen Cunningham, Dorothea Lange, Edward Weston and Ansel Adams, who kept the fashion alive. Some members were quite poor. Photography, of any style, rarely sold, especially in the 1930s, during the Great Depression. Most members made a living doing commercial work, or from handouts by David McAlpin, a wealthy businessman who sponsored some shows, sat on boards of art museums, and bought work directly from the photographers.

In those early days, photographers would hobnob with some directors and curators of major art museums. Ansel Adams was a friend to Beaumont Newhall, who in 1940 became the first curator of MoMA’s NY photography department. From 1958 to 1971, as director of the George Eastman House in Rochester, NY, he assembled one of the major photographic collections in the world. Adams took it upon himself to educate Newhall in the ways and means of still photography, and what it should be and look like.

Today, I could never hobnob with Quentin Bajac, the chief curator of photography at MoMA, NY and discuss the creative process and importance of pure abstract photography. With millions of still photographers today, the best anyone can hope for is to enter online photographic contests and receive feedback from a judge. Or pay someone to review your portfolio and give sage advice. Whenever I send examples of my art to a gallery, the deafening response is silence. If I meet with a director of a 10th rate art museum, they don’t have enough money to buy one abstract image. Back in the 1930s, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, told Alfred Stieglitz they did not have money to purchase his photographs. Curators and directors of today employ the same old excuses used 90 years ago to keep images from entering their collection of art. By the way, I was in NYC last year and the Metropolitan is definitely a museum worth visiting, as an historical and artistic institution.

Group f.64 believed in themselves, and as a group had more influence than a lone artist such as myself pounding on the doors of still photography. The American art critic Arthur Danto, “The history of art is the history of censorship.” The contest between the Pictorialists and straight photographers was based on a belief in a certain fashion. And fashion, entirely made-up, changes over time. One style evolves into another, and another. Permanence is an illusion. And today, in this age of openness and pluralism of styles, it appears anything goes, except for pure abstract photography. When was the last time my readers attended an exhibition of pure abstract photography at a major art museum anywhere in the world? Do you wonder why? How many still photographers discuss the theory of photography with a pure abstract photographer? A few times I have exchanged URLs with a still photographer. I sent an email with comments after viewing their website’s still photographs. I asked them to look at my abstract images, which resulted in silence from the individual. Professors of photography, who teach, take still photographs and often get shows, refuse to contact me to discuss photographic theory. Still photographers are a very insecure, insular herd. If Quentin Bajac wrote a piece for ArtNews claiming still photography was not an art, he would be executed the next morning, right after he was fired by Donald Trump. Still photographers discuss technique, composition, software, and subject matter endlessly, but rarely styles of photography. Everyone takes still photographs which are finely focused and of significant documentary value. If you take pictures of your cat, you add them to Flickr. Judges of photographic contests, and those on grant-dispensing art councils, are often still photographers who always turn me down. They are looking for the familiar (like their images), which is what they like and know how to judge. As always, the uncommon disturbs them. It was like that 100 years ago, and it remains in our DNA today.

Curators agree a lens-based photograph must not look like a painting? This is a wide-spread opinion. The curatorial gatekeepers in major art museums all think alike. This is a fatal flaw of photography. Like those images made by members of Group f.64, my images are pure or straight in an historical sense. I use a camera to capture light and create my abstractions. I don’t crop or alter them with software. Nor do I use filters, as did Ansel Adams. The photographic community accepts photograms made without a camera, but not mine made with a camera. So why the political, economic, artistic discrimination? Still photography is a huge success as a documentary medium, but an abysmal failure as a fine art, since both categories enjoy the same style. D looks like A. There is very little artistic freedom in fine art photography today. The medium has too many rules and regulations. It sadly lacks human expression, the basis for creativity.

Ansel Adams “Pictorialism is on the wane: the blurred indefinite ‘poetic’ prints are slowly but surely passing into historical oblivion.” This did not happen. Any worthwhile book on the history of photography contains a few pages of text and images on Pictorialism. And a few modern photographers maintain the tradition of soft-focus, just as a dedicated group of still photographers make images resembling the landscapes of Ansel Adams. By the way, Pictorialists' photographs are generally my favorite in the history of the medium.

Edward Weston, a prominent member of Group f.64 “In the last analysis, man himself is seen as the actual medium of expression. Guiding the camera, as well as the painter’s brush, there must be a directing intelligence—-the creative force.”

I create my anti-still photographs to express myself with a camera, as Weston suggested. That is the main reason. To see what a pure abstract photograph looks like, and to enjoy form, texture and color without the rich details of everyday things, are other reasons. Finally, to start another tradition of anti-still photography, one loaded with artistic merit. TR

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