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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Group f/64

On November 15, 1932, at the M. H. de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco, eleven photographers announced themselves as Group f/64: Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham, John Paul Edwards, Preston Holder, Consuelo Kanaga, Alma Lavenson, Sonya Noskowiak, Henry Swift, Willard Van Dyke, Brett Weston, and Edward Weston. The idea for the show had arisen a couple of months before at a party in honor of Weston held at a gallery known as “683” (for its address on Brockhurst Street in San Francisco)—the West Coast equivalent of Alfred Stieglitz’s gallery 291—where they had discussed forming a group devoted to exhibiting and promoting a new direction in photography that broke with the Pictorialism then prevalent in West Coast art photography. The name referred to the smallest aperture available in large-format view cameras at the time and it signaled the group’s conviction that photographs should celebrate rather than disguise the medium’s unrivaled capacity to present the world “as it is.” As Edward Weston phrased it, “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.” A corollary of this idea was that the camera was able to see the world more clearly than the human eye, because it didn’t project personal prejudices onto the subject. The group’s effort to present the camera’s “vision” as clearly as possible included advocating the use of aperture f/64 in order to provide the greatest depth of field, thus allowing for the largest percentage of the picture to be in sharp focus; contact printing, a method of making prints by placing photographic paper directly in contact with the negative, instead of using an enlarger to project the negative image onto paper; and glossy papers instead of matte or artist papers, the surfaces of which tended to disperse the contours of objects.

Such methods transformed the role of the artist from printmaker to selector: it was the photographer’s choice of form and his or her framing of it that made the picture. The use of a view camera enabled the photographer to preview his scene on the ground glass (a flat pane of glass on the camera that reflected the scene from the point of view of the lens), the view camera’s equivalent of the viewfinder in the 35mm single-lens reflex camera, before he snapped the shutter and developed the print, and the extensive employment of this device was a hallmark of Group f/64. Weston dubbed its effective use “previsualization.” Group f/64 photographers concentrated on landscape photography—notable examples include Adams’ Winter Yosemite Valley (49.55.177) and Weston’s Dunes, Oceano (1987.1100.129)—or close-up images of items from the natural environment, such as plants and pieces of wood, subjects that highlighted the photographer’s creative intuition and ability to create aesthetic order out of nature’s chaos. In addition, a significant number of Group f/64’s photographs were of industrial structures, quotidian objects from the modern world (such as Weston’s Bedpan [1987.1100.134]), and nudes (particularly exceptional ones exist in the oeuvres of Weston [Nude, 1925; 2005.100.142], and Cunningham). While at first glance, these subjects seem to have nothing in common, Group f/64’s photographs of them do. The photographers’ meticulous concern for transcribing the exact features of what was before the camera bound them together and rendered the emotional experience of form the primary feature of their photographic art.