f.64 Group & the Pictorialists

The dominant style in creative photography since the turn of the century had been Pictorialism. If they were to be accepted by real artists, Pictorialists decided, they must make the hand of man apparent in the negative of the print. It became de rigueur to leave telltale evidence that the photographer, not the camera, was in control. Brushes added painterly strokes to wet emulsion, and soft-focus lenses and paper negatives diffused the light and the subject. The Pictorialists chose processes that required handwork to further muddy what would have been clear. Textured and colored printing papers called attention to themselves, rather than the image. To emphasize the seriousness of photography, they staged important historical events before the camera, with models in various states of costume and dishabille. This also reflected the dominant style of painting during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. But painters of any note had moved far away from this practice long before the Pictorialists adopted it. 

 

Frustrated by the continued dominance of Pictorialism and by the refusal of Alfred Stieglitz, the unchallenged leader of modern art in New York City, the center of American photography at the time, to take notice of their work, in the autumn of 1932 a band of Northern California photographers joined together to fight for recognition - for themselves as serious artists and for their medium photography as a fine art equal to others. Calling themselves Group f.64, they asserted that photography in and of itself could be a complete and independent art. They defined photography by its unique properties, foremost that I is a lens-based medium. The strength of a lens is that it can sharply focus light to produce a finely detailed image. Their style became known as straight photography, and it would be the dominant photographic tradition of the 20th century. Strong personalities with individual ways of expression, some well established, some just beginning, they coalesced into a movement that proved critical to the evolution of creative photography. 

 

pg. xi - xii

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Group f.64 was brash and young, passionately committed, and given to righteous proclamations. Egalitarian, they brought their philosophy of straight photography directly and intentionally to the masses - the opposite of Stieglitz's approach of cultivating society's wealthy elite. The group popularized straight photography by sharing their knowledge, including spelling out specific techniques, in books and magazines. Most important, the examples that Group f.64's members provided to demonstrate what straight photography could accomplish were breathtakingly beautiful photographic prints, particularly those of Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, and Imogen Cunningham. The group's aesthetics and practices prevailed after 1932, and that impact continues well into the twenty-first century. 

 

Following the tradition of earlier avant-garde art movements such as Surrealism, the members of Group f.64 wrote a bellicose manifesto for their first exhibition at San Francisco's M.H. de Young Memorial Museum. But the group ignored the general blueprint laid down by other recent efforts that treated women with disdain. The Surrealists restricted women to the role of muse until 1935, when they began to present significant works by them, whereas the first Group f.64 show, in 1932, included prints by four women and seven men. 

 

pg. xiv

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Because of its female members, Group f.64 presented a much broader understanding of what straight photography could be. The men's photographs were landscapes and closely examined objects. The women did not follow as narrow a definition of suitable subjects, but used photography to present a more expansive vision that encompassed the world and its people.  Their photographs included expressive, often stylized images of botanical subjects by Imogen Cunningham and portraits of African Americans by Connie Kanaga, unusual for the time. When Dorothea Lange joined their exhibitions, Group f.64 expanded further to include documentary photography. Catalyzed by the Great Depression, Lange's images were visual testimony of the heartrending conditions under which millions lived. Her photographs helped the government decide what would most efficiently assist the hundreds of thousands of disenfranchised citizens, and it also helped sell those social programs to the American people. 

 

This evolution in the definition of Group f.64 was not easy or unchallenged. From its core beginnings, the group had stood for art for art's sake. In times that saw 25 percent of the American workforce unemployed, Connie, Dorothea, Imogen, and soon Willard demanded a broader platform that included art made and sometimes used for a cause. 

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