Published: September 21, 2010
In the 1930s, a small group of California photographers challenged the painterly, soft-focus Pictorialist style of the day. They argued that photography could only advance as an art if its practitioners exploited characteristics inherent to the camera’s mechanical nature. This small association of innovators created Group f/64, named after the camera aperture that produces great depth of field and sharp focus.
“Debating Modern Photography: The Triumph of Group f/64,” on view September 30⁄ecember 5 at the Portland Museum of Art, revisits this debate and includes images by photographers in Group f/64 such as Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham, Sonya Noskowiak and Willard Van Dyke, as well as images by Pictorialists such as Anne Brigman, Johan Hagemeyer, William Dassonville, William Mortensen and Karl Struss.
Presenting approximately 90 works by 16 artists, “Debating Modern Photography” is the first exhibition to provide a substantial consideration of the group since 1992, and is sole in its inclusion of Pictorialist examples to illustrate the debate.
One night late in 1932, a group of like-minded Bay Area photographers †among them Ansel Adams, Edward Weston and Imogen Cunningham †discussed what they saw as the appropriate direction for modern photography. They decided to exhibit their work as a demonstration of a new aesthetic, under the name “Group f/64.” They used large-format cameras and contact-printed their negatives on glossy paper to preserve all the rich detail they recorded.
For the group, subject matter was less important than technique. Their photographs include nearly every possible category: industrial, urban and natural landscapes; portraits of friends and fellow group members; isolated objects for sharp-focus still lifes; and details extracted from the visible world.
To distinguish themselves from the Pictorialists, Group f/64 wrote, “Pure photography is defined as possessing no qualities of technic [sic], composition or idea, derivative of any other art-form.”
Over time, Group f/64’s purist approach came to be known as “straight” photography, in contrast to the manipulation typical of their Pictorialist opponents. That straight vision became so widely accepted and championed, it no longer appears controversial, as it did to audiences of the 1930s. Furthermore, the triumph of the short-lived but influential Group f/64 has caused the Pictorialist side of the debate to fade into near obscurity. This exhibition revisits the controversy, not only to acknowledge the Pictorialists’ arguments, but to illustrate how avant-garde straight photography once was.
“Debating Modern Photography” will provide key examples of the clean edges and bold forms of Group f/64 that contrast sharply with the romantic, handcrafted Pictorialist approach that appears in elegant portraits, tonalist landscapes and allegorical studies.
The Portland Museum of Art is at Seven Congress Square. For information, 207-775-6148 or www.portlandmuseum.org .
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