We are back from a successful trip to the Olympic Peninsula and also from a one day outdoor art tour which was not so successful, but it’s over. In my two printing days this week I got four images finished and ready to mount for our annual open house in December and Kathy today finished two new images for the same event. I say this not because it is exciting news to anyone except us, but to give context to my absence from this blog and as a prequel to what is really exciting to us, an upcoming exhibit at the MAC, the Northwest Museum of Art and Culture in Spokane.
As part of the prequel, we attended the exhibit just closing, a set of images from Edward S. Curtis on the North American Indian series he burned up his years and moneys on. The Spokane Public Library was one of the early purchasers of Curtis’ set and a couple Summers ago I served as a technical consultant to a library series that publicized the set and exposed weekly groups of visitors to some of the books and images. This last exhibit was, in itself, a powerful revelation of the role photography has played in out cultural history.
The next exhibit, opening in a couple days is even more pertinent to the work Kat and I do: “Museum Masters: Group f-64”. This show includes work by Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham, Willard Van Dyke, and Brett and Edward Weston. A long time ago in a land far away (Atlanta) I saw an exhibition by Ansel and Edward Weston at the High Museum. At the time I knew next to nothing about Weston and as they were in separate rooms, I spent most of my brief time looking at Adams work, while strolling through the Weston exhibit casually, walking past the cases that held his cameras and giving cursory glances to his 8X10 prints. Every time I recollect this I try to kick myself.
Group f-64 was probably formed at some California potluck with a lot of vegetarian food and plenty of wine. Credit for the name goes to Van Dyke and although the group exhibited together perhaps just once, one gets the notion that most of the members did not take it as seriously as Adams did. He wrote a manifesto on straight photography. It has an earnest quality and semi religious overtones. As with most religious tracts there is an air of self-righteousness as well.
To get a sense of what Group f-64 was about we must mention Pictorialism of course, and specifically one of its California evangelists, William Mortenson, who taught photo classes and worked in and about Hollywood. I have several Mortenson books, which go from informative and thought provoking to insufferably maudlin and, given some of the illustrations, more than a bit icky. Pictorialism is a broad term for the general thrust of late 19thand early 20thcentury photo club kinds of photography. The Salons, as they were called, involved a sort of culture of contest in which one submitted prints before the “judges” who might give helpful advice but also might be critical to the point of humiliating budding photographic “artists.” There were salons in both the U.S. and in Europe, and photographers submitted works across the seas. Many good things came from these clubs but the overriding theme of creating art in general caused photography to develop an affection for imitating painting and drawing, where, in that era, art was supposedly best expressed. There were early exceptions among the salonists, like Peter Henry Emerson who developed quite a following among what is sometimes described as the “naturalist” photographers. The Stieglitz circle, i.e., the photo-secessionists, made an early but incomplete break from that predilection to make a photo look not like a photo. Ansel Adams began photographing in the pictorialist mode, soft focus lens, dreamy landscape etc.
There were technical contributions to the revolution that was to come. The anastigmat lens was one component, sharp and decisive. There was the Kodak and Kodaking among the masses who could afford the camera. We have a 1903 annual printed by Eastman Kodak of winners of their contest, all photos made with an Eastman camera, and lo and behold, when amateurs got a camera they did not go for warm and fuzzy but did their best to focus and hold still. Arguments may have been going on in the darkrooms of the New York Camera Club but the Mother of the family in Iowa just wanted sharp and properly exposed pictures of her children! Then came, of course, glossy gaslight and enlarging papers. Artist photographers tended to print on gum bichromate or Platinum and with those media details sunk into the fibers of the matte surface, Glossy paper on the other hand showed what the daguerreotype revealed 60 years earlier, the sharp, etched detail that a lens could capture.
So when the history of photography is written, inevitably we hear about the theories and the personalities that argued them. When one reads Edward Weston’s Daybooks, on the other hand, what comes out is Edward trying out some commercial glossy contact print paper, and almost immediately swearing off the matte surface platinum paper he imported from England. He then goes into a joyous frenzy of work trying out some older negatives on the new paper and the rest is history.
The California photographers all seem to have been moved by the same spirit and their personal friendships established a mutual support society so that the formation of Group f-64 seemed like a natural event rather than simply a way of formalizing an aesthetic ideology. Nevertheless, there really was a significant ideological basis to what comes to be called, “straight photography.” Adams’ manifesto tries to clarify what straight photography must be, but he was not a great writer. He was a great photographer and a true believer. And he was a vociferous opponent of the Pictorialist photo clubs and their soft and fuzzy salons of pretty pictures and a vocal antagonist to the Pictorialists’ advocate William Mortenson, his fellow Californian. Group f-64 advocated for the presentation of the photographic tools and materials in their very best and most natural state, sharply focused images, cleanly presented printing with minimal manipulation of negative and paper, straight and not tortured into looking like and charcoal drawing or water color print.
They didn’t invent this way of photographing of course. Timothy O’Sullivan, Peter Henry Emerson, Eugene Atget and Mrs. Alfred Donaghue of Baltimore, Maryland all practiced to the best of their abilities a form of straight photography. The dominance of the Pictorialists and the photo clubs, and of Stieglitz and his coterie in New York made the 19thcentury straight photographers disappear from the discussion, and that New York group made themselves the genius of its reinvention without really knowing the mediums’ own history.
Group f-64, in that context thus becomes very important and even as it disbands and the photographers disperse to their own careers, their impact will reverberate for the rest of the 20thcentury, and in a sense they win the battle. Mortenson, once a famous man is hardly found in the histories of photography. Adams writes two photo series that establish the norm for a black and white photography that joins a workable scientific and technical base to a romantic approach to the American landscape.
What became of the photo salons? They exist today in the photo clubs, like we have here in the Pacific Northwest, full of photo enthusiasts with remarkably similar high end digital cameras talking about converting medium format lenses to full frame bodies and the wonderful results. Kat and I have judged, at the request of the clubs a few contests and it was always an interesting but frustrating experience. We looked at prints made by Walmart, for example, of a bug on a bright, bright green leaf that, we were informed, was made with 40 different exposures! We looked at a panoramic view of the inside of a famous local old theater that, we were told, was stitched together from 7 different captures. Kat has a 4×5 negative of the same angle but alas, she made it with one ¼ of a second exposure and the 90mm Angulon. We turned down another judging when given instructions to watch some online lessons on judging, only to find the teacher showing when to advise a photographer to remove an object or person from the image file to better the competition. We cringed. That is not straight photography.
The name Group f-64 is interesting. Although we do have a lens that goes down to f-128, these big numbers are not the norm for lenses after maybe 1935! Part of the change was the transition from the US system of numbering: 4,8,16,32,64,128, to the f system itself: 1,1.4,2,2.8,4,5.6 etc. It seems however, that a lot of very good photographers in those days worked with the assumption that a lens continued to increase in sharpness as the aperture decreased, so that Weston brags in his daybook of making an exposure at f-256 to get the very best detail. In truth, the image degrades due to refraction much earlier and even if apparent depth of field increases the resolution goes to pot pretty quickly. For contact printers like Edward Weston, that never really reveals itself. So the name that Willard Van Dyke suggested is based on that fallacy. But no harm done. We are careful when we are shooting, nevertheless, to try to not go smaller than f-22 with most of our large format lenses, and definitely not with our medium format lenses.
It will be immensely enjoyable, in the midst of this land of miraculously stitched together ink jet prints from a dozen exposures with saturated colors as overdone as super-sugary pumpkin lattes with cinnamon sprinkled whipped cream tops, to take a slow walk through an exhibit of cool, calm black and white prints from a few of our favorite photographers and once more remind ourselves of our aesthetic foundations and inspirations. We are, we laugh to ourselves and each other, lesser lights: group f-22.