Saturday, January 17, 2015

Group F.64 by Mary Street Alinder shows why the group that revolutionized American Photography was more than the sum of its famous parts.

GROUP F.64: Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham and the Community of Artists Who Revolutionized American Photography

I was given the book Group F.64 (Bloomsbury 2014) as a holiday present and found it richly satisfying. Mary Street Alinder's thoughtful, well researched history of a pivotal group of West Coast photographers is respectful and slyly humorous. Here is the ever-charming Edward Weston, stilted but stalwart Ansel Adams, the acid-tongued and generous Imogen Cunningham, among the founding members of the iconic group that defined  modern photography. Strength of character and  artistic purpose evolved along with their iconic imagery.

Edward Weston, elder in years and, at first, skill, lived a frugal ethic of "straight" photography, allowing nature to reveal itself. Even his vegetables were animated and provocative with no artifice. Ansel Adams, who started as a  serious musician and amateur photographer, reversed that emphasis. He learned from Weston but applied "straight shooting" to capture the grandeur of nature.  Adams wrote influential articles, defining the new photography and challenged "pictorialists,"the dominant group of  photographers.
From a well-to-do family, Adams opened the first gallery in San Francisco to show the new photography.

But the lesser known Willard Van Dyke, who worked in a gas station, is credited with the name Group F 64, the initial manifestos, and getting the group shown in exhibitions at the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco and a gallery, in Oakland, he founded with photographer Mary Jeanette. Connie Kanaga, Brett Weston, Alma Levinson, Sonya Noskowiak, Henry Swift, were also part of the original group.  Interestingly, women were shown on an equal basis. Though some were in romantic relationships, like Sonya with Edward and Mary Jeanette with Willard, their work was judged on its merits. In fact, Dorothea Lange, who was earning her living as a commercial photographer, was not considered evolved enough, with an original purpose, though she was included in later exhibitions.

When Group F.64 was formed. the dominant  "Pictorialists" were not exploring the capabilities of the new medium. Instead, they sought to create effects equivalent to painting with fuzzy filters and collage. Printed on buff or gray textured paper, these photographers aimed for works of "art." They were contemptuous of the new photography, which wanted to use the medium to express real life on its own terms. Group F.64 used filters to enhance dense textures, rich tonal values, and sharp edged imagery, They celebrated the truth a photographer could express with a camera. Glossy white paper was the surface for their prints.

Mutual artistic objectives, shared techniques and the practical need to exhibit and sell their work, inspired Group F.64. Acceptance and respect was crucial, since they were mostly excluded by pictorialist aesthetic from exhibitions and galleries. Though as the Group gained in status and their ideology matured, subject matter and intentions increasingly diverged. Members, like Willard and Connie Kanaga, went East. Williard traded photography for film making. Ansel also made a pilgrimage east to New York, where he sought out the demi-god of modern photography, Edward Steichen. This was a major turning point.

Where Edward Weston refused to bow to Steichen's dominance and Imogen was completely ignored, Ansel became a protege. Eventually, Steichen and Adams achieved nothing less than the acceptance of photography as an art form, sealed in the creation of MOMA's photography department--the first in a major museum. Adams' work was also promoted by Steichen in exhibitions at his gallery, An American Place. It was the epitome of modern photography, unchallenged before Group F 64.

One of the delights of this book is the feeling you are dropping in on a group of friends. Here they are brainstorming philosophy, strategizing future shows and ways to earn money. You see them falling in or out of love.  You are at a party, where Weston, a womanizer, was said to dance the tango in drag.  There's Dorthea Lange, who shot ads for women's beauty products, stopping her car on a rainy, muddy road to shoot a woman who caught her eye--a migrant with her kids, hungry and tired. Here's Connie Kanaga, seconds away from injury or death, shooting a violent worker's strike. There is Ansel developing his Yosemite photos in his darkroom in his parents' house.

While knowledge of this group may be old news to art students, who knew about them as people?  Flaws--romantic fickleness, posturing, dogma--and strengths--pursuit of ecstatic visions and social justice--are just part of this inspiring story.  Instead of deifying individual "greatness," Group F.64 shows why the whole became more than the sum of its famous parts.

S.W.