Group F/64

Things were way too stuffy for the young West Coast California photographers; they needed fresh air, wide-open spaces, cars, the Pacific Ocean, the desert, a dash of eroticism (except for Ansel), dramatic light, and most of all, freedom from the stifling East Coast crowd and their mind-numbing Pictorialist dregs. The date was November 15, 1932, exactly 79 years ago today. It marked the date that the f/64 photographers had their coming out exhibition at the de Young Museum in San Francisco.

Come to think of it, these West Coast photographers didn't really care for much of anything that remotely smacked of the East Coast (well, except for maybe killer bagels and lox), and even named their Oakland gallery the "683," mocking the Alfred Stieglitz New York "291" gallery. Mocking is good, I like that. Sometimes all you've got left is spunk and a nearly empty box of film. These new photographers couldn't stand the pretentiousness of the cramped New York scene and were brazen about it. Danged if they were going to let a bunch of haughty East Coasters define them, and after naming themselves “Group F/64,” they even came up with a manifesto. How's that for audaciousness?

I absolutely love this photograph by Imogen; it reminds me of a ferocious great white shark being hunted down by Killer Whales from my ancient homeland in Alaska. The paper with the mottled light has echoes of mountainous waves and the black values at the top echoes the drama of a night sky, which is a perfect metaphor for trying to survive in the worst depression America has ever witnessed. It feels ominous and predatory without being didactic, and the coolest part is simply naming it something as innocuous as "Plant Pattern." Brilliant, simply brilliant. Especially when you realize that it was the 1920's and other artists were pretending to make work with relevance as Imogen was quietly making a portfolio of photograhic prints that had this visual aesthetic; she was a master of light in addition to the artistry of her compositions. I can only imagine her figuring out the light for this photograph, because like many of her other works, the negative spaces and shadows were just as pivotal as the highlights and mid-tones. Her carefully crafted rim of highlights served to add weight to the negative spaces. This is where blacks were so important, and I'm sure she spent many hours in the darkroom emphasizing this look, it wasn't accidental by any means. Imogen knows blacks.

Not only that, but Imogen studied chemistry in Dresden Germany and her key research had to do with improving the platinum printing process. Printing with a platinum handmade emulsion is part chemistry, part alchemy and in my opinion, part mojo. There is something extremely challenging about working in that media because so many things can go unexpectedly wrong, but when you get it on target, you end up with the most beautiful photographs with a tonality and range of values that today's digital photographers can only dream of attaining.

Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham and Ansel Adams were the most well known of the original seven members. They were fierce about breaking out of the painterly, soft-focus romanticized Pictorialist style and presented their own visual aesthetic that was a reflection of the new modernist times.

Unfortunately, the modernist times also included the Great Depression, which was in full swing, with poverty and unemployment the norm for most of the country. This was an essential part of what informed the mindset for this f/64 group, that the average person would have to fight for social justice in the land. It’s part of what fueled the radical “Manifesto” part of their identity; it was both rebellious and assertive about hammering out a new paradigm for themselves.

They wanted a style that epitomized what big cameras and high quality lenses were capable of making; they wanted to stretch the capabilities of what photography could offer, including a look that had the entire photograph impeccably sharp from corner to corner with a tonal range that pulled as much out of their film as it could offer, which meant rich blacks, a full range of mid-tones and detail in the highlights.

In order to capture this new modernist look, they needed lenses that could stop down to f/64 in order to maximize sharpness, especially if camera movements were involved that minimized distortions, hence their name. They also needed to shoot with view cameras, generally either 4x5 or 8x10 if they could afford the larger more expensive film. Part of their photographic workflow included using the large camera that took a great deal of patience and meticulous handling in order to make the careful and studied compositions. They needed the large cameras because the larger film translated to less enlarger magnification, which in turn meant dramatically finer grained prints or almost eliminating film grain altogether.

Van Deren Coke, who used to be the Curator of Photography at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and then later a scholar at the University of New Mexico, described Cunningham's photographs as "Her inherently sensuous subjects- large graceful flowers, elegant tapered leaves and rounded cacti- were transformed into formal compositions by her emphasis on close-up views, geometric detail and the tendency of shadows to appear as opaque silhouettes in photographs. Cunningham speaks to the beauty of pure geometry in nature... (From "Photography: A Facet of Modernism" P.36).

Van Deren Coke is one of my heroes because he helped establish the Photography Area at the University of New Mexico where I earned my Master of Fine Arts degree and also earned a Van Deren Coke Fellowship as a graduate student.

So how does this Group f/64 body of work stand the test of time 79 years later? Especially as we slip and slide around in the Postmodern zone, where anything goes? I'd say that Group f/64 set a nice standard for photographers and artists who want to break out of outdated conventions, aesthetics and ideas about the creative process. They made it just fine for photographers to let go of the old ways of thinking, especially in troubling times as we are in again with a large scale socio-economic depression of our own. I'm reminded that perhaps it is time for another manifesto that signifies a shift in the social strata of the land, and have it reflected in a new paradigm of art making.

All I really know is that as a photographer, I have an appreciation and gratitude for the beauty of the f/64 work. There came a time back in the late 1990's where I needed to use a 4x5 camera in a studio with lights and everything. I couldn't get the look I was looking for with scanned negatives, so I shot on 4x5 Polaroid film and made platinum prints from them because it had a wider tonal range, so I could squeeze out a few additional tones of black. It did the trick, so it was cool that I was able to pull this modernist stuff out of the hat like it was a magic rabbit or something.

Ordinarily, the story would end here, but since I'm an artist and photographer first, I thought I'd share what I'm doing with some of these f/64 modernist tools in 2011. I take that back, my Schneider lens only goes to f/45, but that's plenty good enough for my plan. I just purchased a heck of a camera on eBay, a very cool Wista 4x5 rangefinder field camera. What's cool about it is that it uses the large format film, but you can use a rangefinder for focusing, which makes it way faster for photographing people. I guess that means I'm not really an f/64 purist, but that's okay I guess. I'm not the least bit worried about it,but am very excited at the idea of using a 4x5 camera again, because it has that beautiful f/64 look that digital cameras can't quite squeeze out yet.

But wait, you haven't heard it all yet-- I have ten boxes of Polaroid Type 55 negative film to use with this. Wow. For you photographic peasants who don't know what this means, too dang bad, I'll show the photos in a future entry. But for now, happy 79th year of having the f/64 photographers splash on the scene. Here's to all of you, bottom's up, man.

Story by Larry McNeil, Copyright 2011, All Rights Reserved.

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