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One of the main purposes of early photography was to replicate a painting’s function in society. Visual content creation was highly oriented towards reproducing observable reality, and photography demonstrated how efficiently it could perform such tasks. Nevertheless, it also mimicked the pictorial aesthetic along the way.
The photographic tradition was capable of imitating painting-like results thanks to exposure and focus decisions on camera, summed with post-production techniques done in the darkroom. Diffused light and soft-focus was fundamental for photography during those days.
But in the first decades of the twentieth century, a rather compact group of photographers detached from the pictorial tradition and embraced objectivity as their flag. Instead of replicating drawings and paintings, they went in the opposite direction. And by doing so, they also started photographing quotidian and everyday stuff.
For them, seeking imperfections just for the sake of delivering images that looked like paintings was a waste of time and potential. Since its early days, photography was capable of delivering high quality photographs, and they took advantage of it.
A simple formula illustrates their stance regarding this:
And just like that, in 1932 the ƒ/64 Group saw the light. This was a photographers’ group with the sole shared commitment for using large format cameras in order to produce direct photographs capable of delivering an honest message to the crowds.
Sometimes, the “direct” term is usually accompanied by some ideas that imply a “right on camera” approach. But that wasn’t necessarily true. Ansel Adams was a great in-field photographer, but he was also passionate about the whole photographic workflow, which also includes the proper development of the negative and the ultimate step of printing the images too. Also interesting to know, the ƒ/64 refers to the aperture value these folks used on the fields for major sharpness and depth of field.
Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946)
He was fascinated with light and studied its conditions and effects. Drawn by the logic of science and the possibilities of the photographic medium, he became obsessed with getting closer to reality. Initially, he studied engineering and photo-chemistry in Berlin, and his first works were oriented towards conventional photographic imagery. But right after reaching the technical limits of the medium, he dived deeper into the nuts and bolts of the craft. At the age of 26, he began looking for new ways of both exposing and processing the images he was taking with his camera. Later on, together with Joseph Keiley, he invented “pure photography” by using the well-known gelatin process.
Edward Steichen (1879-1973)
Historically, several visual masters have migrated from drawing and/or painting to photography, but Steichen was one of those odd cases that remained faithful to both expressive techniques. Between 1894 and 1898 he studied under the guidance of Lorenz and Schade at the Milwaukee Art Students’ League. In parallel, he worked as an apprentice in a lithographic business and was both interested in painting and photography. Later on, he successfully participated in various American and European photographic exhibitions; curiously enough, he continued to pursue his career as a painter, something observable in the way he interpreted light in his photographs. During World War I, he served as a photographer in the Air Force and the Marines, and his style profoundly changed forever.
Charles Sheeler (1883-1965)
Multi-talented artist who successfully developed as a filmmaker, painter, and photographer. In addition, he is considered a pioneer of the photographic image and an important actor of the new objectivity that was cooking in the United States at the beginning of the 20th century. First, he trained as a painter and was regarded as a rebellious student of William Merritt Chase. He exhibited at the Armory Show in 1913 and kept a committed career with photography until 1930.
Then he dedicated himself to exploring for 25 years the role or function that photography could have within the world of painting and as a photographer he won the admiration of other members of the ƒ/64 like Stieglitz, Steichen, and Strand. Self-proclaimed as a precisionist, I have emphasized the importance of linear precision in his works. His photographic works and subjects in general were human-made objects such as machinery and structures.
He learned photography by himself and freelanced documenting local buildings for architects. Some years after that, he began photographing the interior of his own house. He shaped its rough spaces with light and shadow, pulling out their underlying compositions of solids and spaces. He also photographed and drew the vernacular architecture around him, especially barns, whose straightforward design he admired.
Imogen Cunningham (1883-1976)
Her early works were strongly influenced by pictorialism but later on she turned towards direct photography. She made, among others, botanical visual studies, portraits, and some scandalous (for that moment in time) nude photographs of her husband. However, one of her most significant contributions to photography was given to the deep essence of the craft, chemistry. In 1909, she received a scholarship to specialize in Dresden, Germany, and published her doctoral thesis under the title of “About the Direct Development of Platinum Paper for Brown Tones”. During that period she took no significant photographs due to being extremely focused in her studies. After that, she returned to the United States and opened her own photography studio in Seattle.
With the fusion of art, science, and her particular visual language, she conceived herself as one of the most interesting and memorable icons in the history of photography. Throughout her life, she demonstrated an incredible capacity for synthesis, interpretation, and understanding of what she was portraying, earning her to become one of the most important photographers in all of history.
Edward Weston (1886-1958)
Beyond his womanizer fame, Weston is considered as a true pioneer and consistent representative of the American straight photography movement which the ƒ/64 was all about. His career began at the age of 16 after he received a camera as a gift from his father. The gadget was a simple box Kodak Bull’s-Eye No. 2 camera which he took on vacation. By the time he returned home his interest in photography was enough to lead him to purchase a used 5×7 inch view camera. His committed passion towards photography was instantly triggered after that gift, and by himself he learned about the possibilities this expressive medium was capable of. At the age of 22, he attended the Illinois College of Photography and then went to LA where he worked both as a lab assistant and retoucher in a photographic studio there.
He experimented a lot with his cameras, and seeked abstract motives, unusual viewing angles, and interesting lighting conditions. But as many would agree on today, his style became more solid after his time in México with the one and only, Tina Modotti. Also his contact with Mexican artists such as Diego Rivera and the daughter of Guillermo Kahlo might have influenced his unique and direct style. Famous for being a presenter rather than an interpreter, Weston gave us realism through his artistic efforts and concerns. Along with other photographers from this list, he founded the ƒ/64 group, and in 1937 he received the famous Guggenheim grant, becoming the very first photographer to ever get this highly-desired accolade. With that aid, he traveled through Californio and neighboring states for two years in a row.
Paul Strand (1890-1976)
At the age of 19, he completed his studies under Lewis Hine at the Ethical Cultural School in New York. Filmmaker and photographer, who as an artist defeated pictorialism with his meticulous direct images. Like the highest representatives of Cubism, Strand sought a point from which his perspective could represent the entire world. His commitment to showing the truth behind the appeals was notorious, and his interest in society led him to become one of the founders of modern documentary photography.
Although his work is considered quintessential in the development of straight photography, he also produced a noticeable abstract body of work. He replaced the classic pictorial orientation of the time for a self-assured exploration of the genuinely photographic medium, and he found charm in the banal, mundane and quotidian aspects of modern human life. In a sense, we can consider Strand as a precursor of what William Eggleston achieved several decades after him.
Consuelo Kanaga (1894-1978)
Her family praised the ideals of social justice, and those same values shaped her understanding of the world. After finishing high-school, she began writing for the San Francisco Chronicle in 1915, and in the subsequent years she learned the darkroom technique and became a staff photographer. Through the California Camera Club, she met other members of the ƒ/64 like Cunningham and Weston, but also Dorothea Lange.
Three marriages and one cancelled engagement later, she periodically relocated between New York and San Francisco, where she established a portrait studio in 1930. While not an official member of our featured group, her images were exhibited in the first exhibition of the group at San Francisco’s M. H. de Young Memorial Museum in 1932. She was involved in West Coast liberal politics; and in 1935, she was associated with the leftist Photo League.
In photographic terms, romantic instincts characterise her work. She was a committed advocate of black rights and was distinguished for her documentary images assigned by the FSA after the New Deal era. Similar to Diane Arbus, she also turned her lens on typically marginalised subjects like African Americans, Native Americans, and the urban & rural poor. In a nutshell, she is an American Photographer worthy of a further piece entirely dedicated to her work.
Ansel Adams (1902-1984)
He made his first photograph at the age of 14 during a vacation trip to Yosemite National Park in California. This event changed his perspective about nature, and maybe triggered his obsession for rendering landscapes with his cameras as he was able to see them with his bare eyes. Adams offers us a good example of how photography is capable of seamlessly coping with other passions filling our lives. More than a photographer, he was a committed environmentalist who found in photography the perfect tool for transmitting his beliefs in a direct and easy to understand visual language.
But achieving such direct messages wasn’t an easy task. Beyond patiently waiting for the perfect moment given by nature, he also felt the need of pushing the limits of what was yet achievable in the darkroom while developing and printing his photographs. In order to solve this he, along with Fred Archer, developed a precise image-making system better known as the Zone System. In simple terms, this approach allowed him to get the exact monochrome tonality according to the colors he was seeing in the landscape during the moment the shot was taken.
In other words, this system allowed him to translate observable colors into the corresponding tones within the grayscale photography offered during that time. All this hard work allowed him and other members of the ƒ/64 group to achieve a desired final print through a deep technical understanding of how tonal range was recorded and developed during exposure, negative development, and printing. The results, aggressively rich images with intense clarity and depth.
Wrapping it Up
Some other notable figures of this group were Sonya Noskowiak (1900-1975) and Willard Van Dyke (1906-1986). Curiously enough, one quickly draws the conclusion that the ƒ/64 was all about landscapes and nature; but this list gives us a better understanding of what got these photographers together, their shared interest for pushing photography away from the highly subjective results of pictorial mimicry.
In fact, the ƒ/64 is an interesting example of how social groups are able to constitute themselves without much trouble as long as they have something in common. Despite the broad interests expressed by each of the members, the uniting force was photography, and we still can learn some resonant lessons for us to gain a stronger and more meaningful relationship with our beloved visual discipline.