(Continued from the blog post, “Photography’s Golden Era 4.”)
The earliest beginnings of straight photography go back to 1915 when politics, the arts and sciences were in a state of revolution. Cubism, Freudian psychoanalysis, Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and the new rhythms of Jazz swept the country. “Everything was changing, but in photography the Pictorialists were still evoking foggy, romantic images of the past,” said American Photography: A Century of Images by PBS Home Video.
“One photographic artist would lead the medium into the modern age,” American Photography said. “His name was Paul Strand.” Aperture recently published a new book on Paul Strand in their Masters of Photography Series called Paul Strand by Mark Haworth-Booth.
Before Paul Strand’s work became known and for some time afterward, Pictorialists smeared Vaseline on their lenses to soften their images. They scratched their negatives to add texture. “They even painted chemicals on their prints to simulate brush strokes. The purpose was to make photography a hand-made process like other arts.” Pictorialist photographs looked like drawings or paintings with Chiaroscuro—light and dark contrasted effects, sketchiness and dreamy haziness.
Paul Strand, as part of the school of ideas and art that Alfred Stieglitz advanced, had his work published in Alfred Stieglitz’ magazine Camera Work and exhibited in Alfred Stieglitz’ Gallery 291. Paul Strand had been working for a few years on his own in 1915 when he brought his new work to Alfred Stieglitz to review. Alfred Stieglitz looked at the portfolio and said, “Young man, this is it. You have created a new and modern art.” Paul Strand used the camera to capture shapes and forms simply, directly and in sharp focus. Rather than depending on the skill of manipulation of the photograph after it left the camera, artistic quality depended on the eye of the photographer. Paul Strand’s images further revolutionized photography through the introduction of the abstract forms that he had observed in modernist paintings at Gallery 291. Paul Strand’s enthusiasm for sharp-focused realism was shared by a new generation of photographers: Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham, Walker Evans and others.
Nonetheless, by the early 1930s, Pictorialist photographs employing soft-focus, manipulated prints and painterly visions engaged their poetic moods and romantic scenes in a lively exchange among juried camera club competitions. “In the West, large numbers of Pictorialist photographers continued to take prizes at Bay Area salons…” wrote Therese Thau Heyman in her essay “Perspective On Seeing Straight” in the book Seeing Straight: The F.64 Revolution in Photography. “Pictorialist thinking and theory was at its most articulate in the mid-1020s. William Mortensen, a leading and vocal Pictorialist, later explained, ‘The business of a work of art is to make an effect, not to report a fact.’ Creating effects was pictorialism’s highest calling.” Mortensen claimed that without selection and artistry, “the camera has no more artistic potentiality than a gas-meter.”
Sides were drawn up. One unnamed speaker in a debate said of Edward Weston’s work that he had “dared more than the legion of brittle sophisticates and polished romanticists ever dreamed.” Edward Weston turned away from pictorialist methods eight or nine years before a Bay Area group of straight photographers formed Group f.64. In 1930 Edward Weston commented in his Daybooks of Edward Weston, “I wrote an article, published this July with examples of my work in ‘Camera Craft,’ a photo magazine which offers its readers just what they want…. I tempered my words, fearing the editor might not stand up under full blast. But seeing some unusually awful reproductions in the same issue by one Boris, with a laudatory article by the editor, I spent an hour writing him my mind. These cheap abortions which need no description other than their titles, ‘Pray,’ ‘Greek Slave,’ ‘Orphans,’ ‘Unlucky Day,’ have nothing to do with Art, nor Life, nor Photography. So I not very gently explained. But why did I waste my time? I know the editor’s policy, his outlook from his writings and magazine in general: backing my work and opinions, his publication would fail. I am in the mood to stir things up.”
Meeting Paul Strand in Taos changed Ansel Adams’ life direction as he turned away from his development as a concern pianist, to full-time pursuit of photography as a profession. When he returned to San Francisco, Ansel Adams gave up his textured photographic papers and began using the same smooth papers used by Paul Strand and Edward Weston. This revealed more detail in his prints and allowed him to “achieve a greater feeling of light and range of tones….” For more about the photography of Paul Strand see the blog post, “Straight Photography And Abstraction.”
“My work might interest you at this time,” Ansel Adams wrote to Paul Strand. “Stieglitz, with whom I had many fine hours in New York this spring, was very helpful and encouraging.” Ansel Adams invited Paul Strand to exhibit his work in San Francisco in a modest gallery that Ansel Adams had opened, but Paul Strand turned the aspiring photographer down objecting to exhibitions in general. For more on this story and Paul Strand see the blog post, “Ansel Adams and Paul Strand on Self-Promotion and Exhibitions.” Undaunted Ansel Adams wrote back to tell the black and white photography master that he understood. However he felt that some contribution, however small, could be made to photography by putting on the right kind of exhibitions. Some of the earliest exhibitions at the Ansel Adams Gallery in San Francisco were of the work of a new group of photographers dedicated to straight photography called Group f.64.
“I certainly wish I could see what you are doing in Mexico,” Ansel Adams wrote in his second letter to Paul Strand. “I have always had things happen to me—psychologically, even physically—when I have seen your things. I believe you have made the one perfect and complete definition of photography. Stieglitz is to me the great catalyst; he has taken rare mental and emotional material and turned it into creative channels…. I have often wondered what Stieglitz would have been had he concentrated entirely on his own work.
When Ansel Adams described his response to Paul Strand’s negatives to the photographers who in their next meeting became Group f.64, he found they were all in accord with pursuing what they at first called “pure photography” and later called straight photography as Alfred Stieglitz and Paul Strand called it. They did not meet often as a group, but provided moral support for each other. At the second meeting the young photographer Preston Holder suggested they call themselves ‘US 256’, the smallest aperture or lens opening setting that allowed for the greatest sharpness and depth. Because the new aperture system called this smallest setting f.64, Ansel Adams wrote down f.64 and all agreed.
Group f.64 composed a manifesto that defined the group’s purpose and philosophy. It said the name “signifies to a large extent the qualities of clearness and definition of the photographic image…Group f.64 limits its members and invitational names to those workers who are striving to define photography as an art form by simple and direct presentation through purely photographic methods. The Group will show no work at any time that does not conform to its standards of pure photography. Pure photography is defined as possessing no qualities of technique, composition or idea, derivative of any other art form. The production of the “Pictorialist,” on the other hand, indicates a devotion to principles of art which are directly related to painting and the graphic arts. The members of Group f.64 believe that photography, as an art from, must develop along lines defined by the actualities and limitations of the photographic medium, and must always remain independent of ideological conventions of art and aesthetics that are reminiscent of a period and culture antedating the growth of the medium itself.” The manifesto also committed the group to “present in frequent shows what it considers the best contemporary photography of the West.”
One of Group f.64’s early supporters was Lloyd Rollins, director of the M. H. de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco. Lloyd Rollins attended a gathering of the group at Willard Van Dyke’s home, viewed their photographs and offered them their first exhibition. This was Ansel Adams’ third major museum show and a break for the other group members as well. The group handed out copies of their manifesto at the show. The public and critical response was vigorous and often negative. Though many letters criticized Rollins for supporting a medium “that was not art,” the museum board continued to support the young pioneers.
The Group f.64 exhibitions drew both praise and criticism in the respected journal Camera Craft. A supporter of Pictorialism, reviewer Sigismund Blumann, in the May 1933 issue wrote,”The name of the organization was intriguing. The show was recommended to us as something new, not as individual work might go, but as a concerted effort specifically aimed at exploiting the trend. We went with a determined and preconceived intention of being amused and, if need be, adversely critical. We came away with several ideals badly bent and not a few opinions wholly destroyed…. The group is creating a place for photographic freedom. You will enjoy these prints. You will be impressed, astounded.” Articles by Los Angeles photographer William Mortensen in the same magazine were not so complimentary.
As part of the debate and to counter some of William Mortensen’s assertions, Ansel Adams wrote impassioned responses. These two famous photographers and proponents of their respective styles, argued so intensely in print that it expanded readership and multiplied interest in the controversy and photography in general, ultimately resulting in more supporters of the cause of straight photography. Ansel Adams described William Mortensen’s work: “His photographs were of models suggesting classic and Renaissance characters in historical and allegorical situations while in various stages of nakedness and period costume. They were just plain awful.” William Mortensen and Ansel Adams engaged in one of the fiercest debates in art history.
(The blog post to come, “Photography’s Golden Era 6” will begin to cover Ansel Adam’s Zone System and the founding of the photography department at the California School of Fine Arts that Philip Hyde attended starting in 1946.)