Photographs by Ansel Adams, Ruth Bernhard, Imogen Cunningham, Dorothea Lange, Peter Stackpole, Edward Weston, Brett Weston and others.
Among the West Coast black and white photography's diverse strands, the most influential have been the nineteenth century pictorialists (Carleton Watkins and Willard O. Worden), the social documentarians (Dorothea Lange), and Group f. 64, a coterie whose founders included Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham, and Ansel Adams. One of the finest collections of Group f. 64 work will be on view in San Francisco at the Scott Nichols Gallery through March 31st, as part of the gallery's fifteenth anniversary.
Adams and Cunningham were drawn to Weston's Carmel studio after seeing his photographs of Mexico, the Monterey Peninsula, and Big Sur. And in 1932 they launched a movement that would revolutionize American photography. They called themselves "Group f. 64," a name derived from the smallest aperture available in the large format cameras they used. They rejected then popular soft focus styles for a "pure photography," defined in their manifesto as "possessing no qualities of technique, composition or idea, derivative of any other art form," i.e., painting or graphic art. They believed that their "straight photography" was true to the medium, and their aesthetic emphasized clarity of image, maximum depth of field, sharp focus, and attention to detail and texture. In the darkroom, they used smooth, glossy papers and techniques that preserved tonal gradations to render photographic images as accurately as possible.
Although Group f. 64 disbanded in 1935 after only three group shows (the most famous was their 1932 debut at San Francisco's De Young museum), the movement had a profound and enduring influence. In landscape, they explored essential forms whether in industrial settings and natural environments. And while Adams' portrayals of Yosemite emphasize a sense of grandiosity and awe, Weston used the camera to uncover abstract and sensuous elements in his subjects. "To photograph a rock," he famously wrote, "have it look like a rock, but be more than a rock."
The Scott Nichols show also includes work by Weston's second son Brett, and some lesser known photographers associated with Group f. 64: John Paul Edwards, Willard Van Dyke, Cedric Wright, Anne Brigman, and Peter Stackpole.
Stackpole established himself in his early 20s with a series of photos documenting the construction of San Francisco's Bay Bridge and was soon hired as a staff photographer for Life magazine. His 1935 work Bay Bridge Construction presents a dramatic view of the city's waterfront as seen through a cable saddle in one of the bridge's then-unfinished towers. High aloft, the saddle resembles the top of a playground slide or the hump of a roller coaster ride. This precarious perch fills most of the compositional frame, so the viewer looks down towards the water where a truss-shaped tower sits on a barge, waiting to be moved as the next span of the bridge is completed and connected by suspension cable to the saddle. Stackpole uses this dizzying aerial perspective to great effect. Between the saddle and the water below, only a strand of rope cordon off the void to keep the viewer from visually falling into the picture.
Nichol's show reveals the high quality, allusiveness, and vitality of these artists' photos, apparent in Edward Weston's Pelican's Wing (from the group's 1932 De Young exhibit) and his 1924 portrait, Diego Rivera, as well as Imogen CunninghCarl Nagin (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Bayam's erotically charged Magnolia Blossom and Two Callas.
Group f. 64 brought a modern, abstract look to American photography, the movement's enduring legacy, a visual poetry of essential forms married to the rigorous integrity of handcrafted prints.
Carl Nagin (email@example.com) is a Bay Area freelance writer.