Defining Modernism — Group f.64

On a pivotal evening at the 683 Brockhurst Gallery in Oakland, California, in 1932, seven West coast photographers –Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham, John Paul Edwards, Sonya Noskowiak, Henry Swift, Willard Van Dyke and Edward Weston — declared themselves Group f.64. Consciously celebrating the camera itself, these artists derived their name from the smallest aperture available on a large format camera lens. A lens setting at f.64 provided a precise image with the greatest range of sharp focus from foreground to background. Through its name and a landmark exhibition that same year, Group f.64 proclaimed the independent ambitions and aesthetics that helped define modernist photography.

Self-Portrait, Alma Lavenson, 1932

Self-Portrait, Alma Lavenson, 1932

By embracing the unique properties of their medium, Group f.64 broke from the sentimental ideals and painterly techniques of the prevailing Pictorialist tradition. Instead, they advocated the potential of photography to render an objective realism that illuminated the essence of pure form. Members of Group f.64 concentrated on the ordinary object seen in extraordinary ways. They isolated objects from context and directed their attention to details and design, employing close-ups, cropping, flattening, and ambiguities of size and scale. Their work frequently embodied a passionate and spiritual search for what Edward Weston called “the life force within the form” (Rosenblum, p.36).

Group f.64 photographers — nearly one-half of whom were women — shared utopian aspirations and radical methods, but their work also encompassed contradictory incentives and conflicting goals. Largly self-taught, they produced portraits, landscapes, and nudes in geometric and organic forms. Their work was employed in art photography, news reportage, advertising, and for documentary purposes. Some defined themselves as artists; others did not. They called attention to the photographer’s subjective vision while asserting the impersonal detachment of the camera apparatus. Many were passionately committed to social reform; others saw social relevance in the aesthetic image itself. Though they insisted on “pure vision” their notion of pure photography allowed for a wide range of technical approaches, including both manipulated and non-manipulated images.

The work of Group f.64 emerged from avant-garde currents that had existed for at least two decades in the United States and longer in Europe. The modernist movement on both sides o the Atlantic drew much of its vigor from the industrial transformation of the urban environment. The machine became central to a faith in a new age where technology promised a better life for the average citizen. Its geometric forms became a favored subject of Precisionist painters and photographers alike. Industrial subjects, shapes, and surfaces are prominent in the work of Edward Weston, Edwards, Lavenson, and Noskowiak, while Adams and many of these same artists were drawn to the geometric and cubist shapes of New Mexican pueblo architecture.

Group f.64 was built upon a loose and already established association of friends that included professional, romantic and filial relationships. Several artists benefited from exhibitions at the photography gallery run by Williard Van Dyke and Mary Jeanette Edwards at 683 Brockhurst Street in Oakland. Especially important, too, was the patronage of Lloyd Rollins, director of the M. H. de Young Memorial Musueum in San Francisco, where the group’s inaugural exhibition opened on November 15, 1932. This seminal exhibition also included invited associates Preson Holder, Consuelo Kanaga, and Alma Lavenson.

— Kerry Oliver-Smith

Curator of Contemporary Art, Harn Museum of Art
2001