Their goal: looking sharp

Exhibit pits f/64’ers against the Pictorialists

Alma Levenson’s “Self-Portrait’’ consists of just her hands and her camera. Alma Levenson’s “Self-Portrait’’ consists of just her hands and her camera. (Center for Creative Photography/University of Arizona)
By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / November 5, 2010

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PORTLAND, Maine — On large-format cameras, the aperture setting f/64 allows for impressive depth of field and great sharpness of image. What makes that fact of more than technical interest is Group f/64 taking its name from that setting. Its members, who included Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, and Imogen Cunningham, sought to change the face of art photography in the early 1930s. The extent of their success can be seen in “Debating Modern Photography: The Triumph of Group f/64.’’ The show, which consists of 98 images by 18 photographers, runs at the Portland Museum of Art through Dec. 5.

Why would a group of photographers — let alone so talented a group — feel the need to declare their devotion to depth of field and sharpness of image? Isn’t that what photography is supposed to consist of? Not according to Pictorialism, the dominant school in art photography during the first decades of the last century.

Pictorialism was the genteel tradition with a viewfinder, the intersection of spiritual high-mindedness and aesthetic propriety. If all photography is prose (which isn’t to say prosaic), then Pictorialism was prose whose authors arranged it on the page as poetry. Anne Brigman could title a photograph of a glass of water on a shelf “The Glory of the Commonplace.’’ Not every title can be both self-congratulatory, “glory,’’ and condescending, “commonplace.’’ That duality gets at the heart of Pictorialism.

A goodly chunk of “Debating Modern Photography,’’ a show that manages to be informative and intelligent without ever seeming pedantic, consists of Pictorialist work. This gives a sense of what Group f/64 was up against and where it came from. Inevitably, the f/64’ers started out as Pictorialists. That’s one reason for the steeliness of their opposition. The fiercest anti-Communists have always been former Communists; the harshest anti-clericals, lapsed Catholics.

Perhaps the best way to think of Pictorialism is as the pursuit of painterliness by other means. Photographers employ, and rely on, light. Pictorialists wanted to give it an approximation of impasto. Their pictures weren’t just gauzy, soft-focus, and self-consciously “artistic.’’ They were proudly so. If photography couldn’t be the work of brush or pen, photography’s artistic betters, at least it could look like them. William Mortensen’s “Untitled’’ and “Jascha Heifetz’’ uncannily resemble charcoal drawings. The effects are impressive, so much so that you’re aware of them as just that, effects.

Pictorialist photographers were so secure in their formal assumptions that they could take on seemingly unsuitable content — like Brigman’s picture or Johan Hagemeyer’s “Gasoline Tanks.’’ As a rule, they turned to more exalted subjects. Sigismund Blumann’s “Nature’s Temple,’’ a view of a redwood grove, sun-splashed and effulgent, is lovely. Irving Bennett Ellis’s “Tranquility’’ shows a sailboat on the water. The rippling of light — photonic impasto? — nearly makes you dizzy.

The thin-air artiness of Pictorialism can appear quite silly today. Much of it remains beautiful, though (something made plain in “TruthBeauty: Pictorialism and the Photograph as Art, 1845—1945,’’ which is currently at the Phillips Collection, in Washington, D.C.). Yet that very beauty raises a question central to the debate between Pictorialism and Group f/64: Is beauty intrinsic to the world or something applied to it, like rouge or powder? The Pictorialists were powder people. Group f/64, scorning powder, skipped skin, and went straight to bone.

Or rock or shovel or milk bottle or airplane wing or weathered board or turnip: These are all subjects of Group f/64 photographs in “Debating Modern Photography.’’ They are all also quite beautiful. The f/64 photographers were capable of work that could be as lyrical, and even sweet, as that of the best Pictorialists. Adams’s “Grass Meadows, Late Evening, Yosemite Valley’’ is an example.

But it was solidity that they were after, in appearance no less than subject. They weren’t alone in this. The Neue Sachlichkeit photographers, with their “new objectivity,’’ had similar goals in Germany. Generally using large-format cameras, the f/64’ers printed on glossy paper and made contact prints so as to preserve as much detail as possible. Adams’s “The Golden Gate Before the Bridge, San Francisco, California’’ shows clouds so substantial-looking they could be punching bags. In front of these pictures one is reminded of the simplicity — and effectiveness — of Samuel Johnson’s rejoinder to Bishop Berkeley’s argument that materiality is an illusion. “I refute it thus!’’ Johnson declared, kicking a stone.

Pictorialism was a style of such stylization its products almost appear ashamed of their medium. Group f/64 prized solidity of medium, as well as of appearance and subject. The photographers’ 1932 artistic statement declared that “Pure photography is defined as possessing no qualities of technic, composition or idea, derivative of any other art-form.’’ Photography, in other words, wasn’t about other graphic arts; it was, and should be, about photography. Alma Levenson’s “Self-Portrait’’ perfectly captures this view. Consisting of her hands and her camera, it gives equal weight to artist and machine.

“Their work is uniquely hard and brittle,’’ Mortensen wrote of Group f/64 in 1934, “and consistently avoids any subjective interest.’’ By subjective interest he meant artistry — as opposed to technical expertise. Edward Weston had made clear the foolishness of such a view seven years earlier. His “Shell’’ is almost flaunting in its lustrous surfaces and the unmediated contrast between black background and pearly shell. This is technique as artistry, and artistry as technique, indistinguishable and dazzling.

More than just a photograph, “Shell’’ is also an arrow aimed at the heart of Pictorialism. That sound you hear isn’t a shutter click. It’s a bull’s-eye being hit. What makes “Shell’’ all the more striking is that Weston was on the cusp between the gifted Pictorialist he’d been and the even more gifted Modernist he was on the way to becoming. He didn’t realize he had a bow, let alone that he was drawing it.

Mark Feeney can be reached at


is at the Portland Museum of Art, 7 Congress Square, Portland, through Dec. 5.

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