Summary of Group f/64
Formed in the San Francisco Bay Area, the 11 members of Group f/64 (sometimes referred to as the West Coast Photographic Movement) owed their assiduous aesthetic precision in fact to the East Coast of America and to the endeavors of Paul Strand. It was Strand who can claim to have developed and finessed Straight Photography and it was indeed the pursuit of a "pure" (or Straight) image that became Group f/64's unifying quest.
One of the most famous photographic collectives in history, Group f/64 mounted a revolt against the dominant fashion within the art of photography which was to ape the painterly and graphic techniques associated with Bay Area Pictorialism. The members' preference was for a style of art photography that would fully promote the camera's unique mechanical qualities. As the Group declared in its 1932 manifesto: "Pure photography is defined as possessing no qualities of technique, composition or idea, derivative of any other art form [and] The Group will show no work at any time that does not conform to its standards." Indeed, the diaphragm number f/64 from which the Group took its name, is the smallest camera lens aperture possible and thereby lends the image a sharpness and detail in depth that simply could not be replicated by the hand or in real time. The Group used large format view cameras to achieve their effect and they produced images ranging in theme through landscapes, still lifes, nudes, and architectural features.
Key Ideas & Accomplishments
- Typically, Straight Photography used large format cameras to create high contrast semi-abstractions and/or geometric repetitions. The images were often reliant on size and context for their full aesthetic affect and these imagess were thus intended to be exhibited in dedicated galleries before they passed into print publication.
- Group f/64 as a whole was committed to photographing ignored or mundane objects to which they brought new perspectives and meaning through their pursuit of the purest image. In short, the spectator was often invited to "take a second look" at what they might have otherwise taken for granted. It was the goal of elevating the world around them to something more "spiritual" that saw them ranked as high-modernists.
- During its short existence, the members of Group f/64 remained faithful to the ontology of the photographic image. In other words, their images existed on their own terms and were thus devoid of any social or political reference. Though this approach invited criticism from some quarters, the Group was committed to the principle that photography - or rather pure photography - must be left to stand alone if it was to affect supreme mental attainment in the spectator.
- While it was not uncommon for modernists to strive for activity and movement in their photographic images, Group f/64's approach to its subjects was studied and measured. There is then a stillness and serenity to be found in the Group's compositions. This tranquillity gave the images - especially so when viewed in the surroundings of the gallery - an aura that was unique to pure photography.
Overview of Group f/64
Before Straight Photography, the idea of a photographic art was associated with Pictorialism, a movement that began in 1885 and dominated international photography for roughly 20 years. Pictorialism emphasized artistic effects by staging subjects, using soft and blurred focus, extensive darkroom manipulations and composite, or merged, photography. However, as early as 1904 the art and photography critic Sadakichi Hartmann was calling on photographers to produce "photographs that look like photographs" (rather than copy pictorial painterly traditions). Hartmann's ideas resonated with the likes of Alfred Stieglitz who was simultaneously an advocate of American Pictorialism and European modern painting. Indeed, Stieglitz's magazine Camera Work, and his famous 291 Gallery in New York, often placed Pictorial and experimental works side by side. By 1915, however, Stieglitz had started to campaign solely on behalf of a pure photography: "Not a trace of hand work on either negative or prints. No diffused focus. Just the straight goods" he declared. That same year, Stieglitz, acting as something of a mentor, dismissed the soft-focus inclinations in Paul Strand's photography. Strand took Stieglitz's rebuke to heart and began working towards what he initially called "objective photographs."