Progression of Art
Mills College Amphitheater
In 1920 after moving to San Francisco, Cunningham's photography turned away from Pictorialism toward sharply focused images of her subjects that included nudes, portraits, botanical still lifes, architecture, and industrial buildings. Already well known, particularly due to her pioneering images of the male nude (which created some controversy and scandal) Cunningham was an early innovator of the aesthetic approach that later became synonymous with Group f/64.
This photograph's partial view of the empty amphitheater emphasizes the pattern of the rows that, beginning at the lower right, curve through the pictorial plane to the upper right. A dynamic energy is created by the intersecting diagonals of three stone stairways, descending to the half circle of the stage, as their smaller rectangular forms interplay with the sharply contrasted light and shadow of the curving rows. The arcs of black shadow accentuate the repetition while the sharp focus makes the rough surface of the sunlit stone palpable. The elemental pattern of geometric form makes the space itself the subject, its aesthetic evoking a gathering of energy and attention.
Gelatin silver print - International Center of Photography, New York City
This photograph is a sharply focused close-up image of a magnolia blossom, as the curving forms of its white petals create a sensuous contrast with the erect pistil and stamen at the center of the image. As art critic Alison Meier noted, such photographs "are like proto-Georgia O'Keeffe flower canvases: clinical yet loving, often surreptitiously sexy - and sometimes not so surreptitious." The play of light and shadow accentuates the softly flaring curvilinear form, while also creating a sense of enveloping depth, as the curving shapes extend beyond the pictorial frame, and draw the viewer into the image. The use of sharp focus lends the "masterwork," as New York Times art critic Margaret Loke put it, a "crystalline eroticism."
Cunningham became interested in botany and photography while she was studying chemistry at the University of Washington, when she doubled as a photographer in the botany department. Her thesis "Modern Processes in Photography" (submitted in 1907) combined the two interests. While her early works were influenced by the Pictorialist Gertrude Käsebier, by the early 1920s Cunningham had turned to sharp focus close-ups that exemplified Straight Photography's leanings towards abstraction. Edward Weston, who curated the American contribution to the 1929 Film and Foto exhibition in Germany, included ten of Cunningham's plant photographs. The detail in her images is so precise that many botanists and horticulturists have used them in their studies, and her botanical interest led her to create the California Horticultural Society in 1933. Throughout her long career, Cunningham was noted as a radical thinker and gained renown as an innovator in experimenting photographic techniques and styles.
Gelatin silver print - M.H. de Young Memorial Museum, San Francisco
This close-up of a nude woman, lying on her stomach, is cropped above the shoulders and just below the hips. It is an anonymous figure study designed to emphasize aesthetic form over eroticism. The eloquent curves of the model's back radiate a kind of light, accentuated against the dark neutral background. Art historian Nancy Newhall noted that much "like a chisel" the "luminous flesh rounds out of the shadow, and the shadow itself [...] is as active and potent as the light." The image can be viewed as an abstraction, though the work remains figurative because it is rendered by the objective medium of photography itself.
Weston first began photographing nudes of his various lovers in the early 1920s, and his approach to other subjects, whether landscape or small objects like sea shells, peppers (and even a head of cabbage) are informed by a similar preoccupation with sensuous form. Here the radiant light on the model's back resembles the glow of light along the horizon, with the result that the body evokes what New York Times critic Hilton Kramer called "a landscape of the body."
Weston's work, be it landscape, still lifes or the nude, exemplified the Group f/64 aesthetic. Art historian Lisa Hostetler noted that "While at first glance, these subjects seem to have nothing in common [...] The photographers' meticulous concern for transcribing the exact features of what was before the camera bound them together and rendered the emotional experience of form the primary feature of their photographic art."
Gelatin silver print - Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City
Monolith, the Face of Half Dome, Yosemite National Park
Adams moved away from his earlier Pictorial landscapes following his discovery of Paul Strand and his Straight aesthetic. Yet, at the same time, Adams's sublime landscapes maintained deeper roots in the idea of American Transcendentalism and the Pictorialist Hudson River School. His initial contribution to Group f/64 came therefore through his elevation of the Western landscape as credible modern (rather than romantic) subject matter. His work not only influenced subsequent photographers (including Minor White and Harry Callahan) but affected a profound impact on growing environmental and wilderness movements, as the continuing popularity of his widely reproduced images instilled a wonder for America's National Parks in the general public.
A dark and brooding image of the Half Dome in Yosemite National Park, Monolith is a high contrast black and white photograph in sharp and deep focus (from foreground to background) taken from a vantage point known as the Diving Board, a granite slab that hangs 3,500 feet above the valley floor. Adams had been searching for a view of the Half Dome that also conveyed his sense of wonder at the natural world. By the time he reached the Diving Board, Adams had only two glass plate negatives left in his satchel. The first of the two was exposed with a yellow filter that he knew would darken the sky slightly. With the second, Adams used a dark red filter that significantly darkened the sky and subsequently emphasized the white snow and gleaming granite of the half dome. The resulting photograph marked a turning point in Adams's work: he had effectively previsualized what the photograph would look like before he pressed down on the shutter. Adams said at the time: "this photograph represents my first conscious visualization; in my mind's eye I saw (with reasonable completeness) the final image as made." In the years that followed, Adams would refine his ideas about previsualization in what he later called the "Zone System."
Silver gelatin print - Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City
Pepper No. 30
This iconic still life (disliked by Adams) of a somewhat irregularly formed green pepper has come to exemplify Weston's work. The photographer Sonya Noskowiak, who was at that time Weston's lover, offered him some peppers from which he selected this slightly overripe specimen. With its pencil sharp focus, rich tonalities and three-dimensional sculptural form, the pepper was, in the words of art critic Sean O'Hagan, transformed "into a sensual object with curves that echo both modernist sculpture and the human form," while the image's "ultra-realism shades into surrealism."
In preparation for this photograph, Weston spent four days experimenting with lighting and backdrops. He took over thirty photographs before hitting on the idea of placing the pepper inside a tin funnel. Weston described the funnel as the "perfect relief [...] adding reflecting light to important contours."
Weston's knack for transforming everyday objects, be they organic or manmade, was an important impetus in developing Group f/64's aesthetic. Weston explained how the pepper was "abstract in that it [was] completely outside subject matter" and that, moreover, one sees the potential for such a striking image through "through one's intuitive self [by] seeing 'through' one's eyes, not with them." As art critic Goldberg noted, Weston's work "seems to express a semi-religious sense, possibly unarticulated but running through modernism, that the created world, both organic and inorganic, is one, and that formal resemblances are a visual and metaphoric way of affirming this."
Silver gelatin contact print - San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
This photograph of a bedpan emphasizes the white curving object as, standing upright, outlined against a black background, it takes on a kind of monumental dignity. The image's tonalities emphasize the form itself, as intense white accentuates the flaring curves, while a black vertical line dividing the object draws the eye upward to the curving profile of the neck. The overall effect is that any recognition of the pedestrian object is superseded by aesthetic form. As art critic Sean O'Hagan observed, "the tonal quality of his black-and-white prints imbue everyday objects, both natural and man-made, with a heightened presence that sometimes makes them seem almost unreal." As Weston noted in his Daybook, it "might easily be called 'The Princess' or 'The Bird'!" naming two of Constantin Brancusi's noted sculptures. In this sense, Bedpan can be viewed as a companion piece for Pepper No. 30.
In the 1920s Weston took the architect Louis Sullivan's famous declaration "form follows function" as his own motto and said of this bedpan indeed that "It has a stately, aloof dignity," and when "stood on end," it fully evoked the "form follows function" credo. At the same time, the image rather recalled the surrealistic photography of Man Ray and László Moholy-Nagy, and Marcel Duchamp's Dadaist "readymade" Fountain (1917). Weston's choice of such a utilitarian, and somewhat distasteful, object to create something of pure (or Straight) aesthetic value was ground-breaking in the sense that it abandoned both the documentary aspect of photography but also any reference to the traditions of Pictorialism.
Gelatin silver print - Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City
Bone and Sky
Van Dyke's image depicts a cow's pelvic bone boldly profiled against the sky giving it the status of an elemental and monumental shape. Bold contrasts between light and shadow, accentuated by the sharp focus conveying the bone's rough and broken textures, emphasize the formal qualities of the subject while conveying the effects of searing sunlight. Similarly, the neutral but saturated background evokes both a sense of indeterminate space and the intensity of a cloudless Western sky. The bone's right irregular half, rendered in deep black tonalities against the almost white highlighted left side, creates an abstract form that, emphasized by the circular opening in the upper center, suspends recognition. The shape both lends itself to and resists reading as a stylized mask, a weapon or a modernist sculpture.
With his contribution in cofounding the movement, and in the writing of its manifesto, Van Dyke brought his concept of "pure photography" to Group f/64 in images, like this, that exemplified what he termed a "hard brilliance." Van Dyke also saw the movement as almost organically necessitated by its West Coast location and the "marvellous Californian light." As he said of making this image, "the skies were so blue and the air so crisp and clean and there was a kind of hard brilliance that [was] accentuated by using very sharp lenses and very small apertures." Van Dyke abandoned his commitment to still photography altogether when he moved to New York City in 1935 to pursue a career in documentary filmmaking.
Gelatin silver print - San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco
Rose and Driftwood, San Francisco, California
Though his fame is founded on his iconic American landscapes, Adams also produced a small number of still life studies. Like his landscapes, Adams brought a modern sensibility to what was a traditional painterly genre. Without distorting the objects in front of his lens (as was, say, Weston's preference), Adams used sharp focus to emphasize primary elements and relations between objects that might have ordinarily gone unnoticed. In this sense he demonstrated how the photographer could invite the spectator to consider the beauty of everyday things by using the camera to remove, or "liberate", the objects from their original setting.
In Rose and Driftwood, Adams made use of sharp focus and high contrast to depict the delicate veins of the rose and the raised striations of the driftwood. The resulting image is a strikingly modern interpretation of the traditional still life. Unlike Weston, who preferred to isolate objects by physically removing them from their surroundings, Adams married the rose with the wood on which it was placed. Drawing on his experience of photographing landscapes - imparting on him an eye for texture, contrast, composition, and an emotional connection with his choice of subject matter - Adams treats the rose and driftwood in much the same way, using the concentric circles of the driftwood and the rose rising from its surface like elements found in nature.
The Art Institute of Chicago