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How Ansel Adams and the Photography Group f/64 Found “Pure” Photography

American photographer Ansel Adams has often been thought of as a solitary figure who ventured into the American wilderness on his own to create—in pristine, detailed black-and-white—what have become the defining images of American landscape photography. But Adams, arguably one of the most recognizable and revered figures in American photography, almost wasn’t a photographer at all.

Up until a critical meeting in 1930 with master photographer Paul Strand, Adams had been dedicated to his career as a classical pianist in San Francisco and enjoyed photography only as a hobby. He was captivated by the tonal quality of Strand’s negatives, which he described as “full, luminous shadows and strong high values, in which subtle passages of tone were preserved.” Strand’s images inspired Adams not only to commit himself full-time to photography, but also to follow in the master photographer’s style of “straight” photography—unmanipulated black-and-white photographs documenting landscapes and scenes of everyday life—a departure from the romantic, hand-painted images of the pictorialist photographers that dominated American photography in the early 20th century.

That same year, Adams also met then-San Francisco-based photographer Edward Weston. A group of working photographers began to coalesce around the close friendship that emerged between Weston and Adams, who all shared the fiercely held modernist vision of “pure photography” Adams had inherited from Strand. The group of 11 photographers included Imogen Cunningham, Henry Swift, Willard Van Dyke, John Paul Edwards, Brett Weston, Consuelo Kanaga, Alma Lavenson, Sonya Noskowiak, and Preston Holder, who announced themselves officially as Group f/64 in a 1932 group exhibition at the De Young Museum in San Francisco. The group’s name is derived from the smallest possible aperture setting on a camera, which created a clearly delineated background and foreground, and the sharpest depth of field.

The group believed in the “innate honesty” of the camera, which, as Weston described, “should be used for a recording of life, for rendering the very substance and quintessence of the thing itself, whether it be polished steel or palpitating flesh.” The f/64 photographers were concerned with natural subjects—Weston’s evocative close-ups of fruits and vegetables, for example, or Adams’s sublime images of Yosemite National Park, nudes, and everyday objects. In their 1932 manifesto, Group f/64 described pure photography as “possessing no qualities of technique, composition, or idea derivative of any other art form,” a conviction very much in line with modernism’s celebration of the intrinsic qualities of each medium—paintings should be painterly, photographs should be photographic, and sculptures should be sculptural.

After WWII, the group’s modernist faith in the indexical nature of the photograph gave way to a much more flexible view of the possibilities of the medium. Given that Adams was renowned for his technical abilities in the darkroom and his knowledge of manipulated exposure, the notion of a “pure,” unmanipulated photograph was always more of an ideal than it was a reality. After 1935 the group disbanded and members of f/64 took their practice in various directions, some evolving into a more humanist documentary photography in the late ’40s and others into a similarly conscientious photojournalism that would emerge in the ’50s. The members of this significant but brief moment in photography's history went on to make some of this most influential contributions to the medium throughout the 20th century.

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