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Exhibition Focus: Rewind

Exhibition Focus Rewind: The Legacy of Group f. 64

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By Carl Nagin

Originally Published in January 2007

All images provided by the Scott Nichols Gallery (www.scottnicholsgallery.com) for Issue 11 of Focus Magazine.

Among the West Coast black-and-white photography’s diverse strands, the most influential have been the 19th century pictorialists, Carleton Watkins and Willard O. Worden, the social documentarians, Dorothea Lange, and Group f. 64, a coterie whose founders included Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham, and Ansel Adams. One of the finest collections of Group f. 64 work will be on view in San Francisco at the Scott Nichols Gallery from January 4 through February 24, as part of the gallery’s 15th anniversary.

Ansel Adams – On the Heights, Yosemite, CA, 1927

Adams and Cunningham were first drawn to Weston’s Carmel studio after seeing his photographs of Mexico, the Monterey Peninsula, and Big Sur. In 1932 they launched a movement that would revolutionize American photography. They called themselves Group f. 64, a name derived from the smallest aperture available in the large format cameras they used.

Brett Weston – Man in Boat, New York, 1944

They rejected the then popular soft focus style for what they termed pure photography, defined in their manifesto as “possessing no qualities of technique, composition or idea, derivative of any other art form,” i.e., painting or graphic art. They believed that their straight photography was true to the medium, and their aesthetic emphasized clarity of image, maximum depth of field, sharp focus, and attention to detail and texture. In the darkroom, they used smooth, glossy papers and techniques to render photographic tonal gradations as accurately as possible. Although Group f. 64 disbanded in 1935 after only three group shows, the most famous was their 1932 debut at San Francisco’s De Young museum, the movement had a profound and enduring influence. In landscape, they explored essential forms whether in industrial settings or natural environments. And while Adams’ portrayals of Yosemite emphasize a sense of grandiosity and awe, Weston used the camera to uncover abstract and sensuous elements in his subjects. “To photograph a rock,” he famously wrote, “have it look like a rock, but be more than a rock.”

Edward Weston – Breast, 1922 (platinum print)
Brett Weston – Nancy Newhalls Sundeck, circa 1944
Brett Weston – New York City, 1945
Edward Weston – Diego Rivera, 1924
Edward Weston – Pelican’s Wing, 1931
Ruth Bernhard, Delores in the Forsest, 1963
Imogen Cunningham – Two Callas, circa 1925
Peter Stackpole – Bay Bridge Construction, 1935

The Scott Nichols show also includes work by Weston’s second son Brett, and some lesser known photographers associated with Group f. 64: John Paul Edwards, Willard Van Dyke, Cedric Wright, Anne Brigman, and Peter Stackpole. The show reveals the high quality, allusiveness, and vitality of these artists’ photos, apparent in Edward Weston’s Pelican’s Wing, from the group’s 1932 De Young exhibit, and his 1924 portrait of Diego Rivera, as well as Imogen Cunningham’s erotically charged Magnolia Blossom and Two Callas. Group f. 64 brought a modern, abstract look to American photography, the movement’s enduring legacy, a visual poetry of essential forms married to the rigorous integrity of handcrafted prints.

   Carl Nagin, cnagin@hotmail.com, is a San Francisco Bay Area freelance writer.

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