Every great artistic change is a union of personality and place, be it Wordsworth and the English Lake District in the early 19th century, Pound and Paris in the 1920s or four lads in Liverpool in the early ’60s. For 20th-century American photography, that place was the San Francisco Bay area, and the personalities were the artists who formed Group f.64, a loose collective that thought photography should be free of artistic and technical pretense.
In Mary Street Alinder’s readable and thoroughly researched history of this group, we learn about the men and women who created many of America’s iconic images and in the process elevated photography to a museum-worthy fine art.
The tensions were clear: pictorialism versus “straight” photography. The industrialized East versus the transcendental West Coast. Beauty versus social relevance. Between 1932 and 1940, these tensions dominated debates about photography. The best-known members of Group f.64, Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Dorothea Lange, Imogen Cunningham and Willard Van Dyke, argued against the manipulations and staged effects of the pictorial style. Later, they debated if and how photography could address social ills. They believed photography was an art form and agreed with Weston, the group’s de facto but reluctant leader, that “the camera should be used for a recording of life, for rendering the very substance . . . of the thing itself.”
Hovering above the fray, cocooned in his New York gallery, was Alfred Stieglitz, modern photography’s “prophet and awakener,” with a Zeus-size ego and an arctic demeanor. When he abandoned the soft-focus lens for one with a sharper focus, it was photography’s equivalent of Bob Dylan going electric.
Alinder has written three books about Ansel Adams, whose assistant she once was, but here she doesn’t play favorites. She’s particularly interested in the domestic and artistic intertwinings of the Bay Area group, and we learn about their daily habits and ferocious work ethic. These artists worked, slept and taught together. They pooled their money. During Prohibition, photographers could legally buy alcohol, which they used to dry their negatives, so they also partied together. At one party, on Oct. 15, 1932, Group f.64 was born.
Though the group had written a manifesto for its first show and chosen a name, it had a less coherent philosophy than earlier artistic groups, such as the surrealists. But its members did agree on one thing, as Alinder makes abundantly clear throughout her book: Men and women were equal members and for the most part were considered equal talents, though there were some not unexpected male grumblings concerning the supposed softer feminine artistic sensibilities, which the female photographers wisely ignored.
Alinder is specific about the group’s progress through the lean years of the Depression. She describes in detail the numerous exhibits, the histories of galleries and their owners, accounts of articles and reviews, and colorful bohemian scammers who both helped and hindered members of Group f.64.
Nor does she shy away from the gossipy comments members sometimes made about one another, such as Lange’s description of Adams as loudmouthed and unattractive. Alinder frequently alludes to Weston’s priapic tendencies and remarks on how female members of the group rejected gender stereotypes: Cunningham kept her maiden name, and Consuelo Kanaga refused to stop photographing black Americans. Certain details can provoke amazement or, on occasion, irritation. In 1932, Adams’s prints sold for $10 each. When Lange and her husband, Paul Taylor, were on the road photographing displaced migrant workers for the Resettlement Administration, they put their children in foster care.
Strong on the personal, Alinder is equally informative about the technical side of taking and developing photographs. She lists the chemicals used; the types of film, filters and paper; and what “f.64” means in terms of how a camera focuses: sharp detail and fine depth of field. But her thoroughness is marred by frequent digressions, and when specific names and facts become unmoored from their original context, too often they fail to register. With more than 1,300 footnotes to not quite 300 pages of text, the reader soon learns to pick and choose.
As the Depression deepened, some in the group encouraged an aesthetic of social realism, believing that a documentary approach to photography could reveal social ills and also effect change. The beauty of Weston’s sand dunes or Adams’s majestic mountains, though still powerful and exemplary of the group’s original purpose of allowing the camera to record nature unimpeded, proved no match for Lange’s 1936 “Migrant Mother,” perhaps the most famous photograph in American history. Gradually, Adams and, to a lesser extent, Weston came to embrace the value and necessity of the documentary style, as long as the image was well composed and developed. To ensure that this happened, Adams volunteered to develop Lange’s negatives.
The story of Group f.64 is a success story. On Sept. 17, 1940, the Museum of Modern Art established the first department of photography in any museum. Alinder writes that the “door to equality for photography had been opened a crack, but it was the members of Group f.64 who flung it wide open.”
Today, with Instagram and embarrassing congressional selfies, it’s edifying to know that in our nation’s darkest decade a group of artists created works of lasting beauty and relevance. On every page of this fine book, Mary Street Alinder reminds us of this important fact.
O’Sullivan is a writer who teaches in the Honors College at the University of Maryland, College Park.
By Mary Street Alinder
Bloomsbury. 399 pp. $35