Ansel Adams and Group f/64

On November 15, 1932, at the M. H. de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco, eleven photographers announced themselves as Group f/64: Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham, John Paul Edwards, Preston Holder, Consuelo Kanaga, Alma Lavenson, Sonya Noskowiak, Henry Swift, Willard Van Dyke, Brett Weston, and Edward Weston.

The name f/64 derives from the smallest aperture available in large-format view cameras at the time, and it signaled the group’s belief that photographs should celebrate, rather than disguise, the medium’s capacity to present the world “as it is.” As Edward Weston phrased it, “The camera 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 group’s effort to present the camera’s “vision” as clearly as possible included advocating the use of aperture f/64 in order to achieve the greatest depth of field possible, thus allowing for the entire scene photographed to be sharp and in focus (by comparison, modern day lenses for SLR cameras usually taper off at f/22 or f/32 aperture).

Following is the manifesto of Group f/64:

The name of this Group is derived from a diaphragm number of the photographic lens. It signifies to a large extent the qualities of clearness and definition of the photographic image which is an important element in the work of members of this Group.

The chief object of the Group is to present in frequent shows what it considers the best contemporary photography of the West; in addition to the showing of the work of its members, it will include prints from other photographers who evidence tendencies in their work similar to that of the Group.

Group f/64 is not pretending to cover the entire of photography or to indicate through its selection of members any deprecating opinion of the photographers who are not included in its shows. There are great number of serious workers in photography whose style and technique does not relate to the metier of the Group.

Group f/64 limits its members and invitational names to those workers who are striving to define photography as an art form by simple and direct presentation through purely photographic methods. The Group will show no work at any time that does not conform to its standards of pure photography. Pure photography is defined as possessing no qualities of technique, composition or idea, derivative of any other art form. The production of the “Pictorialist,” on the other hand, indicates a devotion to principles of art which are directly related to painting and the graphic arts.

The members of Group f/64 believe that photography, as an art form, must develop along lines defined by the actualities and limitations of the photographic medium, and must always remain independent of ideological conventions of art and aesthetics that are reminiscent of a period and culture antedating the growth of the medium itself.

As far as the how the group acquired its name, the story isn’t 100% clear. Per Wikipedia:

There is some difference of opinion about how the group was named. Van Dyke recalled that he first suggested the name “US 256”, which was then the commonly-used Uniform System designation for a very small aperture stop on a camera lens. According to Van Dyke, Adams thought the name would be confusing to the public, and Adams suggested “f/64”, which was a corresponding aperture setting for the focal system that was gaining popularity. However, in an interview in 1975 Holder recalled that he and Van Dyke thought up the name during a ferry ride from Oakland to San Francisco.

The history of the group is fascinating. And while we may agree that Ansel Adam’s photograph has withstood the test of time as some of the best landscape photography the world has ever seen, the group’s definition of pure photography as defined by “possessing no qualities of technique, composition or idea, derivative of any other art form” would face opposition from many modern-day photographers. That’s because the process of choosing aperture, composition, ISO, and so on may considered an artistic process. If I choose to shoot a long exposure of a waterfall in the daytime, have I misrepresented reality? If your eyes can’t envision a blurring of water but the camera can, am I deceiver the viewer? While there are technical points that one must understand as a photographer, the actual application of the technical process process is unique.

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