PRINT November 1963


The Henry F. Swift Collection of Photographs by the f/64 Group at San Francisco Museum of Art

THE F/64 GROUP WAS FORMED in the Bay Area in the early 1930’s as a reaction to the wave of photographic pictorialism that was sweeping the country. The designation f/64 did not indicate a preoccupation with the depth of field that would result from such a small lens opening, but was a symbol of the completely honest penetration of reality that these photographers thought was the function of the camera. The high priest of the pictorialists was William Mortensen, a southern California photographer and teacher, whose photographs used the negative as only the most tenuous point of departure. He photographed people in romantic poses, manipulated the negatives by extensive retouching, printed through texture screens, toned the photographs a glowing chocolate brown, and gave them biblical or mythological titles. Mortensen was a superb technician, but his photographs were as remote from the world around him as were the paintings of Maxfield Parrish—and to be sure, today one reacts to the work of both these men in much the same way.

The f/64 Group, some of whom had been pictorialists, came to feel that the photographer should use his camera to investigate the world around him—that the photograph should be a part of his life, not something he did for ART. It was loosely organized, no dues, no officers, just a group of people who met occasionally to discuss their common convictions about the nature of photography, and who joined together in 1932 to present an exhibit. The original members were Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, Imogene Cunningham, John Paul Edwards, Sonia Noskowiak, Willard Van Dyke, and Henry F. Swift; later William Simpson and Peter Stackpole (who went on to be one of “Life” magazine’s first photographers) joined the group. Their exhibit opened at the De Young Museum on November 15, 1932, with 64 prints by members, and 16 by sympathetic, nonmember friends, Alma Lavenson, Consuelo Kanaga, Preston Holder, and Brett Weston, Edward’s son.

The present show is the first reconstruction of that exhibit. Henry Swift (a San Francisco stockbroker) was a man of many transient enthusiasms. In the early 30’s his passion was photography. He was competent enough to be included in this group, and was the only member of the group with enough money to collect the photographs of his friends. His collection was given to the San Francisco Museum of Art on his death several years ago. The current exhibit, spanning the few years of Swift’s interest in photography, includes many prints which were shown in the first f/64 show—as well as photographs from the same period which have been loaned by members to round out the show. The show also includes, apparently because they happened to be in Swift’s collection, contemporary photographs made by outsiders—two prints by Dorothea Lange and one by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy.

The Swift Collection is uneven. Adams and Weston could have been represented by better prints than are shown here, although the pattern of a dried-out cut onion by Weston is a strangely haunting image. Imogene Cunningham and Alma Lavenson show the most exciting photographs; Cunningham’s prints reveal a photographer with a remarkable range of interests and sensitivity—plant forms, people, a snake; Lavenson’s photograph of Indians at San Ildefonso is one of the most memorable of the show. Willard Van Dyke and John Paul Edwards, as shown here, were men of very pedestrian insight. Swift himself was probably the least imaginative of the group.

The philosophic similarity of the photographers is evident in this show, although the members of the f/64 Group never thought of themselves as a coherent group, but maintained their individuality and their own ways of thinking. The photographs were all made by natural light, and the influence of their locale and of California sunlight must not be underestimated. There is, surprisingly, little direct examination of the social problems which must have been constantly uppermost in the photographers’ minds at this time. Only the two prints by the non-member, Dorothea Lange, reflect labor trouble and depression. And yet, the way of thinking of the photographers in this show was as much a product of their time as would be a more conscious social realism. The photographs represent a break with the past; they see the world afresh because the country was in dire straits. Problems required solutions; traditional ways of thinking were not to be trusted. The examination of the forms of shells by Edward Weston and Sonia Noskowiak, the portraits of Alfred Stieglitz by Imogene Cunningham, the patterns of weeds against weathered boards by Ansel Adams all reflect a new, honest way of looking at life, a facing up to reality rather than seeing hazily through a diffusion screen.

The f/64 photographers (except for Peter Stackpole) were using large cameras, and their work typifies the more leisurely, contemplative approach to the subject that is inherent in the time and effort necessary to set up such a camera. Edward Weston, using an 8 x 10 view camera, made only straight contact prints, tightly pre-composed on the ground glass. Others of the group enlarged their negatives, cropping to compose better photographs. As George Craven points out in his excellent introduction to the current exhibit, the thinking that held the group together was the insistence that the photograph was not an imitation of a painting, and that the final print must be pre-visualized by the photographer as he pressed the shutter.

The first f/64 show aroused a great deal of interest, both sympathetic and hostile. One of the photographic magazines of the time published a long controversy between Mortensen, representing pictorialism, and Adams and Van Dyke, spokesmen for the straight approach. In the 30 years since that show, the influence of the f/64 Group has penetrated almost all fields of photography—the clarity of commercial photography reflects the clarity of thinking which the group fostered; and photojournalism, which made tremendous strides during World War II, owes much to the emphasis on honest seeing that was the hallmark of the f/64 Group. Mortensen’s influence persists only in the backwaters of the camera clubs.

Margary Mann