Pictorialism and Group f/64: Two Pioneers who Challenge the Dream and Master the Mundane

Group f/64 played a pivotal role in bringing photography to the forefront of modernist photography. It gathered the most influential photographers from the American West, embraced photography as a pure artistic medium, and rejected the romantic tropes of early Pictorialism.

What is Pictorialism?

Pictorialism was an early international movement of photography that thrived from about 1885 to 1915. It was marked by a style in which the photographer somehow manipulates photographic images from what would otherwise be a straightforward image. In doing so, the photographer creates a new visual experience rather than simply documenting an event.

Pictorialism began in response to claims that a photograph was nothing more than a simple record of reality and quickly transformed into an international movement to advance the status of all photography as a form of visual art in and of itself.

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Clarence H. White, Morning, 1908

Pictorialists while driven by an urge to capture beauty, were likely inspired by romantic and impressionistic painting, where brushstrokes became pronounced and the subjective impression and mark of the artist could be seen in the technique of the painting itself.

Early photographers carried over this painterly approach to their work. Some Pictorialists manipulated their images by experimenting with the focus of a scene or by using special diffusing lenses to produce a softer, dreamier image, but for the most part, the printing process determined the final appearance of the photograph. Pictorialists used a variety of papers and chemical processes to produce particular effects, and some then manipulated the tones and surface of prints with brushes, ink, or pigments. 

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Edward Steichen, Flatiron Building, 1904

However, while the Industrial Revolution may have sparked innovation in Photography in regards to new techniques and experimentation with the photographic image, World War I also marked Pictorialism’s decline as artists began to feel the need to, get their heads out of their romantic haze, and confront reality head-on.

The Rise of Group f/64

After 1920, Pictorialism gradually faded out of popularity. In its place, the aesthetic movement of photographic Modernism came into style, and the public’s interest shifted from a soft-focus aesthetic to more sharply focused images.

In the Period which followed between the 1920s and 1930s, the world was still suffering from the effects of the Great Depression and people were looking for brighter horizons. It was at this time that Landscape imagery captured the public’s hearts and eyes and the Landscapes of the American West especially represented a land of hope in these bleak times. Groups and collectives began to organize their efforts in movements of solidarity, and out of this in the area around San Fransisco Group f/64 was formed.

The original seven members of Group f/64 were Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham, John Paul Edward, Sonya Noskowiak, Henry Swift, Willard Van Dyke, and Edward Weston. 

Group f/64 derived its name from the smallest aperture setting on a camera. These tiny exposure holes thus marked their visual style with a wide depth of field that rendered photographs evenly sharp from foreground to background. As a result of using tiny apertures, longer exposure times are also required to provide enough lighting. This means the subject matter of an image should be still and meticulously planned ahead to avoid blurring and ensure proper exposure, and this, therefore, demanded a very deliberate approach to photographing a subject or landscape. On a mission of clarity and artistic lucidity, Group f/64 described itself as a club of photographic artists engaged in a battle against a “tide of oppressive pictorialism.”

In their manifesto, Group f/64 proclaimed their dedication to what they considered pure and serious photography. Instead of trying to make their photographs look more like paintings, they defined their ‘pure’ photography as possessing no qualities of technique, composition or idea, derivative of any other art form.(Heyman, Therese Thau (1992). Seeing Straight: The f.64 Revolution in Photography. Oakland Museum. pp. 20–24, back cover.)

In other words, it was the aim of Group f/64 to embrace photography as a rightful medium in itself, a medium that possesses its own clarity and sober view of the world, trail-blazing towards modernity.

Two Examples of the movement from Pictorialism to Group f/64

To get a better idea of how dramatic the visual shift was from Pictorialism to the new movement behind the Group f/64 artwork was, let’s look more closely at a few examples from early Group members, Imogen Cunningham and Edward Weston.

Imogen Cunningham

Imogen Cunningham self portrait 1909
Cropped from self-portrait taken by Imogen Cunningham in 1909

Imogen Cunningham was born in Portland, Oregon in 1883 – and lived until 1976. She had her first camera in 1901, worked as a studio photographer, and then moved to Dresden, Germany in 1909 to study the chemical processes in the darkroom. In 1910 she published her paper, “About the Direct Development of Platinum Paper for Brown Tones, describing her process to increase printing speed, improve highlights, and produce sepia tones.

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Dream, a 1910 photograph by Imogen Cunningham

Afterward, Cunningham returned to the states in Seattle, opened her own studio, and applied these printing techniques for her early pictorial work, for which she got much acclaim as a leader in the pictorial movement. 

In 1920 she moved to California, and her work started to take a different turn as she moved away from Pictorialism. She refined her style and aesthetics to focus on simple forms and sharp focus with a heavy emphasis on botanicals and specifically the magnolia flower.

Her photograph, Two Callas, became one of her most defining photographs of this period. Reminiscent of how early medical or botanical illustrations transformed the utility of documentation into fine graphical works, Cunningham’s photography in this period transformed photography of a mundane subject into transcendental studies of light, form, and abstraction. Also in line with an approach akin to a scientific study, some of her still-lifes can be seen as thoughtful although cold and geometrical.

She was eventually invited in 1932 to join with other Group f/64 photographers to promote this geometric and meditative style of still life photography.

Edward Weston

Young Edward Weston with a camera
Young Edward Weston with a camera.

Edward Weston is considered one of the most influential masters of photography in the 20th century. He was born near Chicago in 1986 and lived until 1958, although unfortunately he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1947 and since then had already stopped taking pictures. While he was later recognized for his carefully composed, sharply focused images of natural forms, landscapes, and nudes. At the start of Weston’s career, his early photographs were also highly influenced by early Pictorial movements, focusing mainly on human figures and female models.

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Edward Weston, Portrait of Ruth St. Denis, 1916

Eventually, in the 1920’s Weston too woke out of his fuzzy, rose-colored slumber and came to the conclusion that reality in everyday life needed to be highlighted. His transformation out of Pictorialism led him to start photographing everyday objects like toys, doorways, and bathroom fixtures. 

In his diary, he states ‘The camera should be used for a recording of life, for rendering the very substance and quintessence of the thing itself…I feel definite in the belief that the approach to photography is through realism.’

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Nautilus (1927), by Edward Weston

If you think there is something similar here between the stills of Weston to Cunningham it’s probably because it was Weston who essentially discovered Cunningham and brought her into the fold of Group f/64. Weston surely related to her magnolia and botanical works during the late 1920s and wanted to encourage and promote similar like-minded photographers. As part of the early art Avant-guard movement, Group f/64 was one of the first modern art movements that represented male and female artists as equals.

This period in Weston’s development also marked a rediscovery of the mundane. In 1927, after visiting the studio of the painter Henrietta Shore who painted a series of works on magnolias and seashells against a dark background he was captivated by the simplicity and complexity of the form and was inspired to photograph this work, named Nautilus (image above) which has been called “one of the most famous photographs ever made” for its greater than life quality.

Weston found his niche in transforming organic shapes into minimal, iconic imagery. His intrigue eventually moved to taking close-ups of vegetables and fruits. He made a variety of photographs of cabbage, kale, onions, bananas, and finally, his most iconic image, peppers. Of these, Pepper No. 30 (second image below), is also considered among photography’s all-time masterpieces.

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Pepper No. 30 (1930), by Edward Weston

It is the deliberate and conscious framing of the subject that elevated Photography in the works of Group f/64 members. Both Weston’s and Cunningham’s search for purity in form went hand in hand with embracing Photography as a pure medium. Through their lenses, their subjects reveal both defect and sublimity, not escaping reality, but embracing it as a whole.

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