ART REVIEW : Reliving a Landmark in Photography


"Seeing Straight: The f/64 Revolution in Photography" at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art re-creates a landmark exhibition held in 1932 at San Francisco's De Young Museum. Consisting of more than 120 prints by 11 Oakland-based photographers, it provides an excellent introduction to an important moment in California photography. The show is accessible and engaging, simply installed and historically responsible.

Organized by Therese Thau Heyman, senior curator of the Oakland Museum Art Department, "Seeing Straight" is based on the work of a remarkably talented group of photographers who momentarily banded together in the early '30s to promote their artistic vision.

Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham, John Paul Edwards, Sonya Noskowiak, Henry Swift, Willard Van Dyke and Edward Weston named their group after the lens setting that permits the greatest depth of focus. Their goal was to bring clarity and precision to the forefront of photography, to make pictures devoid of blurry, impressionistic effects, dreamy sentimentality and atmospheric wistfulness.

They invited like-minded photographers Preston Holder, Consuela Kanaga, Alma Lavenson and Brett Weston to show with them. They wanted to demonstrate that a new movement was afoot. Their outlook was tough, up-to-the-minute and sharply focused on the material world.

Their enemy was Pictorialism, an extravagantly romantic approach that had been out of style on the East Coast since the beginning of the century, but still dominated photography in the Bay Area. Its leading proponent was William Mortensen, whose fiery rhetoric and hyper-theatrical photographs argued and illustrated that staged passion and overblown fantasy were photography's only hope for achieving recognition as a serious art--as something more than a mechanical depiction of the world or a servile record of facts.

Group f/64 adamantly opposed Pictorialism. They insisted, in typically modernist fashion, that photography would only be an art--equal to painting and sculpture--when it was true to its medium and purified of unnecessary extras. They banished excessive darkroom manipulation from their practice and sought to exploit the crystalline clarity made possible by large-format cameras and contact printing. Many of their ideas derived from Alfred Stieglitz, whose influential photographs and New York-based gallery had strong ties to European modernism.

The group's embrace of functionalism, or a rigorous machine aesthetic, was never intended to eliminate emotion or sentiment from their work. On the contrary, it was meant to intensify photography's capacity to communicate with its viewers. Straightforward directness, raw power and unadorned immediacy were valued above all else.

Their works predominantly depict exquisitely detailed plants, fruit, wood, ships, machinery and buildings, as well as some landscapes and portraits. The way light and shadows formally define textures and describe volumes is, to a large extent, the subject of their images. Often beautiful, they offer ample evidence that this group of artists was fascinated by photography's capacity to accentuate the nuances of mundane objects and to enliven our perceptions of the ordinary world.

Some of their most compelling photographs are of richly toned, repetitive patterns that border on being pure abstractions. Their scale is deeply ambiguous, shifting from the minute to the vast, depending on your point of view. With these works, the artistry of these so-called straight photographers comes into sharp focus. The more closely they scrutinize their subjects, and the more faithful they are to their medium, the stranger the world often seems.

This commitment to aestheticism distinguishes their work from the documentary photographers who, throughout the '30s, recorded the effects of the Depression for the Farm Security Administration. Group f/64 found a place for photography between a bankrupt Pictorialism and an emerging form of socially activist documentation. Their photographs took a step away from the harsh reality of hard facts and toward the physical beauty of concrete abstractions.

* Santa Barbara Museum of Art, 1130 State St., Santa Barbara, through July 4. Closed Monday s .

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