California Modernism: Photography from Group f/64

The perpetual sunshine and endless summer enjoyed by California natives has traditionally been linked to the glamor and film industries. But in the 1920s and thirties, a community of artist-photographers known as Group f/64 developed a photographic vocabulary and visual style that might best be described as California Modernism.

Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham and Edward Weston were visionaries of visual culture, employing photography’s unique and powerful qualities for personal expression. Their sharp-focus approach resulted in stunning depictions of abstract organic forms and the natural environment. This innovative style contrasted with that of their European counterparts—who rendered urban and industrial settings in unusual perspectives and out-of-focus compositions, oftentimes embracing the technical “mistakes” made by amateur photographers.

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.

f/64 Manifesto

Ansel Adams

Ansel Adams focused on the majestic beauty of Yosemite. His Stump, Sierra Nevada, 1936, a small-format vintage silver print, employs abstract elements to symbolize the fragility of the natural environment. A pioneer of the conservation movement and former president of The Sierra Club, Adams was also an active spokesperson for photography as an art form. In the 1930s he coauthored a best-selling book, The Zone System, which became a popular primer of photographic composition and printing, catapulting him to greater prominence.

Edward & Brett Weston

Edward Weston and his son Brett were fascinated by the shifting dunes at Oceano beach and the stark landscape of Death Valley. An abiding passion for analog darkroom work resulted in beautiful contact prints.

The dimensionality of Eroded Rock, 1930, a vintage silver print—in which the flat surface of the larger rock is offset by detailing the pebbles—is emblematic of the elder Weston’s technical mastery. Brett’s early vintage chiaroscuro prints were assessed as works by a prodigy: a lustrous rock or the stark geometry of dune formations.

Imogen Cunningham

Imogen Cunningham’s background was as a scientist, having studied at the prestigious Technische Hochschule, in Dresden, where she learned platinum printing. By the 1920s, she and her family moved to California. As the mother of three children, she looked to her domestic setting for inspiration and found it in botanical specimens, many of which she cultivated in her garden.

Related Reading: Imogen Cunningham’s Magnolia Blossom

As a sign of their stature, both Westons and Cunningham were invited to exhibit prints in 1929 at the prestigious German Film und Foto exhibition, a groundbreaking show and the place to platform American and European modernist photography.

Their pioneering and poetic images resulted in a new, inherently American style of modernity.

Do you have a photograph from Group f/64 we should take a look at?

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