In a dancer there is a reverence for such forgotten things as the miracle of the small beautiful bones and their delicate strength. In a thinker there is a reverence for the beauty of the alert and directed and lucid mind. In all of us who perform, there is an awareness of the smile, which is part of the equipment, or gift, of the acrobat. We have all walked the high wire of circumstance at times. We recognize the gravity of pull on the Earth as he does. The smile is there because he is practicing living at that instant of danger. He does not choose to fall.[i] Martha Graham
Two women stand in the hard light of the countryside on a Santa Barbara afternoon.
The first woman, a photographer, stares intently into the viewfinder of her camera.
All of the photographer’s emotions ride her face, the muscles jumping as she considers her subject.
The subject, a dancer, shifts her long, languid body half in and out of the shadow of a barn, and the hot California light.
She wears a white bias gown that turns her hips and shoulders into sculptured abstractions.
The light is hard but the dancer’s face welcomes its honesty.
The photographer’s hands are sure on the camera, sure of the light. Sure of her subject. She holds up her own hand to signal that they would now begin.
The two artists do not need to speak— the camera and the dance speak for them both.
The two artists are photographer Imogen Cunningham and choreographer/dancer Martha Graham.
Cunningham shoots her first image of Graham in that sure, firm light of a Santa Monica afternoon.
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. Manifesto of Group f/64
Imogen Cunningham is an anomaly among photographers.
While Ansel Adams was the breakaway rebel, the rewriter of history, the eye that captured the vast imagination of the American West, Cunningham is the American original, the vivid technician, the anti-hero whose photographs are more iconic than Cunningham herself.
But Cunningham always was an original.
From childhood, her father especially encouraged Cunningham to explore her own capabilities in every art medium.
At 17, Cunningham turned with great zeal and capability to the camera— which in her hands will become an instrument as capable as a well-trained dancer’s body.
Her 20s are a blur of university studies in chemistry with a post-graduate stint in Germany where she pioneers a new technique[ii] for darkroom printing.
Cunningham, now in her 30s, shoots the iconic, unembellished images of Graham that land her the occasional work for Vanity Fair in New York. She also shoots a series of images of Ansel Adams and does a show with up-and-comer Edward Weston.
By 1931, she is poised on the threshold of the next great Zeitgeist— Group f/64.
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. Manifesto of Group f/64
Cunningham is a native daughter of the Northwest and understands, instinctively, the temperament of light.
And temperament is what Cunningham will need to hold her own amongst the seven photographers who have banded together to tell the story of the American West and its possibility— a story of possibility that is becoming ever more popular as the Great Depression deepens and widens across the United States.
The photographers of the West are drawn to all the native subject matter.
The local plants and succulents; the vast unrefined landscapes; even the nudes are touched with this crisp eye and luminous light.
All of these subjects have an East Coast equivalent. Most of these ideas have passed through the lilting pictorial lens so loved by Stieglitz and his contemporaries.
In the hands of Group f/64, the approach to the subject matter is what really changes— not the location.
Images no longer swim on the page in refracted light. Either you find yourself right on top of the subject— the curve of an arm; the cup of a succulent — or the subject is BIG and VAST and MAGISTERIAL, leaving you breathless in its wake.
But, wait! It’s still early yet. First, we must follow Cunningham out of the bright light of a Santa Monica afternoon to the magnificent gray day in San Francisco— November 15, 1932 to be exact— for Group f/64’s first show at the M. H. de Young Memorial Museum[iii].
According to limited accounts, droves of people saw the first show.
Eighty images hung on the walls of this established gallery, representing the seven core members of Group f/64 as well as four other photographers whose work fit the aesthetic they desired.
In addition the manifesto was clearly printed and placed where everyone could see it.
Group f/64 is not pretending to cover the entire spectrum 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. Manifesto of Group f/64
Somewhere in the East, Alfred Stieglitz stirred.
The father of Modern American photography was in the process of examining his own feelings about photography.
He had spent all his energies on creating a distinct place for photography to land among the annals of art— with a special focus on making American photography an art form as good as its European counterpart, if not better.
Stieglitz may have been in this contemplative mood when he mounted a retrospective of his own work in 1932 at his new gallery, An American Place[iv].
Although much of his work reflects this pictorialist aesthetic he helped develop, Stieglitz is quite capable of creating haunting, crisp, close-up images, especially of Georgia O’Keefe.
What makes his retrospective so interesting is that he does not, in fact, hang his breathtaking portraits of O’ Keefe. (He shot her image so frequently that a definitive and lovely record of her life remains for all of us.)
While displaying older established photographs like “The Steerage,” Stieglitz also hung recent images of his young, nubile mistress… right next to less-flattering photographs of his New Mexico sun-baked wife, Georgia O’Keefe.[v]
His friends were stunned at his lack of subtlety.
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. Manifesto of Group f/64
Oh, yes, Group f/64 mean business!
They intend to “strive to define photography” and they will “show no work… that does not conform to its standards.” From that first show at M. H. de Young Memorial Museum onward, the gauntlet is thrown down.
Never mind that the gauntlet is made of close-up succulents and vast rock wonderlands of New Mexico and the hip of Tina Modotti— they are reacting to this idea that photography isn’t art.
That despite the rise and fall of pictorialism in the East— (Remember Stieglitz’s sharp O’Keefe’s and even sharper strikes at his marriage?)— pictorialism is alive and thriving in the West.
Group f/64 is rebelling against the entire art establishment— but they are also rebelling towards a somewhat unified idea of photography as a means and an end unto itself.
The image as the beginning, middle and end unto itself.
Oh, and the museums can go jump off a cliff.
That’s the big one, right there. The museums still set the standard for what is, and what is not art.
Museums don’t give a fig whether it is pictorialism or Group f/64 or some other thing on photographic paper. They don’t think that photographs are art. At all.
To the museums, a photograph is a novelty item!
A novelty item! Like a bicycle!
And that’s what Group f/64 lines up in the sights of its camera. The museums.
Ticking off Stieglitz is an incidental pleasure. It’s the museums they want. And it’s the museums they’ll get.
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.
The Group will appreciate information regarding any serious work in photography that has escaped its attention, and is favorable towards establishing itself as a Forum of Modern Photography. Manifesto of Group f/64
Cunningham[vi] is concentrating so hard that she’s sweating.
She wipes her forehead with her sleeve and leans back to her camera, to Graham, who already belongs to history.
Graham, the dancer, leans sideways as if unhooked from the clutching grasp of gravity.
Her arms, her hands, are flowers, are birds, are rivers.
The dancer moves and moves in time and space.
Cunningham, the photographer, takes shot after shot of this luminous woman in a hard light against the black, black shadows of the open barn door.
In a matter of hours in this hot Santa Monica light, Cunningham will shoot over one hundred images of Graham.
Meanwhile, time stands still on firm, scarred dancer’s feet.
Cunningham bends to her camera. Graham appears to swim in the bold natural light.
It is 1931.
[ii] What makes Cunningham distinct among her Group f/64 colleagues is that a college professor encouraged her to study chemistry, the technical foundation of darkroom work. On her matriculation with a chemistry degree, Cunningham’s sorority funded further technical studies at Dresden, Germany’s Technische Hochschule with Professor Robert Luther. “About the Direct Development of Platinum Paper for Brown Tones,” is the thesis that covers her findings. (Good luck tracking a copy. I even tried Google Scholar. )
[v] Stieglitz in a letter to Aline Meyer Lieberman on May 8, 1932— I am herewith sending you one of my photographs of New New [sic] York as appreciation of your helping to make An American Place possible – I hope you feel that the Place is at least not a complete loss.
I must also point out that history has been hideously unkind to Stieglitz— few published biographies exist on the man, and I cannot find— anywhere!— the date of his retrospective at An American Place.
NEXT WEEK on OUR SUNDAY BEST! The break-up of Group f/64! We FINALLY talk NUDES and Edward Weston! Great ART and the Great DEPRESSION?!? (What’s the connection?) And who the HELL is TINA MODOTTI, anyway? (What’s so great about her HIPS?) And Courtenay Bluebird, will you EVER give us some photography books we can find at the library to read… for FUN? ALL THESE QUESTIONS AND SO MANY MORE WILL BE ANSWERED… NEXT WEEK! on OUR SUNDAY BEST!
*ADDITIONAL NOTES: Hey there! A few items to keep in mind. Almost all of Imogen Cunningham’s images are not in the public domain. Her works are maintained by her granddaughter on her website Photo Liaison. You will find all of Cunningham’s published Martha Graham photographs there.
That means the first image of this story is Cunningham’s, and the rest… are Ansel Adams. The same thing will happen next week when we talk about Edward Weston. Why? The U.S. Parks Service owns some of Adams’ work, and that means his works are in the public domain. Weston’s work, like Cunningham’s, is owned by family.
*WANT TO READ THIS SERIES IN ORDER?*
OUR SUNDAY BEST: THE TIME GHOST RIDES THE LIGHT
*PROLOGUE: WHERE THE LIGHT CAPTURES US
*BOOKS & FILMS on Early Modern Photography
As always, all of my work in this area is inspired and informed by my mentor, photographer and writer Donald Ewers.