Our Sunday Best: The Golden Hour (Dusk Draws a Veil Across All Easy Answers)

Edward Steichen:  Isadora Duncan Dancer

At the little house that overlooks the sea, dusk begins to osmose all hard edges, even our own.

The waves blur, and the trees fade to smoke, and the ghost lights from passing automobiles dip in reverence like pairs of swans.




You and I came back to the sea in order to watch nighttime emerge, to consider the fading light, to turn over and over in our hands these stories of three men who became photographers in a time when two world wars marred the landscape.

Two of them were naturalized citizens who had crossed oceans and ideas to get here.

One of them nearly faded into obscurity.

But all three— Edward Steichen, Weegee, and Richard Avedon— taught us that photography is not one idea, but many ideas that overlap and crash like errant waves in the night sea in front of us.




Because the night has arrived, we stand now in the dark on the porch of the little house by the sea. I do not look at you as I ask this question:

Where do you want to go next?

Here is what I do not say: Because I can take you anywhere in the world. Because we can leapfrog the years and the hours. Because it is time for us to depart again to find out how we got here, how you and I learned to hold a camera and consider a thousand-thousand options for a single photographic image.

I am smiling in the dark.

I am listening to the sea speak, but really— I am standing here, patiently, waiting for your reply.


Our Sunday Best: The Golden Hour: {At Dawn, We Watch the Birth of Light— A Reflective Intermission}



    The negative is the score, the print is the performance.

    Ansel Adams[i]


We sit on the porch of a little house near the sea.   It is moments before dawn, and the silence of the morning has crept between us like the warm body of a sleeping, dreaming dog.

You and I drink coffee.  We stare down the hill through the darkness, trying to make out the place where land converges conversationally with water.

The horizon glows blue; the stars dim.  I watch your face as the day begins to enhalo the land, the people, the houses, your face, mine, this porch, the world, the word, the ideas, the birds.

The golden hour is dawn.  The golden hour is dusk.  Twice a day, the light transilluminates what we love most, and that is where you find the photographers we’ve adored and adore still.   They will be there waiting for the light to soften the world into its greatest intrinsic beauty.

The Golden Hour speaks all languages.

The Golden Hour is an answer to a question that founders in darkness.

The Golden Hour will arrive soon.


From this moment together on the porch, we will pick up speed.  There are so many places we need to go and people we need to meet.    From this point, we will start to unhook from time a little and a little.   One day, we will be in Paris just after World War II.  On another day, we shall wake in Mexico City during the Mexican National social revolution of the 1930s.

First, two men will open the doors of the future for us. They are both American, both continental, both geniuses.  We are going to stop in to visit Richard Avedon just after the war.  What a beautiful man!  What a long and well-documented career! His eye spans all continents with élan vital.

Afterward we will take a tour through the latter half of Edward Steichen’s career.  The first part of his life may be momentarily hidden from us, but Steichen does something so unbelievably revolutionary in 1950s Cold War America that it will forever turn our eyes and cameras lenses to the world.


Photography was the first medium to give us back to ourselves in a way that felt real.   Our faces, our streets, our lives, could be frozen on beautiful paper that everyone could see and share.

But there’s more.  For photographers, the process of taking and making a photograph is the act of photography— the photograph is the delicate vessel of an idea; a moment snatched back from time’s forward trajectory; a conversation with something much, much larger that oneself.

Or maybe that’s just my experience of it.



The first time you make a photograph from your own negative, you know you are witnessing some of the greatest human magic.  Processing a print is its own golden hour and we, the creators of it, stand in awe of our creation.  To do this act, to process a photograph, is deeply meditative and terribly real.

In a darkroom, in the developing solution, a story emerges from paper designed to react to a sudden burst of light through a film negative.

That negative comes from a contract between me and the coincidentia oppositorum[ii] that makes up the material world.



When I pick up a camera, my mind’s constant conversation with itself stutters to a stop.

I never knew true silence before the day I held a Leica in my hand, its strap looped around my neck.

On that day, nearly sixteen years ago, I stood on a city street with Donald Ewers standing nearby.  I lifted the camera to my eye, and my mind ceased its intermediary gibbering translation of the world.

That’s how I found out that silence is a Golden Hour that you carry with you.



Ah, here comes the dawn.

Without a word, both of us stand to witness the start of The Golden Hour.  I take your hand for a moment and squeeze. 

Once you know this hour exists, twice a day, in many parts of the world, at different times, you always know it is there.

There is beauty in constancy.



This is the light.  And this is a camera.

And this is my hand cradling the lens.

Oh, look.  Just look:

How beautiful we are.

The Golden Hour makes us whole.





[i] Quotnik verified quotes on photography.


[ii] A neoplatonic term that covers the relationship of opposites in matter that represent a larger archetypal relationship of humanity’s rituals and myths, according to philosopher Mircea Eliade.  Another definition stresses the oneness and unity of ideas previously thought to be polarized that one realizes have absolute non-duality.  See more in this last paragraph of Wikipedia’s discussion of the philosophical Unity of Opposites.   





[My photography, and all of my writing on photography, is inspired and informed by my mentor, photographer and writer Donald Ewers. This work-in-progress is dedicated to him.]



A NOTE ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHS: Each photograph in this story reflects a different story I wrote on the history of photography. Here are the photographers, with links to my original stories, from the top: Alfred Stieglitz, Gordon Parks, Dorothea Lange, and Edward Steichen. As three of these images are portraits of famous photographers, I am sad to say that the original photographers are not listed in the public records. (Give me time— I may find them, yet.) The first photograph is of Stieglitz when he was the defining voice of American photograph. The second image is Gordon Parks at one of the first Civil Rights demonstrations in Washington D.C. The third shot is Dorothea Lange in the field during her time with the FSA, one of the happiest periods of her life. The last one, of course, is an Edward Steichen’s portrait during the height of his early pictorial period.

NEXT WEEK on OUR SUNDAY BEST: Richard Avedon! An unforgettable man whose photographic eye developed the lexicon of photographic portraiture we love today.

BEFORE NEXT SUNDAY, you may want to catch up or refresh yourself on the two movements of this larger series on the history of modern photography. I would LOVE for you to VISIT the newly created GUIDE, A Smörgåsboard of Posts.

Or you may want to read the last three installments:

*Our Sunday Best: The Golden Hour {At Dusk We Sit and Watch the Sea}

*Our Sunday Best: The Golden Hour {Steichen in the Fog},

*Our Sunday Best: The Golden Hour {Weegee Drives at Night}.

BEFORE I FORGET: You know that The Soon-To-Be Semi-Annual Bluebird Blvd. Readers’ Poll! is going on until November 7th right? You have opinions, and I want to hear them! (The poll itself takes all of ten seconds. You can write in any additional ideas, rants, raves, or suggestions in the comments, though!)


Our Sunday Best: The Crossroads of the Eye and the Heart: (Intermission, and a Breath)



There is a problem with history that cannot be fixed.

The problem is that history itself is not a fixed idea.

History moves with us, changes as we change.

Writing cannot pin history into place; photography cannot set history on a sure axis.

Words drip off of the side of the page.

Events unveil beyond the scope of the camera lens.

The simplest things redirect the story of history that we think we know.

When we look at the relationship of The Great Depression to the FSA (Farm Securities Administration) and we start to examine the enigma that is Walker Evans—right there in front of us!—please, remember that history is not a fixed state.

Your photographic eye will blink at the wrong time.

Your writer’s ear will miss a crucial word.

These little, human things can cause you to miss an intersection of people and objects and places, a collective event that will cause the world to turn, and turn again.

History is a problem that can never be fixed.

You know it, and I know it.

It’s the crossroads you’ve got to watch out for.

Things happen in too many directions, at once, at a crossroads.

And here we are standing right in the middle of one.

We take a breath. We engage our senses. We lean into the pull of time.

And we go forward, ready or not, into history.











[My photography, and all of my writing on photography, is inspired and informed by my mentor, photographer and writer Donald Ewers. This work-in-progress is dedicated to him.]


Our Sunday Best: The Time Ghost Rides the Light: A Secret and Luminous Thing

Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde National Park," Colorado. (vertical orientation), 1933 - 1942 - NARA - 519942


    One does not think during creative work, any more than one thinks when driving a car. But one has a background of years – learning, unlearning, success, failure, dreaming, thinking, experience, all this – then the moment of creation, the focusing of all into the moment. So I can make ‘without thought,’ fifteen carefully considered negatives, one every fifteen minutes, given material with as many possibilities. But there is all the eyes have seen in this life to influence me. Edward Weston


This is the difficult one.   The light is a trick, but it is not an illusion.

The man standing over the camera knows a secret thing about the light, and what it will reveal and conceal at the same time.

In front of him is a mollusk, a simple shell.  It appears to glow and glow and glow.

He is taking the most important photograph of his entire career.  Strangely, he knows this photograph will be his most important work.[i]

Everything now depends on the light.

The light that is a trick.

This man knows what light will reveal and what it will conceal.

His name is Edward Weston.  The late daylight hour dances across his unreadable face.

The shutter closes with a pretty click.

Welcome to history, Edward Weston.

We’ve been waiting for you to arrive.

Of all the photographers we’ve discussed so far who crossed paths in Group f/64, Weston is the one people know best by name. 

Weston’s work shows up in the most unlikely places, but it is always, always recognizable as the vision of one man.

Why?  Everything about his work is elliptical.

Dunes, peppers, shells, nudes— the world curves in Weston’s eye. 

The world bends as he lends the weight of his gaze to it. 

And the world moves toward him.   He is magnetic.  He is single-minded, but as fluid as the surfaces he photographs. 

Nothing will stand in the way of Weston.

All is laid bare for Weston. He knows how to see. 

Weston’s nudes are easily the most famous photographic studies of the human body during the early period.  And when you look at them[ii]— you’ll know why.  Bodies are entirely new when Weston trains his eye on them. 

What we take for granted as perfunctory or sexual about the body, Weston renders into a visual language so true and clear it’s hard to believe that these are only human bodies.

His models were often his lovers.  Or his lovers were often his models.  Weston is all art all the time, so it’s hard to tell where one story leads off and another begins.  His models who are lovers were artists, photographers, writers[iii].  While he was married, he had relationships with Margarete Mather, Tina Modotti, and Sonia Noskowiak, among others.  Many others.  

Finally, Weston divorced his long-suffering wife and mother of his children to marry model and muse Charis Wilson[iv].  She was 19 to his 49.

People pay a lot of attention to Weston’s love life for two reasons. 

The first reason is that Weston kept meticulous records of his entire life in his Daybooks[v].

Those beautifully written records are a primary reader for anyone in the arts who wants to know what it is like to be entirely focused on one’s art to the point where everything in one’s life leads back to art.

The second reason is that the images are singularly beautiful.

You see, Weston’s eye bends naturally to a curve. Curves bend into ellipses, so easily.


It’s no wonder then that Edward Weston is both an answer to the question of Group f/64 and a continual riddle.

Weston actually is the loop from the beginning and the end of Group f/64 in a strange way.

William Van Dyke— co-creator (with Ansel Adams) of Group f/64 movement— was first Weston’s apprentice.  There’s the beginning.  Van Dyke managed to keep the movement of Group f/64 going with his Gallery 683.

Here’s one version of what happened to break Group f/64 :  The Great Depression began to rage in earnest. 

For the population of the area that was later called the Dust Bowl, the golden light of the West Coast beamed like a lighthouse.  

They walked through dust storms toward the rumors of good pickings in the golden light. 

Entire towns left a trail of personal goods one the roadside in their rush to escape, to survive.

And how the hell are you supposed to make photographs in that kind of scene?

The theoretical dust was thick and heavy for a little while.  

Where does art fit into a falling-apart world?  What does taking a crisp picture have to do with starving families?

Everything.  It has everything to do with what happens next.

Quickly now!

Follow the light back to the West Coast where seven photographers are carving out their respective dominions in the photographic world.  

Adams sweeps across the mythos of the American West. Weston shuts down his studio in Carmel, and finally finds his soul at Point Lobos near Carmel on the California coast.  Willard Van Dyke strikes the tent of Gallery 683 and goes to New York to become a documentary filmmaker.  Imogen Cunningham goes to New York, comes back, always photographing, pioneering

Of the original seven, four become famous. Two of the Group f/64 members never photograph again and disappear into the mist. The last of the seven, John Paul Edwards, photographs entirely in anonymity for the rest of his life.

But look!  As Group f/64 fades in the jittery photographic flash of early modern history, singular figures like Weston, Adams, and Cunningham walk out of the twirling smoke to become icons in their own right. They get their museums and accolades, all right.

It is strange to think that what we think of as photography now— so much hinges on a sharply-tuned manifesto and seven people whose lives intersected for a maximum of three years.

And by the end of the brief era of Group f/64, every member will walk away to tell a different story— Cunningham and Adams cannot and will not share a version of what happened in Group f/64 in their later years.  They did not ever, really get along all that well in the first place.

Stieglitz, the father of all modern photography, whose large heart welcomed so many photographers into the annals of art, will begin to have one coronary attack after another beginning in 1938.

And Weston?  Ah, Weston!

His hand will be one of the ones to reach out to the next group of photographers to come up during The Great Depression. 

It is his sharp eye these photographers admire, and his singular vision they emulate.

Photography became photography because of Weston, according to a famed critic in Mexico City.

The next group of photographers are standing in the wings, waiting to take their turn on the stage.

Their story is tied into the Works Progress Administration and the FSA photographers of The Great Depression

Weston will be there to help them into the spotlight.

And these new photographers will help Weston become even more famous to a bigger world over time.

Meanwhile, the light is playing its old tricks again. 

Weston packs his entire camera kit in under two minutes.

He picks up the shell, examines its opalescent interior and smiles.

Inside his packed camera is an exposed image of a shell on flat sheet film.

The sheet of film glows, secret and luminous thing, in the gut of his camera, waiting to be exhaled into the world.

Weston will call it Nautilus — for the species of mollusk that it is.   A mollusk that is an historical metaphor for elliptical perfection.

A sunset flares on the edge of the horizon.

Weston stands in that last light.  He glows and glows and glows.

The light is a trick, but it is not an illusion.




[i]   Edward Weston left behind a clear legacy with his daybooks— brief, regularly updated prose entries that detail his art life as well as his personal life.  The Edward Weston family website, maintained by photographer Cara Weston, is filled with Weston photographs and details.  You’ll see famous shell photograph and the daybook entry that went along with it there.


[ii] Once again, I will need to refer you to the Edward Weston family website to see the careful selection of Weston’s nudes.  As photographic works, you’ve never seen anything as exquisite as the female body through Weston’s eyes.


[iii]This story in The Guardian discusses a recent show on Weston’s work, and explains the relationship between Weston and some of his famous models.


[iv] CHARIS WILSON gave a stunning interview in the years before her death about her relationship and marriage to Weston. She is not the muse and model that we see in the movies. None of Weston’s lovers were traditional groupies. Oh, and add this to the insult-to-injury department— when Charis Wilson died, the New York Times wrote a long obituary about her… where they repeatedly misspelled her first name and had to issue a retraction. 


[v] Weston burned all the daybooks that date before his trip to Mexico with Tina Modotti in 1923.   Weston went back and forth to Mexico from 1923 to 1927.  Modotti, an actress and photographer, may have had hot hips and a sharp lens of her own, yet she also took time to push Weston to photograph in an entirely new way.  You can get your own copy of Edward Weston’s Daybooks. Weston wrote in his Daybooks, daily, for most of his life. They are luminous.  




*ADDITIONAL NOTES Hey there! Just like last week, certain photographs are in the public domain, while others are not. That means while we are discussing the work of Edward Weston, we are LOOKING at the photographs of Ansel Adams.

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. You can find links to Edward Weston’s website in the endnotes above!



NEXT WEEK on OUR SUNDAY BEST! I will be writing about POV, or point of view, and WRITING! It will be a GAS, y’all! We will take apart TIME and SPACE and PERSON together like a set of Tinker Toys!

BUT TWO WEEKS from TODAY on OUR SUNDAY BEST— I will begin to tell you the THRILLING TALE of the photographers who shot the SWIRL and BANG of the GREAT DEPRESSION! We’ll be talking about the great EDWARD STIECHEN’S exquisite legacy— he tipped the world and spilled its photographic contents… ON the FLOOR! And oh, so, so, SO MUCH MORE!









*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.


Our Sunday Best: The Time Ghost Rides the Light— Green Succulents and Tina Modotti’s Hips


Imogen Cunningham: Succulent, 1920. This image...


    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.



[i] Quote from Martha Graham’s “An Athlete of God.”  (1953)


[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. )


[iii] Lisa Hoestetier of the Department of Photographs, Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote a brief synopsis of Group f/64’s first show, providing the factual details for my own account.


[iv] Photographs of An American Place and Alfred Stieglitz.  (The Yale Library maintains Stieglitz’s papers at Georgia O’Keefe’s request.)


[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.


[vi] Edward Weston was fond of saying that Imogen Cunningham had “acid in her blood.”  She was a tough cuss, you all.  T-o-u-g-h.  Much of what I discuss here today is inspired by this oral recording created by, and for, the Smithsonian Museum.



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.










*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.


Our Sunday Best: The Time Ghost Rides the Light— Group f/64, Zeitgeist and Photography


Ansel Adams - National Archives 79-AA-F01


[Writer’s note:  A few weeks ago, I wrote an Our Sunday Best about the birth of Modern-Era photography in America, with the help and encouragement of my mentor, Donald Ewers

Due to the sheer pleasure of writing this piece and its surprising popularity, I said the following to Don— “I think I just started something unexpected.  There’s so much more I have to say.”  “Group f/64 is a whole other story,” he replied.

 Now, let’s continue where Stieglitz left off.]

    The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for

    authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place

    of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their

    households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They

    contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties

    at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers.—Socrates


A man stands in a canyon. 

He is wearing a hat with a round brim.  The sun is late in the sky, but the man’s attention is solely on his view camera.  He’s almost ready to take a picture in the golden honey-light of the mountainous region of the Sierra Nevada.

He has been setting up this shot for the last two hours. 

It is 1930.  Ah.  The large-format camera is now ready. 

The photographer steps forward sure-footed as a dancer.  He makes one small adjustment to the front plane of the camera.  He holds up the cable release, and examines the light one more time.

Three years before, he wanted to be a concert pianist.

He is shooting images for his first major photography show for the Smithsonian Institution.

His name is Ansel Adams.

Click.  He takes the picture.

Adams was an American rebel. And he belonged to a group of rebels, at least for a time, called Group f/64.

People remember Adams and a few of his cohorts, but not the way he and Group f/64 used an established technology for a new purpose.

That purpose? To make photography an art not in competition with, or in relationship to, any other art form. At all.

Photography as a means to create its own expression of a photographic image. Beginning, middle, and end.

At the time it was revolutionary.

American rebels of the 20th and 21st Century bring to mind the obvious contenders— movie stars; rock gods; civil rights activists.  

And civil rights activists barely make the cut.  Americans are conditioned to think first of James Dean.  A blond actor wearing a black leather jacket.

Beyond the easy conditioning, we devote a lot of energy, specifically awe or annoyance with clothing or mating habits of the current generation’s rebels.

Forget their clothes.  Really. Just forget about it.

Ansel Adams - National Archives 79-AA-G06


Pay attention to their technology.

That’s the real rebellion of the 20th and 21st century— each generation broke from the last one not based on a matter of taste or morals, but because of a difference in the availability and application of new technology.

Technology is the coalescent Zeitgeist[i] of all great rebellion and growth.

Photography is merely one example, but it’s a good one. Photography changed the way we see, changed what we saw of the world, changed language ourselves. That’s why we need to know who helped develop our eye.

A rebellion kicks off the story of how you and I learned to see.

But, all rebellions of the coalescent Zeitgeist begin with the tapering of the rebellion of the previous generation.

In the case of Group f/64, what came before them was not even a what, it was a who.

Alfred Stieglitz. Whotta legend!

    It was in the catalog for this (1920) show that (Alfred) Stieglitz made his famous declaration: “I was born in Hoboken. I am an American. Photography is my passion. The search for Truth my obsession.” What is less known is that he conditioned this statement by following it with these words:

    “PLEASE NOTE: In the above STATEMENT the following, fast becoming “obsolete,” terms do not appear: ART, SCIENCE, BEAUTY, RELIGION, every ISM, ABSTRACTION, FORM, PLASTICITY, OBJECTIVITY, SUBJECTIVITY, OLD MASTERS, MODERN ART, PSYCHOANALYSIS, AESTHETICS, PICTORIAL PHOTOGRAPHY, DEMOCRACY, CEZANNE, “291”, PROHIBITION. The term TRUTH did creep in but it may be kicked out by any one.” [ii]


Alfred Stieglitz was the photographer and gallery owner who provided the East Coast muscle to move the photograph out of the realm of novelty and representation into an art form.

He was the first recognized rebel of his era to break from the fairly new technology of the camera— and Stieglitz gave his life to making photography recognized as art. (Keep this in mind as you hear some of his petty antics. He is the well-spring for the photography we love now. Even if he was a jack#@%.)

The style he championed was “pictorialism“— images of people and places rendered in soft, painterly strokes of light.

In the process of cultivating new talent, he mentored two young photographers— Ansel Adams and Edward Weston— who would repay him by going out west and doing what the next generation does—

—they rebelled.

Ansel Adams - National Archives 79-AA-T11


While Stieglitz consciously changed photography by taking soft, dream-like images on the foggy East Coast, Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham, Edward Weston, Sonya Noskowiak, and Henry Swift, Willard Van Dyke, and John Paul Edwards planted their stake into the golden light of the Northern California coast, and named themselves Group f/64 [iii].

San Francisco became the primary area where they lived and worked, but all seven photographers went far afield in the American West, taking photographs of nature and abstracted figures in a clear, crisp style that excites the eye due to its reinvention of texture and depth-of-field. (Texture— some photographs of the Group f/64 bunch take ordinary objects and make them alien with close-ups and unexpected angles. Depth-of-field— the eye can travel some serious kilometers in the big-scope landscape photographs.)

Group f/64 also had great fun at Stieglitz’s expense when member Willard Van Dyke named his new venture Gallery 683 as a direct reference to Stieglitz’s earlier, revolutionary gallery in New York, Gallery 291

Woo!  I know— you’re shrugging your shoulders, but Stieglitz could be a huge passive aggressive hothead who could, and did, slap back. 

Photographer Donald Ewers told me, “There is an Ansel Adams video where he said Stieglitz’s response to the name Group f/64 was something like, ‘Oh, I’m f/128.'”


Oh, Stieglitz!  You naughty godfather of all modern photography, you![iv]

Ansel Adams - National Archives 79-AA-G08

A man stands in a canyon.  It is 1930.

The Great Depression started months ago; restlessness can be felt everywhere, especially amongst the photographers— who are intimate with this restlessness and ambiguity.

Photography doesn’t have a place of its own yet, not really. In the meantime, the country is beginning a slow-burn panic.

Adams isn’t paying attention to that right now.

Having taken his photograph and packed his equipment, Adams turns to go back down the trail before the last ribbon of sunlight leaves the thin dirt path.

He does not know it yet, but he just joined part of the brewing zeitgeist surrounding photography and art.

Adams turns his sharp eye to the little bit of sunlight left.  The air cools around him rapidly.  He shoulders his equipment and continues down the trail, whistling a little tune as he goes.



NEXT WEEK ON OUR SUNDAY BEST! Group f/64 and the changing face of art during the Great Depression!   Snappy Stieglitz comebacks!  New technology!  Edward Weston and the abstracted nude! Whoa Nelly! Pull the car around! We gotta get to next Sunday, quick!



[i] Zeitgeist— from the German Zeit and Geist.   In English, this translates to “Time Ghost,”  but the meaning has to do with a group of people having a similar, revolutionary idea at the same time.  Often they may not know each other at the beginning of their new idea, but the do know each other once their idea gets rolling. At the end of a Zeitgeist moment, it’s anybody’s guess if anyone is still getting along.


[ii] Dorothy Norman (1973). Alfred Stieglitz: An American Seer. (Courtesy of Wikipedia)


[iii] f/64 is the smallest aperture on a large format camera.


[iv] No, seriously.  He could be straight-up cruel.  Some of the things he did to his first and second wives would make you scream.  Second wife— Georgia O’Keefe.  Guess what?  She screamed back.  Well… his first wife was no slouch in the screaming department either.










*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.

*The first installment of the “History of Modern Photography” series was this piece here, but it began when I wrote a piece for Our Sunday Best, which is Bluebird Blvd.’s weekly in-depth survey of some cool idea or thing. (Initially, it was my attempt to do a groovy list post in the early days of Bluebird Blvd., when I was posting seven days a week. Of course, the list posts kept getting bigger and more complex and more about things I am madly in love with, and so, you know, I ended up writing things like this piece, which took eight or more hours of pedal to the metal research with flipping footnotes and stuff. (Having a journalism/English/writing background does have its perks. I am a pretty fast researcher.) (Keep in mind that I am an absolute idiot at dozens of other things, just in case you think I sound a little too proud at the moment.)

My bigger point is, I have worked as photographer semi-professionally since my early 20s, but I had not, until last year, shown any interest in writing about the history of photography. Photography’s history is pretty nutty and full of gossip and switchback roads and all sorts of nonsense. It’s also amazing and gratifying and shows you just how tough photographers are. Photography is also one of the first art forms where, right out of the gate, there were women photographers— and no one said jack-diddly-doo about it. (Well, some idiots might have tried, but Imogen Cunningham and Dorothea Lange could pin folks’ ears back with a reply, I am certain. All the early ones were tough— the women and the men— and they worked together. It makes me giddy to think on it.)

Bluebird Blvd. is still running new installments in this ongoing series. In fact, what I’m working on now is a complete manuscript that covers the width and breadth of modern photography. I’m excited to share this with you today, and I was excited when I posted this installment last year on April 17, 2012. Because from here— we’ll be jumping right into a whole different history next week. Shall we begin? Let us begin!

Why a repost? Go here for a partial explanation as to why we’re reposting this week.

A NOTE: Guess WHICH BLUEBIRD of your ACQUAINTANCE is back from BIG BEND U.S. NATIONAL PARK! No, GUESS! (I’ve begun to put up some pix from this short but potent trip on the Bluebird Blvd. FB Page.)