Group f.64

By Mary Street Alinder

Bloomsbury. 400 pages. $35.

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Reviewed by

John Timpane

Our country's art history is, still today, usually narrated from the East Coast out. But, as Mary Street Alinder's Group f.64 reminds us, in photography, at least, it was a West Coast movement that redefined photography-as-art for the 20th century.

Alinder was chief assistant to group leader - and monumental photographer nonpareil - Ansel Adams (you've seen his awe-inspiring black-and-whites of Yosemite). She is especially well-placed to tell the tale. This she does, with clarity, gossipy tartness, and original research. It's a little twee to keep referring to these artists (several of whom she knew) by their first names - "Edward," "Ansel," etc. - but it is enjoyable getting to know this bunch.

The 20th was a century of "groups" and "movements," organized to gain influence and critical attention. And f.64 was no exception, firing off manifestos and books of theory, regarding with suspicion New York art kingmakers such as Alfred Stieglitz, scrambling for exhibitions. From its first one (San Francisco, 1932), it could boast several of the century's best photographers, including Adams, Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham, and Willard Van Dyke.

The name f.64 refers to an aperture setting on a large-format camera. This tiny opening gets great "depth of field," with things nearby as sharp as things far away. Ironically, it wasn't a setting the photographers themselves characteristically used - but that stress on surreally sharp, too-vivid images is what all members held in common, as the group's 1932 manifesto says: "It signifies . . . the qualities of clearness and definition of the photographic image."

Ever since the invention of photography about a century before, people had debated whether it could be art, and how. Adams and other f.64 members wanted their images to be more than "pictorial" (on one hand) or "true to life" (on the other). Weston wrote that "guiding the camera, as well as the painter's brush, there must be a directing intelligence - the creative force." Adams called it "emotional amplification.".

Flip through the photos in Group f.64, read the great profiles and stories, and you may agree that this group changed photography for good. These images really do amplify the emotions, and keep them amped.