First a caveat — my aim here is not to slander Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, and the rest of the Group f/64 gang and to suggest that they were all fascists. On the contrary, their politics tended to be left-leaning when they were political at all. Weston went to a John Reed Club meeting where Marxist artists and writers were supported. Admirably, Adams was — unlike the majority of Americans at the time — distressed enough by the interment of Japanese Americans after the attack on Pearl Harbor that he gained permission to visit the camp at Manzanar and produced a photo-essay on life there. And he and the others made some pretty fine photos too. So please, no hate mail from fans condemning me for attacking their photo heroes.
However, as I continue to write against the grain (so to speak) in these essays I do want to highlight a certain resonance I noticed among the aesthetics of the Third Reich, the Group f/64 Manifesto, and statements made especially by Weston in his Daybooks (1923-30) and elsewhere. In fact, I would have never thought of this topic if not for having been struck in my reading by this convergence of rhetoric and ideal. The approximate timing and the sudden awareness I had warrant some further consideration before simply calling it a mere coincidence (although it’s probably a mere coincidence). In addition to pointing out this resonance, I also do want to take a stand against the Group f/64 credo and argue that it was misguided.
Succinctly described, Group f/64 — named after a small aperture size that produces a long sharp field of focus from foreground to background — was formed in 1932 by Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Willard Van Dyke, Imogen Cunningham (cool name, and she was born in Portland, Oregon so there’s two cool things about her, besides some awesome botanicals and portraits she did), and a few others in reaction to “artistic” and “pictorial” photography that was characterized by soft focus and painterly effects. In other words, they were proponents of “straight photography” in the belief that by definition photography, as its own unique imaging medium, should be practiced to represent its distinctiveness to the utmost to bring out the essence of the medium with its inherent strengths but within the limits of the medium (there is a kind of technological determinism lurking in this idea). In practical terms, this meant that the “properly” photographic image had its own implied aesthetic and need not and should not turn to the practices and aesthetics of other earlier media (in particular, painting).
This was a principled stance and one that cultivated a rigid technical discipline and some very fine iconic photographs (Adams’ Half Dome and Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, Weston’s Pepper No. 30, etc.). Adams and Weston are widely recognized as among the most influential photographers of the 20th century and for good reason. I do admire that in an age of technological innovation leading to smaller and more automatic cameras they stuck to old-school gear. I part ways with them, however, when one parses out the implicit ideology behind the image. To me, at a time when fascist totalitarianisms were on the rise in Europe and conservative-verging-on-fascist reactions to the 1933 election of Franklin D. Roosevelt were simmering among American industrialists, and eugenics were openly discussed in Germany and the United States, the rhetoric of the “straight and pure” that Group f/64 espoused unsettles me. Or at least it demonstrates how easily such rhetoric can be attractive and be twisted to ill ends. f/64 and fascism are two sides of the same coin. But I repeat: that does not make Saints Ansel and Edward fascists. Maybe a little intolerant when it comes to photography, but not fascists.
Let’s take a look first at the Group f/64 Manifesto (1932), fashioned to combat the “tide of oppressive pictorialism.” I quote it here in full:
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.
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.
Group f/64 is not pretending to cover the entire 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.
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.
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.
After three initial paragraphs that sound rather reasonable and modest if not inviting, they lay down The Law in paragraphs four and five. The language that jumps out at me is “simple and direct,” “pure” (four times), “conform to standards,” “must” (two times). This is prescriptive and proscriptive language, language of exclusion. It’s ironic that the manifesto invokes “ideological conventions” negatively in reference to its targets of exclusion as it is asserting rigid guidelines for its own ideological purity, or rather, an ideology of purity.
This obsession with purity and straightness, simplicity and directness, of the Group f/64 ideal is the obvious entry point into a relation with fascist aesthetics that promote similar ideals about the purity of form and a direct, anti-intellectual devotion to it. Weston also rhapsodizes in his Daybooks and other writings about “presenting” (never “interpreting”) the vitality (“the life within the outer form” — even if it’s an inanimate rock) of the “Thing Itself” (“the quintessence revealed direct without the fog of impressionism”). This ideal too resonates with the kind of glorification of a primitive vitalism prominent of Nazi ideology which Susan Sontag identifies in her famous review (“Fascinating Fascism“) of Leni Riefenstahl’s 1974 photo book The Last of the Nuba, the underlying aesthetic of which Sontag ties with fascism despite it being well after the fall of the Third Reich and depicting an African, not Aryan, people:
Although the Nuba are black, not Aryan, Riefenstahl’s portrait of them evokes some of the larger themes of Nazi ideology: the contrast between the clean and the impure, the incorruptible and the defiled, the physical and the mental, the joyful and the critical. . . .
What is distinctive about the fascist version of the old idea of the Noble Savage is its contempt for all that is reflective, critical, and pluralistic.
For Weston, the ideal of photography is never a critical, reflective practice involving the subjective intervention of the photographer. It’s not about expression of one’s inner vision but rather the recording of the outer form as best a camera and lens can, better than the naked eye (“the stark beauty a lens can so exactly render”). For him the “Thing Itself,” the essence of the object that proper straight photography reveals, exists in the singular; it can never be pluralized. To pluralize implies interpretation, a deviation from an assumed ideal in-itself (“If you wish to ‘interpret’ why not use a medium better suited to interpretation or subjective expression—or—let some one else do it—Photography is an objective means to an end”). You may choose a certain film, lens, filter, and printing paper for “divergence from nature. All these are relevant to straight photography, and justified if used with intention” as long as that intention is
toward an impersonal revealment of the objective world. ‘Self expression’ is an objectification of one’s deficiencies and inhibitions. In the discipline of camera technique, the artist can become identified with the whole of life and so realize a more complete expression . . . . (Leaflet Written for the Los Angeles Museum, 1934)
Self-expression through photography is defined here as a deficiency, one that can be overcome by the loss of self(-expression) into a greater objective whole through the “discipline” of the camera. The self, being necessarily incomplete and impure, is transcended as the photographer draws out and identifies with the purity and thing-in-itselfness of the object photographed. Goebbels could not have theorized the workings of fascist aesthetics any better, although he would have included some mention about ultimate and absolute joyful union with the Leader.Weston speaks about this sense of transcendent ecstasy (= out-of-stasis, out-of-body) experienced in the pure photographic image in almost religious and sexual terms. It’s all about capturing the sublimity of form more perfect than the human self, even if the subject matter is a toilet (his photo entitled “Excusado“):
My excitement was absolute aesthetic response to form. For long I have considered photographing this useful and elegant accessory to modern hygienic life, but not until I actually contemplated its image on my ground glass did I realize the possibilities before me. I was thrilled! — here was every sensuous curve of the “human form divine” but minus its imperfections.
Never did the Greeks reach a more significant consummation to their culture, and it somehow reminded me, in the glory of its chaste convolutions and in its swelling, sweeping, forward movement of finely progressing contours, of the Victory of Samthrace.
Yet the blind will turn longingly back to “classic days” for art! Now I eagerly await the development of my exposed film. (Daybooks, 21 October 1925)
Freud would have a field day with this. And this kind of ecstatic aesthetic response to the pure of form was catchy among those around Weston. He quotes in Daybooks for 25 July 1927 the “salient remarks” in response to viewings of the shell prints he did:
My God Edward, your last photography surely took my breath away! I feel speechless in front of them. What purity of vision. When I opened the package I couldn’t look at them very long, they stirred up all my innermost feelings so that I felt a physical pain.
Edward — nothing before in art has affected me like these photographs. I cannot look at them long without feeling exceedingly perturbed, they disturbed me not only mentally but physically. There is something so pure and at the same time so perverse about them. They contain both the innocence of natural things and the morbidity of a sophisticated, distorted mind. They make me think of lilies and of embryos. They are mystical and erotic. (from Tina Modotti)
Here is one of the shells in question:
Does it make you — as it did one of Weston’s male friends — “weak in the knees”?
I can’t imagine Hitler approving of such images — fascist eroticism had to be contained in human bodies, not in suggestive shells. However, I can imagine him appreciating the thrust of Weston’s photographic ideal and the language used to describe it. The purity and simplicity and sublimity of form; the ecstatic experience of the divinely erotic it could incite; the suppression of self-expression for a transcendence found through identification with the sublime form, which in turn enfolds the deficient self within a greater perfected whole — all these resonant between fascist aesthetic ideals and much of the thought and beliefs that motivated the formation and exclusivity of Group f/64. Both shared a eugenic impulse; they both promoted their own definition of the wellborn and well-turned-out, that which possessed no deficiency, no imperfection. If they could, Group f/64 would have likely desired to see all soft-focused, diffused, pictorialist-inspired photography burned as decadent. Such photographs, as Weston told a friend during a give-and-take about what constituted proper photographic practice, are the products of a camera “misused.”
I think, on the contrary, that the Group f/64ers were misguided from the beginning by assuming that any medium exists or should exist uncorrupted by any other. The insistence on “ideological purity” in this regard can only stunt — not expand — visions. One of Weston’s mantras was that — as he rendered it to that same friend whom he accused of misusing the camera — “why limit yourself to what your eyes see when you have such an opportunity to extend your vision?” (Daybooks, 20 April 1923). Indeed, why? The disciplined, pure and straight photographic vision they espoused — intolerant of variations and deviations — leads to an evolutionary dead end, limits you to one kind of vision. There’s a reason for multiple — plural — f-stops on lenses….
To avoid the oppressive focus of f(ascism)/64, I will continue to misuse my camera. See how in my next essay, “The Misused Camera.”
Musings & Experiments
- Collodion Bastards and the Indian Connection
- R.B. Graflex Series D Lens Catalog
- The R.B. Graflex Series D Restoration Project
- Worldwide Pinhole Photography Day 2012
- It’s Official: I’m a Large Format Whore
- A New “Book” Project?
- No Longer a Kodak Shareholder
- Kodak Restructures and Brings My Shares Back to Break Even
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