Purifying Photography: Group f/64


The Portland Museum of Art did a showing of photos to display the motives and photographic work of the legendary Group f/64, a powerful collective of photographers who all desired to purify photography, an idea that now has a strange irony to lomographers.

While sitting at my local Mexican eatery, my eyes wandered to the cluttered bulletin board. Most of the time the bulletin board is nothing more than an array of small housing listings and other things that are completely uninteresting to a high school student like myself. However this time a large post placed directly center of the wall dominated the bulletin board. The headline was “Debating Modern Photography: The Triumph of Group f/64”. I wrote down the title on a napkin to look into it further when I got home.

After my lunch I drove home and immediately jumped on the internet to find out a little more information. Not enough to spoil my desire to see the exhibit or ruin the surprise, but just enough to get me there without getting lost or show up after the exhibit was over. So I picked a date and convinced my lomo-friend Geltona to go as well.

So on a dreary, rainy, Saturday afternoon we trekked up to Portland Maine to visit the Portland Museum of Art. Upon entering the museum we were greeted with a large dark room to the right of us decorated with a “Debating Modern Photography: The Triumph of Group f/64”. Intrigued and expectant we went directly inside and were immediately surrounded by photographs of all sorts. As hard as it was we took the time to read about the photographs and not just go crazy and look at all the pictures.

During the mid 1880s, the common form of photography was known as “pictorialism”. Pictorialists took photos that featured things like soft focus, special filters for different effects, specially coated lenses, and heavy post processing manipulation in the darkroom. Some artists went as far as etching fine details onto the glass negative to create what they wanted the picture to look like actually. Pictorialism would be an equivalent to modern era Photoshop or even, dare I mention such an awful abomination of photography here, gulp Picnik. The modern day, digital mindset in a way.

Examples of Pictorialist photos. Photo 1 by Robert Demachy. Photo 2 by George Seeley. Thanks to Wikipedia for the photos.

After a few decades of pictorialism dominating the photography world, some thought that photography needed to be bent back into shape. Photographers needed to wean themselves from relying on post processing. Photography needed to be made “real” again. Photography actually needed to take place inside the camera. Sound familiar anybody?

So in response to these feelings, Group f/64 formed in Southern California. The group, headed by Ansel Adams and Willard Van Dyke, gathered a band of photographers to put these feelings of anti-pictorialism into action. The group’s pictures contrasted that of the pictoralist by having sharp focused images with great depth of field, large negatives with large prints, and truly awe inspiring photos without heavy post processing. As the group grew, Ansel Adams and Willard Van Dyke recruited five other photographers, Imogen Cunningham, John Paul Edwards, Sonya Noskowiak, Henry Swift, and Edward Weston to officially join their cause. There were a few other photographers like Preston Holder and Alma Lavenson who displayed photographs with the Group f/64 from time to time.

Examples of Photos taken by members of Group f/64. Photo 1 by Ansel Adams. Photo 2 by Imogen Cunningham. Thanks to Wikipedia once again for the photos

So in the exhibit in Portland the Museum had both pictures of the pictoralist style and photos from Group f/64, separated into different sections, which made differing between the two easy and enjoyable. There were little spots where they simply explained things like what a glass negative was and how aperture works. They even had a little light box with negatives and loupes so that you could compare the photos up close. Although the photographs were impressive, I took more from the exhibit than the average museum-go’er would.

As I read more and more about the exhibit I realized that Group f/64 had some of the same ideals and motives as Lomographers. As Lomographers, we strive to get away from digital manipulation to perfection by using analog film and toy cameras. No Photoshop, no post processing, no bunk. These were the same motives and values that the members of Group f/64 hold on to.

What struck me most was the irony of this exhibit. All of the lessons this display taught about purifying photography are just as relevant to recent photography as it was in the early 1900s. In today’s day and age, names like Ansel Adams have become the stereotype for “good photography”. A nice crisp landscape with perfect focus is something you might see dominating the average Flickr page which attracts swarms of people who swoon over the inspiring scenery. However, photography has gotten to the point where most people no longer take these inspiring pictures, but merely compose them during post processing through intense Photoshop leveling and heavy HDR effects. It seems as if the standard for modern photography is to strive for shots like that of Group f/64’s even if we use the modern equivalents of the ways of pictorialism. Thus, going completely against everything that Group f/64 stood for. The largest point of irony in my perspective is that Lomographers tend to turn in the direction of Group f/64 ideologically but turn towards Pictorialism stylistically. Lomographers prefer to take the motives of Group f/64, no post processing and in camera manipulation, and apply them to the style of the Pictoarlists by using soft focusing and other things of the sort. The soft dreamy focus of a Diana F+ is something that is admired by Lomographers and Pictorialists alike, yet using professional film in a digital era without post processing is a necessity of both Lomographers and photographers of Group f/64.

Throughout the exhibit there was a dominating question directed towards the viewer. A question that most people mindlessly answered because they thought that’s how they were supposed to answer and question that I will repeat here.

Which side are you on?

written by fivedayforecast on 2011-01-24 #lifestyle #museum #lomography #analogue-lifestyle #geltona #groupf-f-64 #imogen-cunningham #portland-museum-of-arts #pictorialism #ansel-adams


  1. rav_bunneh
    rav_bunneh ·

    Hmmm. Maybe what would be awesome are a few Lomography cameras that only shoot from f64 to f22. Bwahaha! I'd totally be all over it. "Guys, wait up while I wait five minutes for my camera to take a picture."

  2. superlighter
    superlighter ·

    wow! great interesting review full of great pictures and a very hard to replay question at the end! I never hear of Ansel Adams until someone one day left a comment under one of my pictures saiyng that "this photo remind me of Ansel Adams" obviously after a fast google search one new world it's open at my eyes an I must say that i really like his work but on the other side I can't ignore the fascination for some "pictorialists" or avantgardist like Man Ray (to mention one) that made an intense use of what we call post-production.

  3. eremigi
    eremigi ·

    As you may have (involuntarily ?) stated "Lomographers tend to turn in the direction of Group f/64 IDEOLOGICALLY but turn towards Pictorialism STYLISTICALLY". So my answer is: as proud Lomographer (or: Lomographer-wannabe) I am on both sides :-)
    Great article, by the way: very well written !

  4. acidgirl
    acidgirl ·

    I really enjoyed your article,about of the last question I think my
    answer is: I'm not in any of those sides... I'm
    discovering/creating a new one.

  5. wuxiong
    wuxiong ·

    F64 and Ansel are defenitely milestones in foto histry... <:))

  6. erinwoodgatesphotography
    erinwoodgatesphotography ·

    Would we be on here if we weren't on the f64 side? maybe Lomography is the modern day f64? or maybe it still has yet to be done, digital photographer with no post processing maybe?

  7. kylethefrench
    kylethefrench ·

    yeah that's some eastern private school quality writing, nice! also yeah I like the lomofriends on here who draw on their polaroids and manually manipulate the negatives or prints or process or whatever, anyways its all cool, I actually sometimes maybe teach this stuff in a class.

  8. panchoballard
    panchoballard ·

    Excellent article. For my answer I'd have to direct you to eremigi's answer, which is perfect.

    I like to use as little post-processing as possible and do everything at the point of shooting, but hopefully so that my photos turn out like some of the Pictorialist work.

  9. fivedayforecast
    fivedayforecast ·

    Wooo thanks for the likes and comments everybody! I think you're all right about not really having to choose a side, but it was an interesting question. A question that I didn't really expect people to go on either side for because for Lomographers, we all do fall right in the middle of the situation.

  10. rochellers
    rochellers ·

    Wonderful article and photos! I tend to leave my analogue pictures alone, but I am not above playing with saturation, color balance, etc., if I think it will make it a better photo - I figure I'd naturally do that in the darkroom anyway if I were printing my own film.

  11. cyan-shine
    cyan-shine ·

    Great article! Funny thing is that Ansel Adams spent more time in the darkroom "perfecting" his prints than anyone ever.

  12. beatnik00
    beatnik00 ·

    Very well written article with nice and adequate pictures. Furthermore, I would say, that by stating out that "The largest point of irony (...) is that Lomographers tend to turn in the direction of Group f/64 ideologically but turn towards Pictorialism stylistically.", you make a bright observation. Which I would share, by the way.

  13. coldkennels
    coldkennels ·

    I think the point that's missed is that neither group's standpoint is particularly about technique. Instead, it's about representation. Lomographers are NOT, in any way, connected to f/64. f/64 is a realist movement that would frown massively on cross-processing, fisheye lenses, light leaks, out of focus shots, etc.

    They, ultimately, were purists. I would imagine that today, Ansel Adams would have probably embraced digital cameras if he could get a completely accurate representation of the landscapes he admired so much. He sure as hell, however, would not have used a Holga.

  14. crumpy
    crumpy ·

    I'd say I'm on neither side though heavily leaning to Pictorialism. And I dispise Photoshopped pictures and techniques!!

    Pictorialism, although not a realistic representation of what is seen IS real. it's natural and everything is a result of light being manipulated, even the engraving of the glass negative. In the same way that I agree with using chemistry and cross processing but not with creating the same effect digitally, I agree with Pictorialists techniques but not with a digital equivalent.

    Having said that, I don't 'disagree' with any technique if the object is to create beautiful art. I just don't think heavily digitally modified pictures should be considered digital art and not a photograph.

    Look at me getting all caried away and off topic!!

    Tremendous article fivedayforecast!! I wish I was there with you.

  15. fash_on
    fash_on ·

    This is the age old argument of Photography - Art or Science? Truth or Not?
    There's no right answer, everyone has their own feelings/thoughts, the arguments have been around since photography was invented in the 1800's.
    For me lomography is generally closer to Pictorialism, they went against the norm and strived to create artistic moody shots with feeling.
    Ansel pushed photography to its sharpest most "perfect" form, tweaking exposures in camera with the zone system, and heavy reliance on his darkroom guy to perfect those amazing prints. The prints are hyper-real, similar to HDR in my mind.

  16. ingwaybee
    ingwaybee ·

    Well written article. Like most people have alreasy said, I am on both sides (and therefore on neither!). Did you take the other pictures (the one's without labels)? If so what camera/film did you use? They're amazing.

  17. fivedayforecast
    fivedayforecast ·

    Hanks! One or two of them were taken by @geltona and the rest aretaken by me. But we were both taken using an LC-A+ loaded with Fuji Neopan 1600

  18. the_lauris
    the_lauris ·

    Great article! I used to live in Maine and I went to the Portland Museum about every week, it's a fantastic place and they have had some amazing exhibits. Is this exhibit still showing? I would love to see it.
    In certain ways, both Pictorialists and f/64 have similarities to Lomographers. Both Pictorialists and f/64 created beautiful photographs in different ways and for different reasons; similarly, each Lomographer has their own artistic ethic, focus, and technique. So in a way, I agree with both sides, just like I appreciate many different styles of Lomographs!

  19. fivedayforecast
    fivedayforecast ·

    @the_lauris, the exhibit ended the last day in December! Sorry!

  20. fivedayforecast
    fivedayforecast ·

    @All the haters, I see your points and they are very valid, however, the part of the exhibit that I wanted to focus on was about how the group f/64 was trying to make photography real again in it's ideals. Sure they did that by all their fancy techniques and perfection of what the image would look like but they did purify photography in the broader sense of how the photo is taken, not what is in the photo. Lomographers are trying to make photography real again by digitally enhancing images and using analog cameras and the sort.

    So @coldkennels and @crumpy and @fash_on my point was that We as lomographers are looking for a change in modern day photography just like how Group f/64 was looking for a change. So in our sense, we are completely following Group f/64 idealistically and when I say idealistically, I mean the ideals of the notion of photography, not the ideals of what the photo looks like.

    haters gonna hate.

  21. onan
    onan ·

    I'm on both sides trying to improve myself in both areas. I don't post-process my lomo-shots though. That would be like swearing in church.

  22. thomas12
    thomas12 ·

    food for thought


  23. kvboyle
    kvboyle ·

    A great and interesting article - one thing to mention from a historical point of view is that the pictorialists were themselves reacting to people who though that only painting could be art, that photography had no place in a gallery....we're all reacting to something, whether we like it or not!!

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