Book Review Group f.64 By Mary Street Alinder Reviewed by Kurt Markus The hard act to follow for Mary Street Alinder is herself; the book, Ansel Adams: A Biography. Published in 1996, it is a gem; there is no better window into that great photographer’s life, warts and all, than this. It seems to me that A Biography is the result of a rare meeting of subject and writer, the one embracing the other in a beautiful bout of storytelling.
Reviewed by Kurt Markus
Text by Mary Street Alinder.
Bloomsbury USA, 2014. 416 pp., 50 illustrations, 6½x9¼x1½".
The hard act to follow for Mary Street Alinder is herself; the book, Ansel Adams: A Biography. Published in 1996, it is a gem; there is no better window into that great photographer’s life, warts and all, than this. It seems to me that A Biography is the result of a rare meeting of subject and writer, the one embracing the other in a beautiful bout of storytelling. You have to read this book, it’s as fine a biography, regardless of subject, as you’ll ever encounter.
And no one is more suited to take on Group f.64, the west coast coalition of like-minded Depression-era photographers, than Alinder. Her years with Adams brought her in personal contact with almost all of the Group members and her insights are graced by that intimate knowledge. They called themselves “Group f.64” and their agenda was to champion so-called “straight photography” and disavow the manipulated painterly attempts by the Pictorialists. These photographers were, primarily, Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, and Imogen Cunningham. In a noble effort to shed light on the lesser lights of this movement (i.e. Preston Holder, Consuelo Kanaga, and Sonya Noskowiak), Alinder is often cornered into sketching individual biographies that are less than full and memorable. But who can blame her when she’s got Edward Weston and Ansel Adams to talk about? (Note to Alinder: if you write Edward Weston: A Biography I will be the first to buy it.)
Group f.64 is a valuable reference book, for sure, and it is meticulously footnoted and indexed; 100 of the book’s 400 pages are devoted to this task. If you want to read more about all of the photographers who exhibited with the Group, this book will lead you to those sources, in abundance. But the real meat in the book is a full look at the little discussed divide of the two coasts — make no mistake, Group f.64 was not only championing sharp prints, they were fighting for recognition from the likes of Alfred Stieglitz and the larger east coast world of publishing and commerce. In many ways, ironically, that struggle for recognition is alive and active today.
When I think of the 1930s and painting I think of Cubism and Surrealism; in photography, there are the “concerned” social documentarians: the FSA gang. Unlike the code put forth by Group f.64 who loudly proclaimed a pursuit of beauty for beauty’s sake, the FSAers treated their work as functional, descriptive tools for social change. To the Group f.64ers the print was everything; the FSAers on the other hand laid little claim on art and spent only as much time in the darkroom as was necessary to get the point across. The West Coast philosophy, as expressed elegantly by Edward Weston was the “thing itself,” a pepper was a pepper. On the East Coast the modernists had already pointed their cameras at “ideas,” social concepts that were anything but the thing itself. What held all of photography together was the medium of black and white. Color had not yet arrived.
I wonder if Alinder considers her new book timely. I do. Aren’t the issues much the same, even though the attitudes are less East and West than “straight” (I refuse to use the term “analog”) versus “digital”? Has not Photoshop photography more or less consumed illustration? Straight photographers use black and white to make their easily recognized art (the “thing itself”) while digital photographers use color to shade the meaning of their vision, which cannot be contained on merely one layer. Simple vs. Cerebral. How different might photography be today if color had been invented first? And sharp or fuzzy was never an issue?
Would this mean we’d never have had Ansel Adams or Edward Weston? If so, what a terrible loss.
Thank you, Ms Alinder, for tending the Flame of Recognition.—Kurt Markus
KURT MARKUS has been a photographer for nearly four decades, his subject matter ranging from the cowboy West to Paris fashion. His interests have also led him to filmmaking, both as a director and a screenwriter. He and his wife/agent of 30-plus years, Maria, have recently moved from Montana to Santa Fe where they continue to pursue their passions. They have two sons, Weston and Ian; Kurt has one daughter, Jade, by a previous marriage.