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Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Beyond Ansel Adams

Adhere to the Ansel Adams tradition of linking the viewer to the landscape while exploring new visual styles and artistic expression

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And, more broadly, why can't we borrow techniques and styles from the broader art world beyond photography? It's interesting to note that a key component of the Group f/64 manifesto was a rejection of artistic techniques and compositions "derivative of any other art form," especially painting and the graphic arts. Adams and other members of the group sought to create and define a unique photographic artistic style. The Pictorialists, in the view of Group f/64, were devoted to principles of art borrowed from painters. But is there really anything wrong with this?

Jökulsárlón Ice Lagoon at twilight, Iceland. Photo by Ian Plant.
The irony of the Group f/64 position is that other forms of art had been heavily influenced by photography long before Adams ever picked up a camera. New scholarship suggests that the artistic revolution which began in the Renaissance and continued in the following centuries was the result of painters using primitive optical devices (the precursors of the modern camera) as aids in their creative process. One of the most famous of these optical devices is the camera obscura, essentially a giant pinhole camera, which many art scholars suspect may have been instrumental in the rise of perspective-based painting (take a close look at the paintings of Vermeer, in particular, and you can see a distinct "camera-like" look to the compositions). And 19th-century Impressionism was greatly inspired by photography and the concept of a "snapshot." Impressionists sought to represent spontaneous action and fleeting light in their paintings, much in the way a photographer would do. There's little doubt that photography changed the way artists saw the world. So, if photography could influence other forms of art, why can't other forms of art influence photography?

Although I agree with Adams that photography, as an art form, is unique and special, I think that we have a lot to learn from other artistic traditions. Creativity knows no boundaries, and today's nature photographer can gain a lot from even a cursory study of the broader art world. And while digital photography easily gives us the tools to achieve technical perfection in ways even Adams couldn't imagine, the flexible DSLR is the perfect tool for the photographer seeking to break free from the bonds of the dominant paradigm that has arisen in recent decades, largely inspired by his work. There's no reason why we can't adhere to Adams' tradition of linking the viewer to the landscape, yet step away from his visual style and explore other kinds of artistic expression.

The Group f/64 Manifesto
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.

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.


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