Group f/64 (sometimes referred to as the West Coast Photographic Movement) was founded by seven twentieth century San Francisco Bay Area photographers (including Ansel Adams, Edward Weston and Imogen Cunningham) who shared a common photographic style, characterized by sharply focused, perfectly exposed and carefully framed images. They formed partly in opposition to the pictorialist photographic style that had dominated much of the early twentieth century and sought to redefine the possibilities of photography, advocating for a new modernist aesthetic of natural forms and found objects, free from photographic manipulation.

The late 1920s and early 1930s were a time of substantial social and economic uncertainty in the United States. The United States was suffering through the Great Depression, and people were seeking some respite from their everyday hardships. The American West was seen as the base for future economic recovery because of massive public infrastructure projects like the Hoover Dam. The public sought out news and images of the West because it represented a land of hope in an otherwise bleak time. At the time photography was also facing criticism for its inability to capture the same level of detail and visual acuity as traditional art forms such as painting.

In response to this, the group emerged as a collective of photographers who believed in celebrating the inherent qualities and capabilities of photography itself. Their philosophy emphasized the importance of the “straight” photograph, which captured the subject with uncompromising clarity and detail. They embraced large-format cameras and meticulous printing techniques to achieve maximum sharpness and tonal range in their images. The name “f/64” referred to a small aperture setting that ensured maximum depth of field and sharpness in the resulting photographs.

Initially Ansel Adams and Willard Van Dyke, an apprentice of Edward Weston, decided to organize some of their fellow photographers for the purposes of promoting a common aesthetic principle. In the early 1930s Van Dyke established a small photography gallery in his home at 683 Brockhurst in Oakland. He called the gallery 683 “as our way of thumbing our nose at the New York people who didn’t know us”, a direct reference to Stieglitz and his earlier New York gallery called 291. Van Dyke’s home/gallery became a gathering place for a close circle of photographers that eventually became the core of Group f/64.

In 1931, Weston was given an exhibition at the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco, and because of the public’s interest in that show the photographers who gathered at Van Dyke’s home decided to put together a group exhibition of their work. They convinced the director at the de Young Museum to give them the space, and on November 15, 1932, the first exhibition of Group f/64 opened to large crowds. The group members in the exhibition were Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham, John Paul Edwards, Sonya Noskowiak, Henry Swift, Willard Van Dyke, and Edward Weston. Four other photographers - Preston Holder, Consuelo Kanaga, Alma Lavenson, and Edward Weston’s son Brett Weston - were also invited to join the exhibitions.

Weston, already a well established photographer, began to explore and photograph landscapes as an art form following a brief but important trip to the Mojave Desert in 1928. It was there that he found the stark rock forms and empty spaces to be a visual revelation, and over a long weekend he took twenty-seven photographs. In his journal he declared “these negatives are the most important I have ever done.” Later that year he moved to San Francisco. He made portraits to earn an income, but he longed to get away by himself and get back to his art.

Cunningham was already well known in part due to her pioneering but controversial images of the male nude. While her early works were influenced by the Pictorialist Gertrude Käsebier, by the early 1920s Cunningham had turned to sharp focus close-ups that exemplified Straight Photography’s leanings towards abstraction. She had become interested in botany and photography while she was studying chemistry at the University of Washington, when she doubled as a photographer in the botany department. Her thesis “Modern Processes in Photography” (submitted in 1907) combined the two interests.

Adams too had experimented with different techniques in his formative years. For a short time he used hand-colouring and by 1925 he had tried and also rejected pictorialism. In 1927, Adams began working with Albert M. Bender, a San Francisco insurance magnate and arts patron. Bender helped Adams produce his first portfolio in his new style, using his Korona view camera, glass plates and a dark red filter to heighten the tonal contrasts.

After this initial show in 1932, records indicate that some or all of the photographs from that show were exhibited in Los Angeles, Seattle, Portland, Oregon and Carmel. By 1934, however, the effects of the Great Depression were felt throughout California, and the Group members had a series of difficult discussions about the premises for art in those challenging economic times. The effects of the Depression, coupled with the departure of several members of the group from San Francisco (including Weston who moved to Santa Barbara to be with his son and Van Dyke who moved to New York) led to the formal dissolution of the group and members continued to practice their shared values and aesthetic principles independently.

Ansel Adams became renowned for his iconic landscape photographs that showcased the grandeur and beauty of the American West. His images were characterized by their incredible depth of field, rich tonal range, and sharpness, which allowed viewers to immerse themselves in the intricate details of the natural world.

Edward Weston, a prominent member himself, focused on still life and nude photography. His meticulous attention to detail and emphasis on texture and form transformed ordinary objects into captivating studies of shape and tone. Weston’s close-up photographs of vegetables, shells, and other objects revealed the inherent beauty and abstract qualities found in everyday subjects.

Group f/64 photographers had a significant impact on the development of photography as an art form. By championing sharpness, technical excellence, and unmanipulated imagery, they challenged the prevailing notion that photography should mimic other art forms. Their commitment to the inherent qualities of the medium inspired subsequent generations of photographers to explore and embrace the unique capabilities of photography.

The influence of Group f/64 extended beyond their own time. The group’s dedication to technical precision and sharpness resonated with photographers around the world, and their ideas continue to shape the practice of photography today. The emphasis on large-format cameras, careful composition, and unmanipulated imagery has become an integral part of the photographic tradition, with many contemporary photographers still drawing inspiration from the principles espoused by Group f/64.