What the f/64? 

A look at BAM's new exhibition through the eyes of two local photographers

"Magnolia Blossom," by Imogen Cunningham, 1925, gelatin silver print, part of the Group f/64 exhibition at Boise Art Museum

Imogen Cunningham

"Magnolia Blossom," by Imogen Cunningham, 1925, gelatin silver print, part of the Group f/64 exhibition at Boise Art Museum

Group f/64 reads like the index of a history of photography textbook: Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham, Willard Van Dyke, and Brett and Edward Weston. From 1930-35, these San Francisco-based artists—whose collective name, f/64, refers to a large-format camera's small aperture setting—codified modern photographic technique, focusing on meticulously framed images and sharp focus on natural and industrial forms. All are still studied today for their beauty and technical prowess.

Group f/64: Revolutionary Vision, an exhibition of the group's work at Boise Art Museum, brings the collected visions of some of the 20th century's most influential photographers with original prints and illuminating background information.

For local photographers Levi Bettweiser (founder of the Rescued Film Project) and Laurie Pearman (frequent Boise Weekly contributor), f/64 is synonymous with uncompromising technical standards and iconic images.

BW toured the exhibition with Bettweiser and Pearman to get their take on why Group f/64's work is important in the 21st century.

What were your first impressions of the exhibition?

Levi Bettweiser: It was cool seeing that most of the prints were no larger than 8 inches by 10 inches. [The photographers] were really into contact prints—prints that were just directly from the negatives—so it was really kind of cool because it forced you to get in closer. The huge Ansel Adams prints were cool, but you could stand back and look at them like an art gallery print; but I liked the ones that were smaller prints.

Laurie Pearman: To add to that, what I thought was cool was that you could stand back from these small ones and you still had this impact. The contrast was just stronger and you get up close and then you start seeing all these details that are equally interesting. ... In fact, I almost wish some of these were really small.

LB: Well, sometimes I'd start looking at one photographer and then I'd realize I'd transitioned to another photographer and I'd be, like, "Oh! This is completely different," and it would completely throw me off—like, their form changed. I was looking at the Westons [Brett and Edward], and I'd realize I'd transitioned into the son's work.

LP: I had to go back and keep checking their names.

In some cases the transition was really sharp, like between Imogen Cunningham and the photographers whose work surrounded hers.

LP: It wasn't quite as high contrast, and her subject matter was different, too.

LB: What I liked about hers was that there weren't that many of them but they were mostly photos of people. Most of the other photos were of forms and landscapes, and hers, while they seemed like they weren't as technically tight as the other ones because they're all super contrasting lines, forms and shapes, hers were more about the subject ... where the whole group, they don't care about subjects as much, at least from what I read. I like photos of people; I think they tell more stories.

But Willard Van Dyke had that photo of the two Depression-era guys standing in front of the circus sign.

LB: It was super interesting to me. I read the info on this group when I first got in there and read it again when I ended it, and it said the group got started because people started manipulating their photos and doing weird techniques, and they formed this group to show people what you can do with the artform based on what you can do technically with the camera and that type of thing. [T]hat was really the draw of the whole thing for me: The idea behind this group that wanted to show that the artform could only do what you can do in-camera without manipulating subjects. Everything we shoot now has very little to do with technique, but everything's about context and subjects and what you're shooting, not what you're shooting on or how you're shooting it. It seemed very poignant in this day and age when everything's digital.

How did you feel about the content of the photos? Some of these photographers are very content-oriented, while others are very technical.

LB: There's definitely two different forms of photography in there. One is all about the image and the contrast and the composition and the contrast, and there's the other that's more in the content and context and documenting side of photography, which is the portraits and maybe the less technical side of things. I like seeing those contrasts. I think most photographers relate to one of those two fields.

LP: I think the strongest photos out of each of the different photographers were the ones that captured both, though. One of them was of a pepper, and it's not just a pepper; or the nude where it's shot from behind. You know what it is, but you can't stop looking at it—there's more to it, the storytelling aspect to this very straightforward subject.

LB: I'm super envious of art photographers. That kind of photography, to me, takes a lot more skill because a subject that's engaging can carry so much of your photography and you can let some of the technique and the art go a little bit if you have an engaging subject. I really admire photography like that.

LP: Did you guys read up on Edward Weston's shot of his fiancee, that note about how she hated the shadow on her arm and he hated the bobby pins in her hair? It's, like, this beautiful, amazing composition and the shadows were these gorgeous smoothing lines and these harsh lines, and he's, like, "I hate the shadow on her right arm." They're such harsh critics of the technical part of their work.

LB: That speaks to most artists, right? It's like all you can see are the flaws.

LP: But there's something different about just staring at one image for so long in a darkroom, like, I'm sure you could dwell on things a lot more. Right now, it's easier to download a batch of images, take a few, move on and not be fixated on this image for a week.

LB: Yeah, totally.

Were there photographers whose work you preferred?

LP: I think Brett Weston's was the most striking to me just because his printing was amazing. I'm sure you read about it, too, how he printed for his dad and the immense amount of printing skills. ... I could have stared at some of those photos for a long time, especially the dam—I think actually that might have been Edward [Weston]'s, but their work, like I said, blends together. But his printing was incredible.

LB: I liked the abstract ones; it takes just a lot of skill to evoke emotion in something so mundane. [I]f you take a super boring subject and make it super beautiful, that takes way more skill to me than just taking a picture of an amazing moment. You have so much more control over that.

LP: Although I don't know the last time I saw an 8-by-10-inch landscape from really far away. Did you guys look at that dam one, and you can see the people like sitting on a bench. It's so sharp, still. I can't do that. [Laughs.]

LB: It's those contact prints, man.

What did you think about all the pictures of industrial-age technology?

LB: That's the thing about photography, right? It documents a moment in time that was significant. It's crazy to think of what we're taking pictures of now that will be antiques, you know, in 60 years, so, yeah, it does give you a sense of mortality when you look at things like that. It looks so fresh and clean, like it could have been shot yesterday, but it's just gone now, just out of date.

There's also something kind of magnificent about a lot of the images, as well.

LP: I think also, when you strip out color it makes you stop and perceive it in a completely different way, and it does seem more timeless, maybe because you can't see the rest as well.

LB: The whole time I was just reveling in the whole technical, artform part of it. But it is this film vs. digital debate, but I think now digital is its own artform, and it actually can be a hybrid of the two artforms.

What do you make of this exhibition being predominantly seen by people who take their pictures with their phone cameras?

LB: I think people will recognize a great photo when there's a great photo to be seen. I don't think anymore people think about the technique that goes into it as much. I used to think, like, "Ah fuckin' iPhones. [That photography] looks incredible and I'm doing all this work." But I think it levels the playing field a little bit. When people look at photos now they are viewing it from a very "Is this a good photo?" perspective. Maybe they don't necessarily know why they feel that way, but that's just how they view it now. It's not an amazing photo because someone took it with an 8-by-10 camera. People just look at photos and think, "I like this photo" or "I don't like this photo."

LP: Maybe I'm nostalgic about it. This does make me think back to my very first classes on photography. I looked at these photographers and their work and the style of photography, and over the years it has become this other form that has kind of forgotten its roots. I think it was really transformative for me going in there and looking at those photos and standing there and critiquing them. I used to try to reproduce these things myself. There's not a whole lot of excitement if you're not appreciating the technical part of those photos.

LB: I think people now inherently think everything is in color, everything's shot in color, and people automatically look at a black-and-white photo and they spend a little more time with it. They observe it differently even if they're not consciously observing it differently.

LP: If it's black-and-white and out of focus, it's art.

LB: People just feel like it's connected to something farther away than right now. I don't know.

What were some of the technical aspects of these photos that impressed you the most?

LP: Tonal ranges. There was so much detail within shadows and there was nothing blown out. It was a full spectrum, I feel like, with the tones.

LB: Well that, and obviously Ansel Adams and his ability to use technique to show us what he's seeing—to me, he's unsurpassed by anyone. That's why he's the most famous photographer ever.

LP: I don't want to sound too bitter about iPhones.

LB: Yeah, I used to be really bitter about it. Now, anymore, it's leveling the playing field. As I shoot more film and a lot less digital, everything's a medium. Everything's a tool. There will be a gallery in 50 years of work that was shot on the very first iPhone.

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