Photography has become such a multi-faceted medium — such a democracy of creative ideas — that it’s hard to imagine how opposing philosophical camps once heatedly debated its future direction. But that’s exactly what they did in the early 20th century, according to an ambitious survey that explores both sides of the argument.
Debating Modern Photography, an exhibition running at the Phoenix Art Museum through December 30, does seem to take sides: the show’s subtitle is Triumph of Group f/64, a reference to a vanguard group that set out to challenge photography’s status quo. Formed in California circa 1932, the group included such names as Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham, Willard Van Dyke, and Alma Lavenson, whose “Self-Portrait (Hands), 1932,” is pictured above. In contrast to the painterly, soft-focus style of the era’s pictorialists, these photographers shared the belief that the medium should focus on “characteristics inherent to the camera’s mechanical nature: sharp focus and great depth of field,” according to the show’s catalog.
Deriving its name from the camera’s smallest aperture (producing the greatest depth of field), Group f/64 pioneered a stylistic shift that reverberates today. “This exhibition endeavors to revive the controversy, not only to acknowledge the pictorialists’ arguments, but to illustrate how avant-garde the work of Group f/64 once was,” the curators write. It should make for a worthwhile stop in the Phoenix area, and hopefully the show will travel afterwards. — Jack Crager