Issue #213  3/5/2015
Adams Updated, Group f.64 Revealed

By Matt Damsker

Revised and updated edition. By Mary Street Alinder. Bloomsbury; paperback; $22; 400 pgs.; ISBN No. 978-1-62040-800-1. Information: http://www.bloomsbury.com.

By Mary Street Alinder. Bloomsbury; hardcover; $35; 400 pgs.; ISBN No, 9780106204-555-0. Information: http://www.bloomsbury.com.

As chief assistant to Ansel Adams from 1979 until his death in 1984, Mary Street Alinder earned the authority to produce his biography, especially after years of pushing him to complete his bestselling autobiography. Published 18 years ago, Alinder's "Ansel Adams" was a thorough distillation of what she had learned about the man and the photographer, and she labored under no illusion. As she admits in the preface to this revised and updated edition, her initial respect for Adams was "limited by his apparent disregard of the turmoil of the real world."

Indeed, Adams was famously unattuned to the civil rights, anti-Vietnam war and women's movements of the '50s and '60s, though he championed environmental causes long before many. But his images of natural American majesty spoke less to '60s activists such as Alinder and her husband, Jim. It wasn't until Alinder drew close, first as manager of the Weston Gallery in Carmel, CA, and then as Adams's employee, that her eyes opened fully to the complexity of the legendary artist.

"Ansel Adams" reflects that wide view on nearly every page, and while the "new information and deeper understanding" promised by the publisher of this revised edition may not be easily apparent to any but the deepest reader of Alinder's work, there is more than enough here to justify any claim. The 32 pages of black-and-white photography document not only his iconic images, but also personal and press shots that bring him into more human focus. The thorny titan of photography had a cherubic, welcoming face--after all--that gets eclipsed by his imagery.

As for Alinder's chronicle, it was never short of deep understanding, especially when she digs for the keys to Adams's artistry. She notes how Adams was charged by his connection to Alfred Stieglitz, whose "theory of the equivalent" suggested that a photo should be a pictorial equivalent of the emotion produced by nature (not far removed from its literary model, T.S. Eliot's "objective correlative").

When Stieglitz set out to prove this by photographing subjects over which he had no control --such as clouds, Adams ultimately responded in his photography with an expanded emotional scope that defined his work. But even more insightful is Alinder's discovery that Adams had studied piano in his early years, and learned the importance of the relationship between all 88 musical notes. He applied a similar concept to his photography, and made it his goal "that every print should move from bright white to deep black, with as many intermediate shades as possible joining the display." But in his greatest work--the images of Half Dome in Yosemite, for example--he showed that "the relationship between the tones was imperative, not their range." Such are the treasures of this biography, along with a deeply sympathetic and clear-eyed narrative of the great man's early life, marriage, affairs and fatherhood. Essential reading.

If anything, though, the revised "Ansel Adams" is something of an appetizer for Alinder's new history, "Group f.64: Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham and the Community of Artists Who Revolutionized American Photography." This broader brush views Adams and his contemporaries in the aesthetic context that gives them the most meaning. Indeed, their 1932 alliance as Group f.64 was an artistic clarion call that put the East Coast elites on notice that the San Francisco Bay Area photographers were redefining the medium with a Modernist approach--"straight photography"--that rejected the formal manipulations of Pictorialism.

Alinder has cast a bright spotlight on the group, with their intricate relationships and creative cross-pollinations that have rarely if ever been codified in print. Before this book, Alinder notes, only a couple of museum catalogues and some incomplete narratives had been published on Group f.64, famous as it is in photography and fine art circles--and "in the New York Times crossword puzzle." Now, she has rendered the complex weave of a seminal era and its figures. In addition to Adams, Cunningham, and Weston, there were Dorothea Lange, and lesser-known names such as Willard Van Dyke, John Paul Edwards, Sonya Noskowiak, Peter Stackpole and Henry Swift. Brett Weston also showed at the group's first exhibition.

Alinder has done years of research, and delivers individual portraits of the leading group members followed by a fairly breezy narrative of its heyday. From the details of the "Five-Star Punch" (a walloping grain alcohol beverage) concocted by Van Dyke for the group's informal exhibitions in an Oakland barn, to the group's in-print battle (via Camera Craft magazine) with the West Coast Pictorialist champion William Mortensen, Alinder tells a story of artistic manifestoes empowered by the strong and visionary personalities at their core.

The book features a generous sampling of the famous photographs that figure in Group f.64's history, and many of them are so famous (Lange's "Migrant Mother," or Adams's Golden Gate) that it doesn't matter all that much that they fade somewhat into the paper stock (except for a glossy portfolio of 15 key images). More importantly, the book captures its moments with the rigor and directness of straight photography itself, as when Alinder concludes:

"Group f.64 injected enormous vitality into photography at a critical time in its history. Between the Pictorialists, whose practices clouded the vision of many photographers, and Alfred Stieglitz, who segregated himself as a class of one with standards so rigid and high that success by any other photographer was nearly unachievable, the art of photography in the United States had languished…This is the strength of a group movement compared with the efforts of one or two: the powerful force of members united by deeply held convictions."

Matt Damsker is an author and critic, who has written about photography and the arts for the Los Angeles Times, Hartford Courant, Philadelphia Bulletin, Rolling Stone magazine and other publications. His book, "Rock Voices", was published in 1981 by St. Martin's Press. His essay in the book, "Marcus Doyle: Night Vision" was published in the fall of 2005. He currently reviews books for U.S.A. Today.

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