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Arts & Culture

Author focuses on NorCal photography pioneers

How many times have you appeared on camera today? How about this week? Cameras are so woven into daily American life that it’s difficult to imagine a time when people didn’t constantly carry numerous image-capturing devices in their pockets, or walk past countless security cameras.  

Images from a camera – a mere mechanical box -- certainly weren’t considered art in the early days of photography.  That changed dramatically when a handful of photographers met in Oakland in the fall of 1932. They called themselves Group f.64.

If you don’t know the group’s name, you may know some of the members, including Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham. They, and other northern California photographers, banded together to convince the “Eastern Establishment” art world that photography was indeed a fine art. "They asserted,” Mary Street Alinder says in her book, Group f.64,“that photography could be a complete and independent art.”

The name came about early one evening after Ansel Adams and his companions had lubricated their imaginations with some drinks. They liked the definition of f.64. It’s “the smallest f.stop on their view camera lenses,” one that produces the best depth of field for their finely focused images.

The cameras may have been finely focused, but the photographers weren’t, after drinking the “Five-Star Punch” often served at these meetings. Prohibition was still in effect, but photographers could buy alcohol as a processing agent. Pure grain alcohol was added to lemon juice, water and sugar, with a splash of glycerin. Adams survived these gatherings with a home remedy: He would drink a goodly portion of olive oil before arriving, lessening the possibility of “seeing stars” the next day. 

San Francisco is “the biggest photography city in the country, if not the world,” according to a recent San Francisco Chroniclearticle. Author Mary Street Alinder explains that this traces to the partnership between Group f.64 and the deYoung Museum, a pioneer in displaying extensive exhibits of straight photography, at a time when “many still questioned its legitimacy."

Alinder is well-qualified to document this movement. She was chief assistant to Ansel Adams at the time of his death, and completed his autobiography. She also knew many of the photographers in this story. And it’s appropriate that she’s a woman, since Group f.64 was a rare art group at the time to give female members a voice.

Her familiarity with the characters can cause problems for readers, though. She refers to her West Coast friends by their first names, but switches to last names when mentioning people on the East Coast. International mentions seem to get both names.  

 Photographers complain about photo books that contain "too much type-type and not enough click-click." At first glance, this book qualifies for that criticism. But many of the photos discussed are very well known, and certainly available elsewhere -- much more so than information about the people who created them, and the times in which they worked. And that's the focus of this book. 

Alinder recounts her stories in a light manner, but this is a text or reference book, not a simple biography. It contains four appendices, 62 pages of footnotes and 20 pages of index citations. And good for her for recounting these origin tales, separated only one degree from the source. 

Mary Street Alinder will talk about the book, answer audience questions, and sign copies of Group f.64 on Wednesday, January 14 at Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park. Admission is free.