Wednesday, April 10, 2019

The Adams-Newhall Axis

I just finished a book. Group f.64: Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham, and the Community of Artists Who Revolutionized American Photography by Mary Street Alinder, biographer and assistant to Ansel Adams.

This is a heavily footnoted, which is almost but not quite the same as well-researched, book about the famous f.64 group in California, and tells the tale of their glorious battle with the Pictorialists, especially William Mortensen, their eventual victory, and their ascent to their rightful places in the pantheon of great photographers.


Actually, it's just another salvo (in 2014, for god's sake), in the increasingly discredited tradition of Beaumont and Nancy Newhall's hagiographic take on Ansel Adams and Edward Weston. In this version of history, Europe does not exist, and photography consists, mainly, of Alfred Stieglitz, Ansel Adams, and Edward Weston, with Beaumont Newhall playing the role of James Boswell. Photography's history consists of discovery, an unfortunate side-trip in to Pictorialism, and ultimately glorious re-emergence into truth and beauty, led by the heros Adams and Weston, who rescue Stieglitz from flirtation with evil. Drinks all around.

I cannot for the life of my figure out what this thing is doing being published in 2014.

Anyways, that is the narrative Alinder is promoting, but she does actually provide a large number of facts, many of them probably correct, which allow us to sort out better what actually happened.

First of all, the central claim of the book, that f.64 swept away Pictorialism in a great wave of wisdom is absurd on the face of it. f.64 was not in the van, they barely made it to the rear-guard at the very tail end of Pictorialism in, more or less, the last place Pictorialism was still kind of a thing, in the American West. f.64 was formed in 1932. Hartmann wrote his plea for Straight Photography in 1904. "Camera Work" had dumped Pictorialism in favor of Paul Strand in 1917.

By 1932, straight photography was the dominant form of serious photography. There was still amateur interest in various processes associated with Pictorialism as commercially available silver papers had not quite obliterated the rest of the market, and there were a few practicing Pictorialists (in some sense) still rattling around, but serious photography was straight photography. Modernism has been dominating photography for a good decade or two at this point, along with its Precisionist subset. Weston and Adams are (in 1932) Precisionists and, to be blunt, they are rather late to the party.

As usual with these goobers, Alinder can't even sort of what Pictorialism is. She likes Adams "fuzzy wuzzy" description, but has to admit that Mortensen's pictures were sharp. But they were manipulated! So, bad! Alinder suggests that "Pictorialism" derives from the title of P.H. Emerson's book, which is wrong. Pictorialism is, as usual, just a sort of generic boogeyman that means "not Ansel Adams, and so, bad."

f.64 appeared at the wrong time to have swept Pictorialism away and was too small, too bush-league, and too short-lived to sweep anything away. The only reason we know anything about these guys is because it contained two photographers who would eventually be elevated to the pantheon, and a couple of very good ones besides, and people like Alinder won't stop trying to pitch the group as hugely influential. They had, Alinder makes clear, a small number of mostly very minor exhibitions, some meetings, a few notices in the photographic press, and that was about it. Alinder does appear to be tacitly aligned, a little, with the theory that the whole thing was an attempt to get Stieglitz' attention (and, after a fashion, it worked).

We do learn a lot of Edward Weston, who Alinder seems to greatly admire. Weston was, evidently, one of those useless shitheads who couldn't do anything for himself. He didn't drive, or cook. I think it follows that he also did not do laundry, or clean. Weston preferred to live an ascetic life of great simplicity accompanied by a pretty girl who would do everything for him and also have sex. I mean, that sounds kind of good to me too.

Weston's only two skills appear to have been photography and talking women in to bed, and honestly he doesn't take enough shit for this. Alinder seems to admire him for it.

Edward Weston was clearly a useless dickhead, albeit a very charming one.

At one point, pushing the narrative that Charis Wilson (the last woman Weston could talk into bed with him before he got too old, sick, and crotchety to do it again) was the true love of his life, Alinder shows us two nudes. One is the previous girlfriend, Sonya Noskowiak and the other is Charis Wilson. Alinder goes on about how "light loved Charis" and whatnot, whereas Sonya not so much. She's trying to justify Charis as the true muse, and Sonya as, well, someone legitimately ditched.

And she's right, Charis is all smoothly rounded and beautiful, Sonya a bit angular and stiff. What Alinder leaves unstated is that Charis is 19 years old, and Sonya is 34.

With all due respect, which is to say none: "Fuck you, Mary Street Alinder."

We learn, hilariously, that Adams tried this out as well. He hired himself a pretty young assistant, duly fell in love with her, and asked his wife Virginia for a divorce. Virginia said "no" and that was that. I don't know what's more tragicomic, that Adams wanted to try this libertine shit out, or that he was too much of a pussy to carry it out.

Not all the "facts" are that great. Alinder repeats the absurd story that Weston's Pepper #30 was made with an exposure some hours long, which is evidently a meme that one of the Weston descendants is trotting around, but it is contradicted by Weston's Daybooks and also by common sense. Alinder states, with a footnote, that Brett Weston was the 5th most collected American Photographer at the time of his death, but the footnote refers to some unpublished bio. So, essentially, "I saw this on a piece of paper someplace." (Alinder wants to paint Brett Weston as important, which he was not.)

So, that's the general form of the book. A lot of facts, many of which I dare say are right, and a narrative which is seemingly unconnected to the facts. It reads fairly easily, and has an astronomical number of footnotes, some of which rise above "I saw this on a piece of paper someplace." It is hagiography disguised as scholarship.

It has no place in this era, its narrative is false and known to be false.

It is a frankly bizarre volume.


  1. Your point of view would have had more influence had you refrained from name-calling. There's plenty of room in photography for all the various schools of thought. We don't need this adolescent attitude of promoting one point of view by belittling the other.

    A frankly bizarre post.

  2. I greatly enjoyed this post! Decades ago, when I was taking The History of Photography, and our text was the Beaumont/Newhall book, I came away scratching my head. All I noticed was that a lot of photographers were missing and that I felt the whole thing was extremely parochial. I was never scholar enough to dig deeper.
    Have we made any progress? Are there any Photo History books that more objective? I have no idea but would hope so.

    1. Naomi Rosenblum's "A World History of Photography" is much better, I can attest, and I have been informed that Gernsheim's history (I am not sure which one or ones, he wrote at least a couple of different ones) is excellent!

    2. Rosenblum also contributed a fairly even-handed essay to the book "Seeing Straight: The F.64 Revolution in Photography". It provided a much-needed counterpoint to the considerably more fawning essays by Alinder and Newhall in the same book.