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Autry’s 'Revolutionary Vision', mavericks who took old school photos of nature and the West

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84 years ago, as small cameras were revolutionizing photography, American photographers like Ansel Adams and Imogen Cunningham took a backward step.

Off-Ramp cultural correspondent Marc Haefele reviews "Revolutionary Vision," at the The Autry in Griffith Park through January 8, 2017.

84 years ago, just when small and smaller cameras were beginning to revolutionize photography, a group of American art photographers decided to take a backward step.

Group f/64 named itself after a large-format view camera’s smallest aperture setting—which, used correctly with long exposures, produced the most sharp-edged of black and white images—particularly of landscape and nature. It was a retreat from the idea of snapshots and the then-favored art photographic practice of misty prints and dark-room manipulation.

In order to gain the maximum realism and depth of field, the Group members often used 8x10 tripod bellows cameras reminiscent of those used by photo pioneers like the Civil War’s Matthew B. Brady. The result was some stunning landscapes and still lifes that set artistic precedents for generations of serious photographers

The works of five of the original seven f/64ers are now on display at the Autry Museum. These include pictures by two of the most famous photographers of all time: Ansel Adams and Edward Weston. Also shown are photos by Imogen Cunningham; Weston’s son, Brett Weston and Willard van Dyke. The work of one of the group’s chief modern followers, Richard Misrach, is also on show.

Considering that f/64 lasted only three years and mounted only one show, it was amazingly significant. Much of its work became iconic, part of our collective artistic vision. For instance, there’s Ansel Adams’ famous “Moonrise: Hernandez, New Mexico,” that somehow, with its tiny village and cemetery abiding against distant snowcapped mountains evokes all at once life, death and eternity.

Other group members are less well known: the singular Imogen Cunningham (who died in 1976 at 93) did pictures of flowers, vegetables and nudes that all share an expressive kinship. Like her f/64 fellows, she implemented the great photographer Alfred Stieglitz’ dictum to “Find beauty in the commonest things.” She also found great beauty in her portrait of the aging Stieglitz. As well as her photo-reportage of the 1960s Haight Ashbury culture, unfortunately not shown here.

The work of Edward Weston on view include two nudes and his famous “Shell,” a perfected vertical still life of pure shape. Weston ‘s lesser known son Edward accomplished two of the most impressive works in the show, which includes his powerful 1924 portrait of Guadalupe Marin de Rivera, like something ripped off a Spanish Civil War poster, and a view of the White Sands dunes of New Mexico that is, rightly, the centerpiece of the show. Willard Van Dyke’ stark portraits of rural industrial buildings show strong influence of German Post-Expressionism, just as it was about to perish under Hitler.

Far too young to be in the f/64 group is Richard Misrach, born in 1949. But he is in this show anyway, appropriately, since he shows the group’s influence: he also often uses an oversize view camera, has strong political ideas and has done some of his most famous work, to which he has brought a range of color unavailable to his predecessors, in western deserts. His politics, rooted in the 1970s, include environmental as well as social justice concerns. In this show, there is a subtlety to his sensibility—the colors of his desert firescapes are stunning, and only after due consideration does the perception of disaster sink in. His studies of the Salton Sea, itself the result of a century-old ecological blunder, show it eradicating ordinary signs of human habitation, like clotheslines and utility poles: grim reality beyond symbolism.

It is a show of great breadth and charm; I was impressed to see how much it appealed to the rank and file Autry Museum goers. It comes to us by way of the often reviled Bank of America, which is said to possess an amazingly diverse photo collection from which this show was abstracted. Maybe someday we can see it all.

Meanwhile, see this.

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