I think we can all agree that William Mortensen's photo "Venus and Vulcan" is perfectly dreadful.
The 1934 black-and-white uses live models to update the myth about the goddess of love marrying the god who forged iron from fire, a favorite subject of old-time painters. Mortensen converts the blacksmith into a photographer bent over under the heavy weight of a camera on his back. The traditional little angel is a diapered child with a tiny Kodak slung over his shoulder. But the more things change, the more they stay the same: The voluptuous Venus is as naked as the day she was born.
A successful California photographer back in the 1920s and 1930s, Mortensen liked to make soft-edged allegorical photos that bordered on soft porn. If you wanted a photo of the murder of the ancient female mathematician Hypatia--nude and posed fetchingly upside down--Mortensen was your man. Or if a "Moonlight Madonna" was more to your taste, Mortensen was on the case, as a show at the Center for Creative Photography demonstrates.
At a time when photography's young Turks were calling for modern, "straight" photography, Mortensen was an old-fashioned Pictorialist. He relied on age-old art subjects, nymphs, sublime landscapes and the like, and on techniques that made his photos look like paintings or etchings. Platinum printing or bromoil-transfer printing limited the tonal range to delicate grays; no sharp whites or blacks intruded. Never mind that he was young himself--he was born in 1897--Mortensen's aesthetic was steeped in an older world.
Rabble-rousers Ansel Adams and Edward Weston and their buddies despised Mortensen and all he represented. In the timeless way of rebels, they declared themselves a movement (at a late-night party in 1932), gave themselves a name, Group f/64 (an aperture setting that guarantees depth of field), and issued a manifesto. Their team, they wrote, would make only "pure" photography.
There would be no mistaking their clear, crisp, highly detailed photos for paintings. The Purists would celebrate the technical nature of the new art form, and luxuriate in large-format cameras, contact-printing of negatives, glossy paper, extremes of black and white.
Mortensen didn't take the attack lying down. He riposted that the f/64 work was "uniformly hard and brittle," hemmed in by a straitjacket philosophy and wholly without emotional appeal.
The big show at the CCP unearths the long-buried battle between the Pictorialists and the Purists. Its title, Debating Modern Photography: The Triumph of Group f/64, reveals in no uncertain terms the outcome of the war. Weston and Adams have long since been canonized by the CCP, which owns their archives, and Pictorialism faded from view soon after f/64 launched its rebellion.
Organized first for the CCP's new gallery in the Phoenix Art Museum by curator Rebecca Senf, the exhibition understandably was designed to trumpet the CCP's treasures to a new audience. So it trots out, yet again, Adams and Weston works from the archives. Happily, though, it also showcases some of the lesser-knowns in Group f/64.
Alma Lavenson, for instance, is represented by her wonderful "Self-Portrait (Hands)," 1932, a lovely, classic shot of her hands, bathed in light, gently caressing her camera. (The fellas apparently let Lavenson into their club after she toed the Weston line. As Weston notes bitchily in a 1932 daybook, on display, Lavenson "fought my criticism [self-invited] of her work a few years ago but now has seen the light.")
To be fair, two other women, Imogen Cunningham and Sonya Noskowiak, then Weston's girlfriend, were also among the f/64 founders. Noskowiak gets a nice airing of her small, crisp close-ups of radishes and lily leaves. And like Lavenson, she also turns out a nice hand piece, "Hand and Violin," 1936.
Giving the devil his and her due, the show also exhibits a number of California Pictorialists besides Mortensen. But here's the surprise: Mortensen may have been almost uniformly awful, just as the f/64 folks said, but many of his fellow travelers were not. Johan Hagemeyer, for instance, turned out Pictorialist photos that were beautiful. And he didn't shy away from the modern world, either.
His "Gasoline Tanks," 1925, is a shimmering gelatin silver print of tall, white cylinders gleaming in the sun. A wheeled cart is leaning against one of the tanks, casting a shadow of spokes on the lighted wall. Softly focused and printed on matte paper, it has a "hazy, dreamlike quality," curator Senf writes.
Anne Brigman, a Pictorialist who trained first as a painter, does have some nudes posed in a landscape, a no-no for the Purists, in "The Pool," 1906. But they're interesting, in a Thomas Eakins kind of way. "The Glory of the Commonplace," 1912, is a soft, luminous look at glass of water glistening in the light.
So, what, exactly, makes Weston's shell purer than Brigman's glass? Or Hagemeyer's housetops less worthy than Adams' factory?
Like most rebels, the f/64'ers drew the lines too sharply. All art is artifice, whether sharply or softly focused. Adams imposes his own vision on, say, El Capitán in Yosemite. He cuts and crops and shapes the landscape to suit his own eye. Likewise, Weston puts his famous peppers on the table and arranges them just so in the light. They're both active agents in creating the art.
And photographers today have rediscovered the joys of manipulating photographs and negatives. Such photographers as Tucson's Ken Rosenthal use blurriness to convey interesting psychological states. Others mix their media: Holly Roberts paints on top of photos; Kate Breakey draws with colored pencils.
And it turns out that even the leaders of Group f/64 were not without sin. St. Ansel himself committed Pictorialism as a young man, and at the end the show hauls out the evidence: "Mirror Lake, Mount Watkins," 1929, a soft and dreamy Adams landscape, rarely seen.
In his old age, Adams made a peace offering to the other camp, though he still couldn't purge Mortensen's utter badness from his mind.
"It is forgotten that a lot of Pictorialism was quite beautiful," he wrote in a 1977 letter, on display. "It was the Mortensen goo (and such tribal claims) that we really objected to."