Professor Martin Irvine

Key Issues in Modern Photography:
Making a Photograph vs. Taking a Picture
Background to Modern Ideologies of the Photography

Making a Photograph

The idea and practice of "Making a Photograph" comes from Ansel Adams, who used it in 1935 for the title of his first of many books outlining his conviction that a photograph is crafted and designed by an artist rather than simply taken or recorded by a machine. Since the 1930s, the technologies and concepts behind the photographic image have gone thorugh several evolutions and debates, leading to the issues behind today's digital photography and the "hyperreal" post-photographic images we experience in all media and films today.

Social and cultural discourse about a photographic image still revolves around the issues of the "truth value" of a photograph (a "picture" taken with a mechanical device) versus the constructed image made or composed with photographic equipment but having no independent "truth" outside of the image itself.

Background on the early reception of photography

From the exhibition Debating Modern Photography at the Phoenix Art Museum:

Ansel Adams and the Group f/64

In 1934, a small group of California photographers was challenging the painterly, soft-focus photography style of the day, championed by the pictorialists. They argued that the appropriate direction for the photographic arts exploited characteristics inherent to the camera’s mechanical nature: sharp focus and great depth of field. This small association of innovators – named Group f/64 after the camera’s smallest aperture, which produces the greatest depth of field – included Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham, Willard Van Dyke, Alma Lavenson and others. Phoenix Art Museum now revisits this debate in its exhibition Debating Modern Photography: The Triumph of Group f/64, on view in the Norton Photography Gallery through December 30, 2007. In addition to major works by members of Group f/64, it includes images by such pictorialists as Anne Brigman, William Dassonville, Johan Hagemeyer, William Mortensen and Karl Struss.

Alma Lavenson, Self-Portrait (Hands), 1932. Gelatin silver print.
Collection of Center for Creative Photography. © Alma Lavenson Associates.

With more than 60 works by 15 artists, Debating Modern Photography offers a feast for the eyes while illustrating both sides of the debate. Outstanding examples of the clean edges and bold forms of Group f/64 stand in sharp contrast to the romantic, hand-crafted Pictorialist work – elegant portraits, tonalist landscapes and allegorical studies – that they reacted against.


California in the early 1930s bustled with camera activity: portrait photographers captured likenesses; amateurs composed landscapes, still lifes and figure studies; documentarians recorded the effects of the economic depression; and specialists found work in the Hollywood film industry. Camera clubs hosted salons, providing an opportunity for professional and amateur photographers to display their work. Visitors to these salons expected painterly, “pictorial” imagery created by hand, but Adams and others endeavored to prove that photographs, even though machine-made, could still be works of art. Pictorialists emulated traditional art forms in subject matter and style, producing photographs that looked like unique, hand-crafted objects.

Within this pervasive Pictorialist culture a new idea was gaining currency. For some, the way to demonstrate a camera’s true artistic value was to take advantage of its mechanical qualities to produce sharply focused, graphic compositions. One night late in 1932, a group of like-minded Bay Area photographers – including Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham, Sonya Noskowiak and Willard van Dyke – discussed what they saw as the appropriate direction for modern photography. They decided to exhibit their work as a demonstration of a new aesthetic, under the name “Group f/64,” which refers to the smallest camera aperture. The f/64 setting produces great depth of field, meaning everything from the immediate foreground to the distant background is in focus. They used large-format cameras and contact-printed their negatives on glossy paper to preserve all the rich detail they recorded. Subject matter was less important than technique. Group f/64 photographs include nearly every possible category: industrial, urban and natural landscapes; portraits of friends and fellow group members; isolated objects for sharp-focus still lifes; and details extracted from the visible world.

Between November 15 and December 31, 1932, Group f/64 held its inaugural exhibition at the de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco, inviting four non-member photographers with compatible approaches, including Alma Lavenson and Brett Weston. Underscoring the philosophical nature of their thinking, they accompanied their work with a statement of purpose to promote a new way of thinking about modern photography, a way that was true to the inherent qualities of the medium. To distinguish themselves from the Pictorialists, they wrote, “Pure photography is defined as possessing no qualities of technic [sic], composition or idea, derivative of any other art-form.”

The exhibition garnered mixed reviews. The San Francisco Chronicle refuted the group’s claim to innovation, apparently disregarding the “purist” underpinnings so important to the photographers. A May 1933 review in Camera Craft by Sigismund Blumann conceded the style was revolutionary: “In a word, you will enjoy these prints. You will be impressed, astounded. But you will not love them nor want to hang them in your home.” William Mortensen, having perfected techniques for manipulating the photographic negative for pictorial effect, wrote a series of articles about his Debating Modern Photography – add two practice for Camera Craft in 1934 entitled “Venus and Vulcan.” In one, he criticized purist photography, stating that it lacked subjective interest. Over the ensuing years, many photographers on both sides engaged in the debate, trying to articulate their vision for photography’s appropriate direction.

Over time, Group f/64’s purist approach came to be known as “straight” photography, in contrast to the manipulation typical of their Pictorialist opponents. That straight vision became so widely accepted and championed, it no longer appears controversial, as it did to audiences of the 1930s. Furthermore, the triumph of the short-lived but influential Group f/64 has caused the Pictorialist side of the debate to fade into near obscurity. This exhibition revisits the controversy, not only to acknowledge the Pictorialists’ arguments, but to illustrate how avant-garde straight photography once was.