The Modern Photography Debate Explored
An upcoming exhbit will explore the conflicting worlds between modernist and pictoralist styles and traditions in photography.

By La Monica Everett-Haynes, University Communications
Feb. 12, 2008

Two conflicting worlds of photography hit head-on during the 1930s with one side arguing for a softer and more illustrative approach while the other supported strong focus imagery to display the strength of the camera.

Even though soft focus images were popular, especially on the West coast, a band of California artists named “Group f/64” – a name that referenced the camera’s smallest aperture – argued that photographers should give greater weight to the mechanical abilities and strengths of the camera if the art were to advance.

It was a critical time in photographic history with artists – some of whose work is now housed at The University of Arizona – attempting to define the future of modern photography.

This week, the UA’s Center for Creative Photography debuts “Debating Modern Photography: The Triumph of Group f/64,” an exhibit meant to reintroduce that debate that resulted in the sharp focus becoming the standard.

“The pictoralist style was very different. It was soft focus. It was romantic,” said Becky Senf, the center’s Norton family assistant curator of photography.

“To the members of Group f/64, it seemed sentimental and passé,” said Senf, who has a joint appointment with the UA and Phoenix Art Museum. “They felt that photography should be photographic – there should be lots of rich detail, and that it should elicit the qualities of the camera.”

The Center for Creative Photography organized the event with the Phoenix Art Museum, which houses the University’s Doris and John Norton Gallery. The exhibit, which officially opens Saturday, just completed a run in Phoenix.

Group f/64 was comprised of photographers including Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham, Willard Van Dyke and Alma Lavenson. Their work is characterized by great depth of field, so that images are in high focus.

“They were really trying to create a style of photography that celebrated the mechanistic quality that the pictorialist had been trying to avoid,” she said. Meanwhile, the pictorial style was backed by artists such as Anne Brigman, Karl Struss and Margrethe Mather.

Their work will be displayed together during the exhibit, which is attempting to revisit that great debate by exploring both perspectives.

The exhibit will be on display through May 4 and features more than 100 pieces created by 16 photographers. A series of public events were also organized, beginning with an opening reception and lecture Friday night.

It is the first time in more than 15 years that an exhibit will explore the intentions of the original Group f/64 – and may well be the only photographic exhibit ever to explore both sides of the conflict, Senf added.

“As far as we know, this is the first time that anyone has exhibited pictorialism and Group f/64 side by side,” Senf said. “The center is in a wonderful position to be doing so. I knew we had great Group f/64 work and was thrilled to find we had great examples of the pictorial work, too.”

In doing so, the center is able to create a “snapshot” of the early 1930s debate, she said.

“This is something people don’t know about. But in the 1930s in California these photographers were so passionate about this debate,” Senf said.

“We want to bring something like that back to life and to allow people to become interested and involved,” she said. “It’s really fun to get transported that way into a historical moment.”

Extra info


Debating Modern Photography: The Triumph of Group f/64


John P. Schaefer Center for Creative Photograhy, 1030 N. Olive Drive


Feb. 15, 5 p.m.

All upcoming events are free and open to the public and will be held at the John P. Schaefer Center for Creative Photography.   

Feb. 15

5 p.m.:  Opening reception for "Debating Modern Photography: The Triumph of Group f/64." Free and open to the public.

6 p.m.: Noted author, curator and photography historian Susan Ehrens will present a lectured titled "Innovation in Pictorialism and Modernism: Anne Brigman, Imogen Cunningham, Alma Lavenson." Ehrens will assess the photographers' body of work and speak to their contributions to either the pictorialist or modernist style. 


March 9

1 p.m.: Becky Senf will lead a gallery walk and conversation about the works.


March 28

5:30 p.m.: Joan Fontcuberta, an internationally known artist and writer, will present his lecture, "The Photography Paradox: Truth against Beauty." Fontcuberta tends to blend both a pictorial and sharp focus style in his photography.


April 24

5:30 p.m.: Senf will hold a second gallery walk. 



Resources for the media

Robin Southern

Center for Creative Photography



Britt Salvesen

Center for Creative Photography



Becky Senf

Center for Creative Photography