Monterey County Herald

Monterey Museum of Art exhibition shows Group f/64 photographic legacy “In Sharp Focus”
Monterey Museum of Art, Monterey, CA

June 14, 2012

Lily Dayton

Photographer Chip Hooper remembers the first time he saw Ansel Adams’ haunting image of “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico.”

As a kid growing up in Chicago, Hooper was used to the urban environment, rather than the bald, open landscapes depicted in high contrast by photographers of the West.

“Someone gave me a book of Ansel Adams’ photographs and I saw ‘Moonrise.’ It blew my mind,” said the photographer, now based out of his studio in Carmel Valley.

Inspired by the sharp-focused images of Adams, even in the digital age Hooper still employs the classical technique of using an 8-by-10 view camera to capture the sweeping seascapes that he photographs on film.

He explains that he uses such a big camera because “you get an 8-by-10 negative, which is a big piece of film. There is a lot of information on that negative that allows you to make a tremendous print. It’s like how some people write in English, some people write in Spanish, some in French, others in Russian. This is the language I’m using right now to best say what I want to say.”

As the youngest in a long line of photographic artists who’ve left a still-evolving imprint on the Monterey Peninsula, Hooper’s work will be on display in the Monterey Museum of Art’s newest exhibition, “In Sharp Focus: the Legacy of Monterey Photography.”

Featuring the works of the seminal Group f/64 photographers, including Adams, Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham, Alma Lavenson, Sonya Noskowiak, Willard Van Dyke and Henry Swift, the exhibition will show how these artists changed the course of photography with their innovative techniques and subject matter.

Also on display will be the works of succeeding generations of photographers whose artistry shows the influence of the Group f/64, including photographs by Hooper among those by Al Weber, John Sexton, Martha Casanave, Bob Kolbrener and Wynn Bullock.

“In Sharp Focus” opens Saturday, June 16, at the MMA La Mirada in Monterey, where it will run through Sept. 30. There will be a preview and opening celebration on Friday, June 15, from 6-8 p.m. The celebration will include opening remarks, as well as wine and hors d’oeuvres.

“This is the third in a series of major photography exhibitions that we’ve organized in the past three years,” said E. Michael Whittington, executive director of the museum, referring to last year’s exhibition of “Edward Weston: American Photographer” and the previous year’s “Ansel Adams: Portrait of America.”

“The logical next step was to take a look at the broader implications of these photographers’ work,” he said.

The Group f/64 was named for the camera’s f/64 aperture setting, the smallest-diameter opening to the lens that large-format cameras of the time could achieve‚ and one that provided the sharpest, clearest image possible.

This modernist approach of creating a sharp-focused image with high contrast and precise detail was a departure from the pictorial style of the early 20th century, which delivered a soft-focused, expressive image that was enhanced by darkroom manipulation and often portrayed mythological or heroic subjects.

On the new realist style, Edward Weston wrote, “The camera should be used for a recording of life, for rendering the very substance and quintessence of the thing itself, whether it be polished steel or palpitating flesh.”

After Group f/64 had its debut exhibition in 1932 at the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco, the members would change the face of American photography forever.

“The Group f/64 concentrated on subject matter that in previous times would seem too mundane to be seen as art: plants, close-ups of architecture, wheels and gears of factory machines,” said Whittington. “They took images from real life and elevated them to art.”

He commented that the f/64 style of photography doesn’t seem radical today because these artists have so heavily influenced the way we see the modern world, “but imagine what it would have been like seeing this at the start of the Great Depression; it would have been startling.”

One of the seminal images exhibited in “In Sharp Focus” is Adams’ “Monolith, The Face of Half Dome, Yosemite National Park, 1927.” This work was one in particular that helped to galvanize the modernist movement, said Whittington.

“It was with this photograph that everything for Ansel came in sharp focus,” he explained. “It was the synthesis of his notion of visualization‚ the artist seeing in his mind’s eye the composition before he takes the photograph.”

Another notable photograph in the exhibition is Edward Weston’s image of a shell on rocks overlooking Point Lobos, which was highly controversial because Weston brought the shell from his studio and staged the photograph.

The banner image for the exhibition is Willard Van Dyke’s 1930 photograph, “Boxer’s Hand.” In this close-up of a boxer’s torso, the subject is taping his hand, getting ready to go into the ring, providing a detailed study of the human form.

“As a young kid, I didn’t know about the Group f/64,” said Hooper. “But there are really important elements of what they did that affected my work: their sharpness and their focus. To me it was more the language they used than what they were trying to talk about. They used big cameras and made sharp pictures. Sharpness was a big element and that’s the thread I continue to carry in my work.”

Always enchanted by water, Hooper began taking pictures of Lake Michigan as a boy. When he moved to Carmel Valley, the Pacific Ocean became his subject.

“My pictures have become tremendously simple over the years‚ just light, water, sky,” he said. “Occasionally there are forms, but a lot of them are water and sky.”

His photographs chosen for “In Sharp Focus” show the progression of this simplification. The earliest work, “Crashing Waves and Splash, 1994” shows a surf zone image of water crashing against rocks. A later image, “Triangle Rocks, Garrapata Beach, 1998,” is a more spacious study of water and sky, but it features prominent rock figures that jut from the ocean. The most recent image, “Rock Garden, 2002,” is mostly water and sky with a few rock formations spaced widely apart against a calm sea.

By including not only the f/64 legends, but also their artistic descendants, the museum’s Whittington said, “This is an exhibition that not only shows a great historic tradition, but also a living legacy.” — Lily Dayton