In 1932, Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, among others, formed “Group f/64” with the intent to “define photography as an art form by simple and direct presentation through purely photographic methods.” (Wikipedia, Group f/64) As stated in their manifesto,
Pure photography is defined as possessing no qualities of technique, composition or idea, derivative of any other art form. The production of the “Pictorialist,” on the other hand, indicates a devotion to principles of art which are directly related to painting and the graphic arts.
Group f/64 was conceived in explicit opposition to the Pictorialist movement, which “subscribed to the idea that art photography needed to emulate the painting and etching of the time.” (Wikipedia, Pictorialism) Quite to the contrary, Group f/64 believed very strongly that photography “must always remain independent of ideological conventions of art and aesthetics that are reminiscent of a period and culture antedating the growth of the medium itself.” (ibid.) These are two very different viewpoints. One sees photography as a medium through which to create works representative of the predominant aesthetics and style of other types of art at the time, and the other sees photography as a new medium with its own aesthetics and style that should be preserved.
Purists almost by definition, the members of Group f/64 sought to stretch the boundaries of photography through strict adherence to its core methods. They used as few image-altering devices or techniques as possible; no lens filters, no exotic darkroom processes or equipment. Their images aspired to a crisp, infinitely-focused, tonally brilliant standard upon which many future photographers would base their own explorations.
It should be noted that although Ansel Adams used extensive, complicated darkroom techniques on many of his most famous prints, he was both an advocate of smart, precise post-processing as well as maintaining the integrity of the medium by minimizing distortion of the subject, and it was likely for the latter reason that he helped to form Group f/64.
But that was 1932. The “ideological conventions of art and aesthetics” of 1932 have been entirely replaced in the age of the computer. Almost in parallel to the 1932 Pictorialist/pure photography dichotomy, there are those who see digital photography as a mere convenience; a new, faster, and in some ways more inexpensive way to maintain similar aesthetics to photography of the past, and there are those who see digital photography as an entirely new medium.
I believe that both viewpoints are correct. However, digital photography certainly brings with it a veritable cavalcade of new capabilities and equipment, inheriting credibility and respect from its traditional, silver halide forebears, but independent from them in all other ways, both technical and aesthetic.
That being the case, what now embodies the “qualities of technique, composition or idea” specific to “digital photography?” If a new group came about with the same goals as Group f/64, but updated for digital photography, what would its major tenets be? With such extensive editing capabilities in the hands of even the beginner through Photoshop, Paint Shop Pro, The Gimp, iPhoto, et. al., it goes without saying that manipulation of the image is going to play a role. Whether it is basic tonal adjustment and sharpening, or more drastic and potentially destructive edits, such changes fall comfortably under the umbrella of digital photography as a medium.
When Ansel Adams stood before the St. Hernandez valley on that day in 1941, he could see in his mind the process that would be used to bring the exposure to life, from development to printing. It is that mastery of craft that has perhaps been forgotten now that the capacity to make hundreds, if not thousands, of exposures is available. This is one impact of the digital revolution. Scarcity encourages innovation; when there is less to work with, more attention is paid to planning and execution to squeeze every drop of that creative juice out of the moment.
Likewise, abundance breeds laziness. It’s too easy to snap 100 exposures of a subject in the hopes that one is in focus when each exposure costs you nothing and with cameras capable of several exposures per second.
This article doesn’t mean to draw conclusions. The ratio between excellent photographers and poor photographers is likely to be much the same today as it was in Ansel’s time (counting only those who consider themselves serious hobbyists and amateur professionals; photography is no longer exclusive to the exceptionally passionate and the exceptionally wealthy.) Still, digital photography raises a lot of interesting questions and only time will tell how it will be treated by the art historians of the future.