Racism faced by Group f.64

With the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri dominating the news in the USA and revitalizing a debate over race relations in this country, I found it providential to be just now reading about a connection between race and the first exhibition of Group f.64. Created to promote a modern aesthetic in photographic art, in contrast to the prevailing Pictorialism, Group f.64 included photographers such as Ansel Adams and Edward Weston. The group’s story is ably told in a new book by Mary Street Alinder, a long-time associate of Adams.

The group’s first exhibit opened on November 15, 1932 at the de Young museum in San Francisco and was intended to revolutionize the public’s perception of photography as Art. It included the group’s manifesto, figuratively nailed to the museum’s door. The exhibit included 9 photographs from each of the seven founding photographers (except Adams had 10) and four from each of four invited artists.

In fact, the exhibition was little noticed by the art world.

There was, however, one exception. One of the invited artists, Consuelo Kanaga, contributed four portraits of African-Americans, including Portrait of a Negress, later re-named Francis with a Flower, shown below.

Brooklyn Museum: Frances with a Flower
Consuelo Kanaga (American, 1894-1978). Frances with a Flower, early 1930s. Gelatin silver photograph, Image: 10 5/8 x 8 in. (27 x 20.3 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Wallace B. Putnam from the estate of Consuelo Kanaga, 82.65.10

At the time, these images were shocking. Formal portraits of blacks – photographed in the same manner as you would photograph a white person, was unheard of. They showed an emotional connection between the black subject and the white photographer — in this case a white woman photographer, that was deemed inappropriate. Perhaps the most positive comment came from critic Ambrose Bierce who called them “unhealthy realistic portraits” and that they contained “sordid, immutable artistry”. I suggest the problem was that they raised the status of blacks — to that of human beings.

But that’s not the end of the story. The next day Kanaga and her sister Neva were detained by San Francisco Police. They were being driven by a young black man, 19 year-old Eduard Lucius McDaniel, who Consuelo had taken under her wing, and as one of the officers stated, it is against nature for white women and Negro men to associate.

The Kanaga sisters sued the city and eventually won an apology — for themselves, not for their black friend. They were headline news for a week.

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