This week’s edition of Provoke! is exploring the notion of female beauty seen through the lens of one of the masters of fine art photography. In the following paragraphs we are presenting the erotic art of Edward Weston through the series of nudes taken during the zenith of the American Modernist movement. Edward Weston is an iconic figure in what is now perceived as classic photography, and widely celebrated for his famous black-and-white photo series of landscapes, close-ups of peppers, seashells and cabbage halves and, of course, his extensive sequence of nudes made in the twenty year long period in the first half of the past century.
Nude Series and the Modernist Aesthetic
Edward Weston started photographing the nude models in the beginning of 1920’s and continued the series in the next twenty years. His figure studies are often made of his friends, family and the people he was in a personal and emotional relationship with. The timeline of his nude series coincides with the peak of the modernism in the US and Edward Weston was one of the pioneers of the movement in the field of photography. He first started his career in a pictorial style but swiftly changed his interest towards the more realistic and detailed approach to photography exploring the modernist aesthetic requirements and focusing on the complex search for the ideas of objects rather than the objects themselves in their physical and ephemeral state. Or as he states in one of his journals “The camera should be used for a recording of life, for rendering the very substance and quintessence of the thing itself”. That explains why so many of his figure studies concentrate on the effort of catching the substantial idea of beauty beyond the surface of the bodies portrayed.
The Muses of Edward Weston
Most of the Edward Weston’s nude photography celebrates the beauty of his female companions who marked the various periods of his life. His first nudes were of his wife Flora May Chandler and later of his lovers. Some of the best nude photography of Edward Weston came from the intersection of his innovative artistic practice, frequent travels and personal love affairs. Margrethe Mather a bohemian photographer who was at the time leading an utterly unconventional lifestyle was the first woman to open the doors to the following love adventures of this artist. And the interesting thing is that many of the other woman who posed as models on his nude photographs were in various ways connected to the world of photography, often assisting in his works and following the ambitions of becoming the photographers themselves. Emotional and professional relationships with Tina Modotti and Charis Wilson can be perceived as the most notable ones giving the fact that they resulted in some of the Weston’s most recognizable nude works like those taken in New Mexico and ones on the dunes of Oceano, California.
The Ideal of Female Beauty
We can definitely support this artist’s immense efforts in trying to depict the very essence of female beauty in universal terms, but there is also an interesting debate following the nude series of Edward Weston, the main question being whether by trying to discover the ideal notion of beauty he deliberately strips away the identity and uniqueness of individual women. By focusing on the particular body parts, often cropping or concealing faces of their models Weston seems to sacrifice their individuality for the sake of preservation of his universalizing concept. Depersonalization is also the result of the extensive numbers of the nudes taken where hyperproduction of material leads to oversaturation and finally insignificance. But hey, there is no reason why you shouldn’t enjoy these artworks and we definitely encourage you to do so.
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Edward Weston – Nude, 1934.
Edward Weston – Nude (235N), 1936 – detail
All images courtesy of Edward Weston & Cole Weston family website