Considered for the greatest photographer of his generation, Edward Weston created art pieces that revolutionized the form. He was a pioneer of the modernist style that was marked by the use of a large-format camera that created sharply focused and rich in detail black and white photographs. His oeuvre, that has a wide range of subjects, from landscapes, still lifes, nudes, and portraits to genre scenes and whimsical parodies reflect his distinctive combination of stark objectivity and passionate love of nature. The milestone of his career were the years he spent in Mexico City (1923-26), as a part of milieu of intellectuals and artists attracted by the post-revolutionary excitement of leading creative minds such as Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco, Tina Modotti and others. After he returned to the United States, Weston began to make photographs that changed the direction of its development.
Early Life and First Camera
Weston was born on March 24, 1886, in Highland Park, Illinois. His mother died when he was five and he was raised by his sister Mary with whom he developed a very strong bond. After his father re-married, neither he nor his sister got along with stepmother and her son. When Mary married and left the family home, Weston was basically left on his own, stopped going to school and spent most of his time in his room in their large house. For his sixteenth birthday, his father gave him his first camera, Kodak Bull’s Eye #2 and he made his first shots of Chicago parks and his aunt’s arms. After only one year of practice, he confronted with quick success – Chicago Art Institute accepted to exhibit his photographs. In 1906, Weston moved to California where he started as a portrait photographer finding the clients by peddling door to door. Following the need for formal education, in 1908, he returned to the east to attend Illinois College of Photography in Effingham, finished the one-year course for six months and went back to Los Angeles. There he found the job of retoucher at the George Steckel Portrait Studio and soon after changing it to the position of photographer at the Louis A. Mojoiner Portrait Studio where his talent and skill came out into the open.
The Little Studio and acquaintance with Tina Modotti
In 1909, he married his first wife, Flora Chandler with whom he had four children. Due to the fact that he learned the job and running the business, Weston decided to run his own studio that served him as a base for the next two decades. He started from portraits of his friends and children, gradually improving his reputation, winning many professional awards. In 1913, Margrethe Mather, Los Angeles photographer visited his studio and left there to work as his assistant. Total opposites in their private lives, Weston was a traditional family man and Marther, part of bohemian LA group, used to be a prostitute with bisexual preferences, two artists became successful duo and couple decades later, he described her as “the first important person in his life”. For some time, they even took portraits that were signed with both names, which was the only occasion in his career that Weston shared credit with another artist.
When he went to visit his sister who moved in Middletown, Ohio in 1922, he made several photos of the tall smoke stacks of the ARMCO Steel Plant. Those works marked a change in his career, transforming his pictorialism into the new abstract forms of cleaner-edge style. It was followed by his travel to New York, center of photography of that time where he met Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand, Charles Sheeler and Georgia O’Keeffe. The next great step was the move to Mexico City. Along with his apprentice and lover Tina Modotti and his son Chandler, Weston rented a hacienda and after a couple months arranged the first show that was highly acclaimed by the press and critics and the famous artists as Diego Rivera, David Siqueiros, and Jose Orozco hailed him as the master of the 20th-century art. A different culture and new surroundings encouraged the artist to adopt a new way of observation, focusing his camera on everyday objects, but also on the face and body of his lover, making some of his most important portraits and nudes. His reputation in Mexico increased and in 1926, Weston signed a contract with writer Anita Brenner to make photographs for her new book about Mexican folk, which was his last engagement here, because, in the meanwhile, his relationship with Modotti has ended up and he decided to leave Mexico.
The Idea of Pure Photography
After he returned to California he started new series of nudes and his new inspiration was a dancer Bertha Wardel. One of these photographs where she kneels cut off at the shoulders is one of his most famous figure studies. The new turning point in his career was co-founding of the Group f/64 whose aim was to elevate photography to the new level of fine art through a common aesthetic, creating pieces independent of any other medium. Along with Ansel Adams, Willard Van Dyke, Imogen Cunningham and Sonya Noskowiak, he elaborated the idea of pure photography that became the basis of Weston work for the end of his life. Visiting the Mojave Desert, for the first time, he explored the landscape as an artistic form. He shot rocks and trees at Point Lobos, creating some of his finest works. Between 1927 and 1930, he focused on the close-ups of seashells, peppers, and halved cabbages, making the sculptural forms from their textures. His Pepper no. 30 is among the iconic works of all-time photography. This period was followed by several very successful shows, but his personal problems had a great impact on Weston. His wife family lost their savings after the Wall Street Crash in 1929 and they couldn’t support them anymore, so he was under the pressure to help provide enough for his sons.
The purchase of new, smaller and lighter 4×5 Graflex camera enabled the artist more interaction with his models and his nudes began to resemble some of the vegetables he shot earlier. His life changed again in 1934 when he met Charis Wilson who became his new muse. Due to his financial problems, Weston moved to Santa Monica Canyon where he opened a new studio and employed Wilson as his model, assistant, and agent. Their life together resulted with series of nudes and the photograph on the balcony of their home became one of his most published images (Nude Charis Santa Monica). She inspired him to create some of his most intimate photographs. They took several trips to Oceano Dunes, capturing images that the artist himself considered too erotic for the audience.
New Projects and Guggenheim Fellowship
In 1937, he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, the first ever given to a photographer. A significant amount at that time, 2000 dollars, allowed him to purchase a new car and travel with Wilson, photographing whatever he wanted. During the next year, the couple covered 16 697 miles of road and Weston made 1260 negatives. After he received the second year of Guggenheim support, he decided to print his past works. In 1939, he published Seeing California with Edward Weston, a book that consisted of his photos and Wilson’s writing of stories from their travels. Finally satisfied with his private life and work that helped him to overcome the financial scarcity, he married Charis Wilson in a small ceremony same year. The great success of their first book was followed by publishing the other one in 1940, California and the West. Running into the new project, an illustration of a new edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves on Grass, he and Wilson began a trip where he took 700 and 800 negatives before the World War II forced him to return home. In 1945, he experienced the first symptoms of Parkinson’s disease that gradually took his strength and ability to photograph. He also separated from Wilson who lost her interest in becoming a photographer herself, which actually was a bond and passion that originally brought them together.
Legacy of Edward Weston
Due to his major retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1946, Weston selected 313 prints and 250 of them, along with 11 negatives were presented to the audience. Later that year, he got the proposal from DR. George L. Waters of Kodak to produce 8 x 10 Kodachrome transparencies for their advertising campaign. he accepted the offer, although had never worked in color before because of the more complicated developing and printing process. Fighting with progressing disease, he engaged the assistant, young photographic enthusiast Dody Weston Thompson who moved into his guest cottage as a fool-time help, considering the fact that by late 1948 Weston was no longer able to use his large view camera. His final photograph was the one he named Rocks and Pebbles. Still, he never stopped being a photographer. Although he could not take shots, he made catalogs and publications along with his sons and Dody. His first European retrospective was held in Parisian Musee National d’Art Moderne in 1950 and two years later he published a Fiftieth Anniversary portfolio. Spending many days in the darkroom, by 1956 he produced 830 8 x 10 prints, a master series of what he considered his best work. He called it The Project Prints, now housed at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Edward Weston died on January 1, 1958, at his home, at the age of 71. His ashes were scattered into the Pacific Ocean at Pebbly beach on Point Lobos, which was later renamed Weston Beach. During his life, Weston kept journals, known as his “Daybooks” that chronicled his life and photographic development.
Featured image: Edward Weston portrait. Collection Center for Creative Photography © 1981 Center for Creative Photography, Arizona Board of Regents
Useful Resources On Edward Weston