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Edward Weston (1886-1958), one of the most influential photographers of the 20th century, was born to Edward Burbank Weston, and Alice Jeanette Brett in Highland Park, Illinois, and grew up in Chicago. Weston’s father was a medical doctor. His mother died when he was only five. He was raised by his sister, Mary Jeanette-May. Weston was shy and withdrawn in his youth and referred to schools as dreary wastelands. While on vacation on a farm in Michigan in 1902, Weston received his first camera, a Kodak Bulls-Eye #2. The camera came from his father who wrote, “ you’ll not have to change anything about the Kodak. Always have the sun behind or to the side—never so it shines into the instrument. Don’t be too far from the object you wish to take, or it will be very small. See what you are going to take in the mirror. You can only take twelve pictures, so don’t waste any on things of no interest.” In a biography of Weston, Ben Maddow wrote to the boy who hated school, was bashful, restless, somewhat morose, with a bad temper who preferred to be alone, this black box was the ideal friend. The friendship and love Weston found in photography set the course for his life.
…through this photographic eye you will be able to look out on a new light-world, a world for the most part uncharted and unexplored, a world that lies waiting to be discovered and revealed….Edward Weston
He began photographing in his spare time while working as an errand boy for Marshall Field and Company. The first photographic exhibit he saw was at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1903. After a visit to his sisters in California in 1906, Weston decided to move to California where he worked part-time in Los Angeles and Nevada as a railroad surveyor and as a door-to-door portrait photographer. He used a postcard camera and took pictures of families for the small-price of a dollar a dozen. Weston attended Illinois College of Photography from 1908 until 1911. Married in 1909 to Flora May Chandler, a schoolteacher, Weston soon became the father of four sons, Chandler, Brett, Neil and Cole.
The year he graduated he moved his family to California where he lived most of his life. There he opened his first studio in Tropico, California, a suburb of Los Angeles, now known as Glendale. Between 1911-1922 he won many awards with images he produced using the soft-focus, pictorial style of the day. However, after attending an exhibit of modern art at the San Francisco World’s Fair, Weston became dissatisfied with his work and feverishly began to experiment with a more abstract and hard-edged style. His early influence was Margrethe Mather, who was also one of Weston’s models and studio assistant. She was also more well read on current issues of photography and helped Weston further develop a modernist theory. A few years after Weston changed in style he also met and was encouraged by John Hagemeyer. Hagemeyer was a photographer from Amsterdam, who also influenced Weston’s thinking on photography.
The turning point in his career came in 1922. Weston was travelling to New York to meet with Alfred Stieglitz, Clarence White, Paul Strand and others when he briefly interrupted his trip with a stop in Ohio. At the ARMCO Steel Works in Ohio Weston made incredibly precise, but abstract industrial images that were later published. Although still married to Flora, the following year, Weston moved to Mexico City and opened a studio with his apprentice and companion, Tina Modotti. She introduced Weston to artists of the Mexican Renaissance, including Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, and Jose Clemente Orzco, who encouraged his new artistic direction. Modotti was a part-time silent film actress who met Weston in Los Angeles in 1921. Her three major films included “The Tiger’s Coat” (1920), “Riding with Death” (1921), and “I Can Explain” (1922). She encouraged him to travel to Mexico. They traveled together and soon opened a studio. On April 20th, 1923 he writes, “photography has certain inherent qualities, which are only possible with photography-one being the delineation of detail—So why not take advantage of the attribute? Why limit yourself to what your eyes see when you have such an opportunity to extend your vision?” Weston’s change of style was validated in Mexico as shows opened and critics raved. This made Weston obsessed with photography, but photography was not a commitment Modotti was willing to make with her life. Modotti was an artist in her right after learning under Weston, but near the end of their relationship she wrote to him, “ I am forever struggling to mould my life according to my temperament and my needs—in other words I put too much art in my life – too much energy – and consequently I have not much left to give to art.” Modotti was more committed to the politics in Mexico and using her camera in that light. Eventually her radical beliefs led to time in prison. She was forced to leave Mexico and only returned to die there in 1942. While in Mexico, Weston’s vision and photographic theories were heightened and perfected. He believed in the previsualization of the final photographic image. If cropping was necessary, the image was a failure. “The camera should be used for recording life, for rendering the very substance and quintessence of the thing itself, whether it be polished steel or palpitating flesh” (March 10, 1924, Mexico City).
He briefly returned home to Glendale in 1925 and did a series of portrait close-ups. In 1926 he returned to Mexico and traveled with Modotti and his son Brett. In 1927, Weston returned again to Glendale and began his now-celebrated studies of natural-form close-ups, nudes and landscapes.
The close-ups of shells, peppers, onions, eggplants, artichokes and cabbages had numerous influences. Keith Davis writes, “these monumental still-life images were inspired by a variety of influences, including Weston’s love for music of Bach, the elegant simplicity of Brancusi’s sculpture, and the work of other painters and photographers.” He also opened a studio in San Francisco in 1928 with his son Brett. Just a year later he moved to Carmel, California and began the “Point Lobos Series,” concentrating on close-ups of cypresses, rocks and kelp. Also that year, Weston, along with Steichen, organized the American section of the 1929 Film and Foto Exhibition. In 1932 Weston became one of the founding members of the f/64 group, promoting a purist style of photography and had his first book published, The Art of Edward Weston. By this time Weston had worked on several photographic series that included nudes, various landscapes, clouds and architecture as the subjects. He worked for the Works Project Administration in 1933 and was the first to receive the Guggenheim Fellowship for Photography in 1937. This was also the year that Weston divorced Flora. He began to travel with Charis Wilson, whom he married in 1938, through California, then to Nevada, Arizona, Oregon, New Mexico and Washington.
The couple returned to Carmel, California and lived in a house built by Weston’s son Neil. He continued his many series’, including a “New Point Lobos” and a “Portaits-in-Landscapes” series. By 1940, Weston had another book published, California and the West. Commissioned in 1941 to illustrate a special edition of Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman, Weston traveled to the New York area and then South. After the attack on Pearl Harbor Weston returned to the West and served in defense activities as an air-raid-plane spotter. While working in the U.S. Defense, Weston started noticing the early signs of Parkinson’s disease.
Weston was later the subject of a film, The Photographer, by Willard Van Dyke. Though he became increasingly crippled by Parkinson’s disease in the late 1940s, he continued his work by supervising sons Brett and Cole with the printing of his images. He had a major retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1946. Another major retrospective opened in 1950 at the Musee d’Art Moderne, Paris. He was named an honorary member of the American Photographic Society, printed a Fiftieth Anniversary Portfolio, and was, again, the subject of another major exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution, curated by Beaumont and Nancy Newhall. Edward Henry Weston died on January 1, 1958 at his home in Carmel.
Edward Weston was inducted into the International Photography Hall of Fame and Museum in 1984.
In an article about Weston in the “British Journal of Photography,” March 28, 1986, author Jozef Gross writes (as several others have claimed as well) “the famous arrangement of shells is sensuous in the extreme. The image is not at all about a nautilus shell but about those elements in the object which conjure up other organic phenomena or functions, mainly human and sexual. Similarly every pepper which Weston selected to photograph went as far from his vaunted ‘thing itself’ as it possibly could.” Another biographer of Weston Ben Maddow writes, “he spent the richness of his time and intensity of his spirit on his multiple love-affairs; and he made hundreds of photographs of the nude. In nearly every case, art and desire were inextricably entwined.”
Weston claims in his daybooks, “for I can say with absolute honesty that not once while working with the shells did I have any physical reaction to them; nor did I try to record erotic symbolism.” This entry into the diary came after Tina and many of her friends whom she showed the images to reflected that they felt the images were “erotic.”
This is very curious, as Cole Weston paints a different picture of his father. He writes, “There were so many myths about him that I wanted to dispell—that he was an artist living in an ivory tower or he wasn’t political and he didn’t like sports. None of this was true. He wasn’t a recluse in an ivory tower. Dad was never as far left as Tina, but he was not apolitical. In 1948, when I ran for Congress on the Independent Progressive Party ticket, he really backed me and thought my candidacy was wonderful. When Dewey ran for president against Truman, Dad wrote Dewey a letter and said, “if you’re elected, it will be the greatest catastrophe for my sons and the world that has ever happened.” To his day, the Japanese-American community remembers my father. When their land was taken away and they were sent to concentration camps during the war, Dad was vehemently opposed to the government’s decision and very outspoken about it. He loved people. And he lived a very physical life. He loved boxing and was a great runner. When we were young, he would take his four sons down to Carmel Beach; we’d race and he would always win…we were all raised listening to Bach…he was a good listener. And he had a vision.”
Of course, every man and woman has another side that is it not so far from reality that our children would never know. We are individuals before we are ever parents. Weston was able to do much of what he did and make his journey to Mexico with the financial help of his wife Flora. However, our reactions to images are not always what the artist intended, but could be exactly as they intended. In the end the viewer has the final judgement, and whether or not the artist rejects this obviously does not play a role.
By Lori Oden, For the International Photography Hall of Fame