Edward Weston: Life Work

by Matt Damsker


Share This

Share on facebookShare on twitterShare on linkedinShare on pinterestShare on tumblrShare via email

Preface by the collectors Judith G. Hochberg and Michael Mattis. Essays by Sarah M. Lowe. Memoir and Summation by Dody Weston Thompson. Published by Lodima Press; Revere, Pennsylvania, 2003; 252 pages. Library of Congress Catalog Card No. 2003105874; ISBN No. 1-888899-09-3. Lodima Press, P.O. Box 367, Revere, PA 189533 USA; Phone: 1-610-847-2007; Fax: 1-610-847-2373; www.lodimapress.com . Price: Hardcover Edition: $150 (plus $10 shipping) Special Price through December 31, 2004: $125. Plus shipping: $10 additional. Special Limited Edition: Includes a modern print of a rare portrait of Edward Weston by Tina Modotti. Limited to 100 copies. The second 25 copies are $600. Prices will increase thereafter.

The United States is getting a well-balanced look at the peerless modernism of Edward Weston, thanks to a traveling exhibition of his work that will continue through the start of 2007 (with a stop at Spain's Institut Valencia d'Art Modern in the spring of 2006). The 110-photograph survey is drawn from the rigorous Weston collection of Judith Hochberg and Michael Mattis, and this accompanying volume is a suitably rigorous tribute to a photographer whose 40-year career spanned the medium's 20th-century development, from pictorialism to fine-art abstraction.

With informative essays by Sarah Lowe introducing each phase of Weston's career, the book is superbly presented, with first-rate reproductions in 600-line screen quadtone on rich matte and glossy paper, and a wealth of background regarding provenance, bibliography, and chronology. Weston deserves no less, of course, for it is easy to argue that he was the most seriously devoted practitioner of his century, spurring himself on, decade upon decade, from the small-time beginnings of the his first studio near Los Angeles to world-class stature. Indeed, the mark of Weston's modernism--his austere emphasis on form and tonal perfection over anything rhetorical--continues to set an artistic standard for succeeding generations.

As Lowe notes, Weston enjoyed "modest success as a commercial portrait photographer, but he aspired to be much more; throughout his life he adamantly distinguished between his commercial and personal work, often bemoaning the fact that he had to expend time and energy on clients who had little appreciation for his art." Working in the luminous Pictorialist style, with its softly nuanced tonalities, Weston produced early work and a number of classic images, including archetypal portraits of both sterile desert and fertile womanhood (with his wife Flora and his later paramour, Margrethe Mather, as models). But by the 1920s, during a three-year stay in Mexico, he finally freed himself of all studio artifice in favor of the sharp focus and forceful frontality that defines classic Weston.

Thus, we have brave, unique, and timeless images such as 1926's "Boy and Pulqueria Mural," in which a bullfighting poster on the side of a Mexican show is offset by the blurred, casually cropped grace note of a young boy's head in the lower left-hand corner, with telephone poles and a quadrant of sky receding in the distance. Place, time, texture, and culture are represented here with such unforced artistry that photography students could spend a semester studying this one image without running out of material.

Importantly, Weston's modernist sensibility was infinitely curious. As much as he focused on ennobling portraits of people and places, including supreme photographs of such icons as Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco, and D.H. Lawrence, his fascination was with the form of the visual world. His 1925 photo of a toilet bowl is a study in curvature and functional perfection, with no trace of irony, that takes its place with his most evocative shots of Oaxacan pottery--jars and jugs clustered together like plump citizens--or his famous 1927 spire of three radishes.

By the late 20s and into the 1930s, of course, Weston's focus on still lifes--the great "Chambered Nautilus" of 1927, or the sculptural abstractions he fashioned of cabbage fragments, bedpans, peppers, and toadstools--began to define his mature vision. The dark mysteries of a pelican's wing seen close up, or the scraped bark of a eucalyptus tree, are certainly the equals of his best-known works, the modernist nudes of his lovers and models. But Weston's nudes are where he brings photography a step forward into a realm of high art.

With their heads cropped out, photographed from behind, bent into a pear shape, their limbs and breasts arrayed carefully, never pruriently, Weston's nudes explore human form as part of the topography of the natural world. The rare urban image, a 1941 shot of a nude seen sleeping in a New York interior, beneath Venetian blinds, with buildings half-glimpsed beyond, evokes Edward Hopper's painterly images of modern isolation, but Weston's focus on form, light, and texture exceeds any sense of 20th-century anomie.

Equally vital are Weston's immortal shots of sand dunes, or thunderheads over New Mexico, in which light, darkness and the sheer power of the elements combine to shape the land and sky. Weston's camera grasps this immensity with awe and control, locating the abstract rhythm and contrast of these forms in ways that yield unforgettable photographic canvases. They match anything from the brushes of the Abstract Expressionist painters, of course, and you could say they go them one better: Weston's vision isn't about the drive for self-expression, or the ego-driven gesture of the human against the world; it's about the world itself. And for him, the world was more than enough.

Matt Damsker is an author and critic, who has written about photography and the arts for the Los Angeles Times, Hartford Courant, Philadelphia Bulletin, Rolling Stone magazine and other publications. His book, "Rock Voices", was published in 1981 by St. Martin's Press. His essay in the book, "Marcus Doyle: Night Vision" was published this past November.