Last week I mentioned the book I plucked the names from which will feature over the next upcoming few weeks. I chose a more well-known name this time, of Mr Edward Weston. And bear with me, for his story is quite a long one to tell….

 

Edward Henry Weston was born on the 24th of March 1886 in Highland Park, Illinois, the second child and only son of Edward Burbank Weston, an obstetrician, and Alice Jeanette Brett, a Shakespearean actress. His mother died when he was five and he was raised mainly by his sister Mary, whom he called “May” or “Mazie”. She was nine years older than he, and they developed a very close bond that was one of the few steady relationships in Weston’s life.

His father remarried when he was nine, and didn’t spend much time or attention to Edward. As a present for his 16th birthday Weston’s father gave him his first camera, a Kodak Bull’s-Eye #2, which was a simple box camera. He took it on vacation in the Midwest, and by the time he returned home his interest in photography was enough to lead him to purchase a used 5 × 7 inch view camera. He began photographing in Chicago parks and a farm owned by his aunt, and developed his own film and prints. Later he would remember that even at that early age his work showed strong artistic merit. He said, “I feel that my earliest work of 1903 ‒ though immature ‒ is related more closely, both with technique and composition, to my latest work than are several of my photographs dating from 1913-1920, a period in which I was trying to be artistic.”

Edward kept photographing in his spare time, next to holding a job and by 1906 he felt confident enough of his photography that he submitted his work to the magazine Camera and Darkroom, and in the April, 1906, issue they published a full-page reproduction of his picture Spring, Chicago. This is the first known publication of any of his photographs.

At the urging of his sister, Weston left Chicago in the spring of 1906 and moved near May’s home in Tropico, California (now a neighborhood in Glendale). He decided to stay there and pursue a career in photography, but he soon realized he needed more professional training. A year later he moved to Effingham, Illinois, in order to enroll in the Illinois School of Photography. They taught a nine-month course, but Weston finished all of the class work in six months. The school refused to give him a diploma unless he paid for the full nine months; Weston refused and instead moved back to California in the spring of 1908. He briefly worked at the photography studio of George Steckel in Los Angeles, as a negative retoucher. Within a few months he moved to the more established studio of Louis Mojonier. For the next several years he learned the techniques and business of operating a photography studio under Mojonier’s direction.

Sometime in the summer of 1908 Weston was introduced to his sister’s best friend, Flora May Chandler and on January 30, 1909, Weston and Chandler married in a simple ceremony. The first of their four sons, Edward Chandler Weston (1910–1993), known as Chandler, was born on April 26, 1910. Named after Weston and his wife, he later became a portrait photographer and sometimes assistant to his father.

In 1911 Weston opened his own business, called “The Little Studio”, in Tropico. His sister later asked him why he opened his studio in Tropico rather than in the nearby metropolis of Los Angeles, and he replied “Sis, I’m going to make my name so famous that it won’t matter where I live.”

For the next three years he worked alone in his studio, making portraits of children and friends. Even at that early stage of his career he was highly particular about his work; in an interview at that time he said “[photographic] plates are nothing to me unless I get what I want. I have used thirty of them at a sitting if I did not secure the effect to suit me.” His critical eye paid off as he quickly gained more recognition for his work. He won prizes in national competitions, published several more photographs and wrote articles for magazines such as Photo-Era and American Photography, championing the pictorial style.

On December 16, 1911, Weston’s second son, Theodore Brett Weston (1911–1993), was born. He became a long-time artistic collaborator with his father and an important photographer on his own.

Sometime in the fall of 1913 Los Angeles photographer Margrethe Mather visited Weston’s studio because of his growing reputation, and within a few months they developed an intense relationship. He asked Mather to be his studio assistant, and for the next decade they worked closely together, making individual and jointly signed portraits of such luminaries as Carl Sandburg and Max Eastman. A joint exhibition of their work in 2001 revealed that during this period Weston emulated Mather’s style and, later, her choice of subjects. On her own Mather photographed “fans, hands, eggs, melons, waves, bathroom fixtures, seashells and birds wings, all subjects that Weston would also explore.” A decade later he described her as “the first important person in my life, and perhaps even now, though personal contact has gone, the most important.”

In early 1915 Weston began keeping detailed journals he later came to call his “Daybooks”. For the next two decades he recorded his thoughts about his work, observations about photography, and his interactions with friends, lovers and family. On December 6, 1916, a third son, Lawrence Neil Weston, was born. He also followed in the footsteps of his father and became a well-known photographer. It was during this period that Weston first met photographer Johan Hagemeyer, whom Weston mentored and lent his studio to from time to time. Later, Hagemeyer would return the favor by letting Weston use his studio in Carmel after he returned from Mexico. For the next several years Weston continued to earn a living by taking portraits in his small studio which he called “the shack”.

Meanwhile, Flora was spending all of her time caring for their children. Their fourth son, Cole Weston (1919–2003), was born on January 30, 1919.

The following year Weston agreed to allow Mather to become an equal partner in his studio. For several months they took portraits that they signed with both of their names. This was only time in his long career that Weston shared credit with another photographer. In 1920 he began photographing nude models for the first time. His first models were his wife Flora and their children, but soon thereafter he took at least three nude studies of Mather and several images of Tina Modotti. He followed these with several more photographs of nude models, the first of dozens of figure studies he would make of friends and lovers over the next twenty years.

In 1922 he visited his sister May, who had moved to Middletown, Ohio. While there he made five or six photographs of the tall smoke stacks at the nearby Armco steel mill. These images signaled a change in Weston’s photographic style, a transition from the soft-focus pictorialism of the past to a new, cleaner-edge style. He immediately recognized the change and later recorded it in his notes: “The Middletown visit was something to remember…most of all in importance was my photographing of ‘Armco’…That day I made great photographs, even Stieglitz thought they were important!”

At that time New York City was the cultural center for photography as an art form in America, and Alfred Stieglitz was the most influential figure in photography.Weston badly wanted to go to New York to meet with him, but he did not have enough money to make the trip. His brother-in-law gave him enough money to continue on from Middletown to New York City, and he spent most of October and early November there. While there he met artist Charles Sheeler, photographers Clarence H. White, Gertrude Kasebier and finally, Stieglitz. Weston wrote that Stieglitz told him, “Your work and attitude reassures me. You have shown me at least several prints which have given me a great deal of joy. And I can seldom say that of photographs.”

Between 1923 and 1927 Weston would travel to Mexico several times, accompanied by one of his sons and Modotti to stage exhibitions and work on his artistic reputation. Weston  photographed the people and things around him, and his reputation in Mexico increased the longer he stayed. In this time he would find a new approach to photography and find critical acclaim with larger institutions as several as his works were bought for the State Museum. By the time they returned from their trip, Weston and Modotti’s relationship had crumbled, and within less than two weeks he had returned to California. He never traveled to Mexico again.

Weston initially returned to his old studio in Glendale (previously called Tropico). He quickly arranged a dual exhibition at University of California of the photographs that he and Brett had made the year before. The father showed one hundred prints and the son showed twenty. Brett was only 15 years old at the time.

In February he started a new series of nudes, this time of dancer Bertha Wardell. One of this series, of her kneeling body cut off at the shoulders, is one of Weston’s most well-known figure studies. At this same time he met Canadian painter Henrietta Shore, whom he asked to comment on the photos of Wardell. He was surprised by her honest critique: “I wish you would not do so many nudes – you are getting used to them, the subject no longer amazes you ‒ most of these are just nudes.” He asked to look at her work and was intrigued by her large paintings of sea shells. He borrowed several shells from her, thinking he might find some inspiration for a new still life series. Over the next few weeks he explored many different kinds of shell and background combinations – in his log of photographs taken for 1927 he listed fourteen negatives of shells. One of these, simply called Nautilus, 1927″ (sometimes called Shell, 1927), became one of his most famous images. Modotti called the image “mystical and erotic,”and when she showed it to Rene d’Harnoncourt he said he felt “weak at the knees.”Weston is known to have made at least twenty-eight prints of this image, more than he had made of any other shell image.

In September of that year Weston had a major exhibition at Palace of the Legion of Honor. At the open of the show he met fellow photographer Willard Van Dyke, who later introduced Weston to Ansel Adams.

In May, 1928, Weston and Brett made a brief but important trip to the Mojave Desert. It was there that he first explored and photographed landscapes as an art form.He found the stark rock forms and empty spaces to be a visual revelation, and over a long weekend he took twenty-seven photographs.In his journal he declared “these negatives are the most important I have ever done.”

Later that year he and Brett moved to San Francisco, where they lived and worked in a small studio owned by Hagemeyer. He made portraits to earn an income, but he longed to get away by himself and get back to his art. In early 1929 he moved to Hagemeyer’s cottage in Carmel, and it was there that he finally found the solitude and the inspiration that he was seeking. He placed a sign in studio window that said, “Edward Weston, Photographer, Unretouched Portraits, Prints for Collectors.” He started making regular trips to nearby Point Lobos, where he would continue to photograph until the end of his career. It was there that he learned to fine-tune his photographic vision to match the visual space of his view camera, and the images he took there, of kelp, rocks and wind-blown trees, are among his finest.

In early April, 1929, Weston met photographer Sonya Noskowiak at a party, and by the end of the month she was living with him. As with many of his other relationships, she became his model, muse, pupil and assistant. They would continue to live together for five years. Intrigued by the many kinds and shapes of kelp he found on the beaches near Carmel, in 1930 Weston began taking close-ups of vegetables and fruits. He made a variety of photographs of cabbage, kale, onions, bananas, and finally, his most iconic image, peppers. In August of that year Noskowiak brought him several green peppers, and over a four-day period he shot at least thirty different negatives. Of these, Pepper No. 30, is among the all-time masterpieces of photography.

Weston had a series of important one-man exhibitions in 1930-31. The first was at Alma Reed’s Delphic Studio Galley in New York, followed closely by a mounting of the same show at the Denny Watrous Gallery in Carmel. Both received rave reviews, including a two-page article in the New York Times Magazine.These were followed by shows at De Young Museum in San Francisco and the Galerie Jean Naert in Paris.

Although he was succeeding professionally his personal life was very complex. For most of their marriage, Flora was able to take care of their children because of an inheritance from her parents. However, the Wall Street Crash of 1929 had wiped out most of her savings, and Weston felt increased pressure to help provide more for her and his sons. He described this time as “the most trying economic period of my life.”

In 1932, The Art of Edward Weston, the first book devoted exclusively to Weston’s work, was published. It was edited by Merle Armitage and dedicated to Alice Rohrer, an admirer and patron of Weston whose $500 donation helped pay for the book to be published.

During the same time a small group of like-minded photographers in the San Francisco area, led by Van Dyke and Ansel Adams, began informally meeting to discuss their common interest and aesthetics. Inspired by Weston’s show at the De Young Museum the previous year, they approached the museum with the idea of mounting a group exhibition of their work. They named themselves Group f/64, and in November, 1932, an exhibition of 80 of their prints opened at the museum. The show was a critical success.

In 1933 Weston bought a 4 × 5 Graflex camera, which was much smaller and lighter than the large view camera he had used for many years. He began taking close-up nudes of Noskowiak and other models. The smaller camera allowed him to interact more with his models, while at the same time the nudes he took during this period began to resemble some of the contorted root and vegetables he had taken the year before.

In early 1934, “a new and important chapter opened” in Weston’s life when he met Charis Wilson at a concert. Even more than with his previous lovers, Weston was immediately captivated by her beauty and her personality. He wrote: “A new love came into my life, a most beautiful one, one which will, I believe, stand the test of time.” On April 22 he photographed her nude for the first time, and they entered into an intense relationship. He was still living with Noskowiak at that time, but within two weeks he asked her to move out, declaring that for him other women were “as inevitable as the tides”.

In January, 1935 Weston was facing increasing financial difficulties. He closed his studio in Carmel and moved to Santa Monica Canyon, California, where he opened a new studio with Brett. He implored Wilson to come and live with him, and in August 1935 she finally agreed. While she had an intense interest in his work, Wilson was the first woman Weston had lived with since Flora who had no interest in becoming a photographer.This allowed Weston to concentrate on her as his muse and model, and in turn Wilson devoted her time to promoting Weston’s art as his assistant and quasi-agent. Almost immediately he began taking a new series of nudes with Wilson as the model. One of the first photographs he took of her, on the balcony of their home, became one of his most published images (Nude (Charis, Santa Monica)). Soon after they took the first of several trips to Oceano Dunes, not far from Santa Monica. It was there that Weston made some of his most daring and intimate photographs of any of his models, capturing Wilson in completely uninhibited poses in the sand dunes. He exhibited only one or two of this series in his lifetime, thinking several of the others were “too erotic” for the general public.

Although his recent work had received critical acclaim, he was not earning enough income from his artistic images to provide a steady income. Rather than going back to relying solely on portraiture, he started the “Edward Weston Print of the Month Club”, offering selections of his photos for a monthly $5 subscription. Each month subscribers would receive a new print from Weston, with a limited edition of 40 copies of each print. Although he created these prints with the same high standards that he did for his exhibition prints, it is thought that he never had more than eleven subscribers.

At the suggestion of Beaumont Newhall, Weston decided to apply for a Guggenheim Foundation grant (now known as a Guggenheim Fellowship). He wrote a two-sentence description about his work, assembled thirty-five of his favorites prints, and sent it in. Afterward Dorothea Lange and her husband suggested that the application was too brief to be seriously considered, and Weston resubmitted it with a four-page letter and work plan. He did not mention that Wilson had written the new application for him.

On March 22, 1937, Weston received notification that he had been awarded a Guggenheim grant, the first ever given to a photographer.The award was $2,000 for one year, a significant amount of money at that time. He was able to further capitalize on the award by arranging to provide the editor of AAA Westway Magazine with 8-10 photos per month for $50 during their travels, with Wilson getting an additional $15 monthly for photo captions and short narratives. They purchased a new car and set out on Weston’s dream trip to go and photograph whatever he wanted. Over the next twelve months they made seventeen trips and covered 16,697 miles according to Wilson’s detailed log. Weston made 1,260 negatives during the trip.

The freedom of this trip with the “love of his life”, combined with all of his sons now reaching the age of adulthood, gave Weston the motivation to finally divorce his wife. They had been living apart for sixteen years.

Due to the success of the past year, Weston applied for and received a second year of Guggenheim support. Although he wanted to do some additional traveling, he intended to use most of the money to allow him to print his past year’s work. He commissioned Neil to build a small home in the Carmel Highlands on property owned by Wilson’s father. They named the place “Wildcat Hill” because of the many domestic cats that soon occupied the grounds. Wilson set up a writing studio in what was intended to be a small garage behind the house, and she spent several months writing and editing stories from their travels. In 1939, Seeing California with Edward Weston was published, with photographs by Weston and writing by Wilson. Finally relieved from the financial stresses of the past and inordinately happy with his work and his relationship, Weston married Wilson in a small ceremony on April 24.

Buoyed by the success of their first book, in 1940 they published California and the West. The first edition, featuring 96 of Weston’s photos with text by Wilson, sold for $3.95. Over the summer, Weston taught photography at the first Ansel Adams Workshop at Yosemite National Park.

Just as the Guggenheim money was running out, Weston was invited to illustrate a new edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. He would receive $1,000 for photographs and $500 travel expenses. Weston insisted on having artistic control of the images he would take and insisted that he would not be taking literal illustrations of Whitman’s text. On May 28 he and Wilson began a trip that would cover 20,000 miles through 24 states; he took between 700 and 800 8×10 negatives as well as dozens of Graflex portraits.

On December 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor was attacked, and the United States entered World War II. Weston was near the end of the Whitman trip, and he was deeply affected by the outbreak of the war. He wrote: “When the war broke out we scurried home. Charis did not want to scurry. I did.” He spent the first few months of 1942 organizing and printing the negatives from the Whitman trip. Of the hundreds of images he took, forty-nine were selected for publication. Due to the war, Point Lobos was closed to the public for several years. Weston continued to work on images centered on Wildcat Hill, including shots of the many cats that lived there. Weston treated them with the same serious intent that he applied to all of his other subjects, and Charis assembled the results into their most unusual publication, The Cats of Wildcat Hill, which was finally published in 1947.

The year 1945 marked the beginning of significant changes for Weston. He began to experience the first symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, a debilitating ailment that gradually stole his strength and his ability to photograph. He withdrew from Wilson, who at the same time began to become more involved in local politics and the Carmel cultural scene. A strength that originally brought them together – her lack of interest in becoming a photographer herself – eventually led to their break-up. She wrote, “My flight from Edward was also partly an escape from photography, which had taken up so much room in my life for so many years.”

While working on a major retrospective exhibition for the Museum of Modern Art, he and Wilson separated. Weston returned to Glendale since the land for their cabin at Wildcat Hill still belonged to Wilson’s father. Within a few months she moved out and arranged to sell the property to him.

In February, 1946, Weston’s major retrospective opened at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He and Beaumont Newhall selected 313 prints for the exhibition, and eventually 250 photographs were displayed along with 11 negatives. At that time many of his prints were still for sale, and he sold 97 prints from the exhibit at $25 per print. Later that year, Weston was asked by Dr. George L. Waters of Kodak to produce 8 × 10 Kodachrome transparencies for their advertising campaign. Weston had never worked in color before, primarily because he had no means of developing or printing the more complicated color process. He accepted their offer in no small part because they offered him $250 per image, the highest amount he would be paid for any single work in his lifetime. He eventually sold seven color works to Kodak of landscapes and scenery at Point Lobos and nearby Monterey harbor.

By late 1948 he was no longer physically able to use his large view camera. That year he took his last photographs, at Point Lobos. His final negative was an image he called, “Rocks and Pebbles, 1948”. Although diminished in his capacity, Weston never stopped being a photographer. He worked with his sons and others to catalog his images and especially to oversee the publication and printing of his work. In 1950 there was a major retrospective of his work at the Musee National d’Art Moderne in Paris, and in 1952 he published a Fiftieth Anniversary portfolio, with images printed by Brett.

During this time he worked with Cole, Brett, and Brett’s wife Dody Warren to select and have them print a master set of what he considered his best work. They spent many long hours together in the darkroom, and by 1956 they had produced what Weston called “The Project Prints,” eight sets of 8” × 10” prints from 830 of his negatives. The only complete set today is housed at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Later that same year the Smithsonian Institution displayed nearly 100 of these prints at a major exhibit, “The World of Edward Weston”, paying tribute to his accomplishments in American photography.

Weston died at his home on Wildcat Hill on New Year’s Day, 1958. His sons scattered his ashes into the Pacific Ocean at an area then known as Pebbly Beach on Point Lobos. Due to Weston’s significant influence in the area, the beach was later renamed Weston Beach. He had $300 in his bank account at the time of his death.

 

During his lifetime Weston had worked with several cameras.

  • 8 × 10 Seneca folding-bed view camera with one of several lenses: a Graf Variable, Wollensak Verito or Rapid Rectilinear
  • 8 × 10 Universal view camera with either a triple convertible Turner Reich or a 19″ Protar
  • 4 × 5 view camera, type unknown.
  • 3¼ × 4¼ Graflex with a ƒ/4.5 Tessar lens

 

Prior to 1921 Weston used an orthochromatic sheet film, but after panchromatic film became widely available in 1921 he switched to it exclusively. Notations he made about his exposures indicate that the film he used would be rated approximately equivalent to 16 on the today’s ISO scale.This necessitated very long exposures when using his view camera, ranging from 1 to 3 seconds for outdoor landscape exposures to as long as 4½ hours for still lifes such his peppers or shells.

The 8 × 10 he preferred was large and heavy, and due to its weight and the cost of the film he never carried more than twelve sheet film holders with him. At the end of each day, he had to go into a darkroom, unload the film holders and load them with new film. This was especially challenging when he was traveling since he had to find a darkened room somewhere or else set up a makeshift darkroom made from heavy canvas.

In spite of the bulky size of the view camera, Weston boasted he could “set up the tripod, fasten the camera securely to it, attach the lens to the camera, open the shutter, study the image on the ground glass, focus it, close the shutter, insert the plate holder, cock the shutter, set it to the appropriate aperture and speed, remove the slide from the plate holder, make the exposure, replace the slide, and remove the plate holder in two minutes and twenty seconds.”

He printed on several kinds of paper. Initially he used standard silver gelatin paper for his portraits and other early photos, but in Mexico he learned how to use platinum and palladium paper that was imported from England. After his return to California, he abandoned platinum and palladium printing due to the scarcity and price of the paper. Eventually he was able to get most of the same qualities he preferred with regular chloro-bromide papers.

Weston always made contact prints, meaning that the print was exactly the same size as the negative. This was essential for the platinum printing that he preferred, since at that time the platinum papers required ultra-violet light to activate. When he wanted a print that was larger than the original negative size, he used an enlarger to create a larger inter-positive, then contact printed it to a new negative. The new larger negative was then used to make a print of that size.

 

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