Food plays a significant role in all our lives, but for Edward Weston it was also a wellspring of creative nourishment. From the mid-1920s to the mid-1930s he found inspiration in fruits and vegetables, raising them from the ordinary to the extraordinary in a series of still lifes that rank among his most progressive and iconic works. The revelatory nature of these spare yet powerful images introduced a new mode of seeing that shocked and enthralled his contemporaries, exerting an attraction that remains undiminished to this day.
Weston sought to reduce his photographic subjects to their essence, a quest similarly reflected in his affinity for a streamlined lifestyle and restrained gastronomic preferences. Perhaps it was this predilection for simplicity in all things that, as Merle Armitage wrote, freed him to reveal the world in “its true content, its natural decorativeness or design, its most significant form.”
In 1956, photographer, author and documentary filmmaker Louis Clyde Stoumen completed The Naked Eye: The Story of the Art and Fun of Photography, an ambitious, full-length cinematic history of photography stretching from its earliest stirrings with the camera obscura through the mid-20th century. This impressive tribute touched upon the contributions of such luminaries as Louis-Jacques Daguerre, Matthew Brady, Margaret Bourke-White, Alfred Eisenstadt, Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand, and Weegee as well as the influences of George Eastman and Life magazine. However, it is Edward Weston who served as the centerpiece of The Naked Eye—his life and accomplishments explored in an extensive concluding chapter that captured the attention of critics and audiences and earned the film its accolades.
“When we found ourselves in the funny papers, Ansel and I realized we had arrived.”
Artistic acclaim and celebrity manifest in many forms. But I ask you, what could be more auspicious than a nod from a nationally syndicated comic strip? Especially when that strip commands a half-page in the Sunday color comics! Such was the case on 27 February 1949 when cartoonist George Clark conjured both Edward Weston and Ansel Adams as models for an aspiring photographer in his popular weekly strip, “The Ripples.” A bemused Weston clearly appreciated the “honor.” On a visit to Weston’s home a year later, San Francisco Chronicle arts columnist Kevin Wallace noticed the clipping sitting on a table and recorded Weston’s response to it: “When we found ourselves in the funny papers, Ansel and I realized we had arrived.”
It was the heart of the Depression, jobs were scarce and millions of people were hoboing around America in pursuit of employment. On 25 March 1931, nine black youths, ages 13 to 19, a group of white men, and two white women illegally hopped a freight train bound from Chattanooga to Memphis. On this ill-fated journey, a brawl between the young African Americans and the white train hoppers escalated from minor charges of vagrancy and assault to false but perilous accusations of rape brought by the two white women. Those unfortunate nine came to be known as the Scottsboro Boys and their tortuous struggles with trials, pending executions, and appeals—including two at the United States Supreme Court—erupted into a cause célèbre whose tragic consequences reverberated around the world.
International outcry over the plight of the Scottsboro Boys engendered countless protests, marches, lobbying, and letter writing campaigns. Embraced by multitudes of ordinary citizens, these endeavors were often sponsored by political, civil rights and labor organizations and promoted by eminent cultural, scientific and legal activists. Poems, plays, films, books, and music interpreted and amplified the tale. Even Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is said to have been inspired by the events. Central to these efforts were legal defense fundraising activities, primarily organized under the aegis of the communist affiliated National Committee for the Defense of Political Prisoners. One such ambitious undertaking—an exhibition and sale of original manuscripts, musical scores and works of art—emerged from Carmel, California in early 1934. Langston Hughes, the eminent African American poet and author was one of its primary organizers. Edward Weston was among its donors and sponsors.
“On the sand and in the water lay enormous redwood stumps, the silvery patina of the polished woodalternating with patches of charcoal black. There were the photographers, of course, down in the midst of it; Edward photographing stumps, Willard photographing stumps, as well as photographing Edward photographing stumps.”
In March 1937, Edward Weston became the first photographer ever awarded a prestigious Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship. The significance of this honor cannot be overstated. As Camera Craft proclaimed: “Every photographer can take pride in the appointment of Edward Weston as a Fellow of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. This recognition of photography will bring satisfaction to every photographer and we are sure that all extend their thanks with ours to Mr. Weston. … in the opinion of this magazine no better man could have been chosen.” The Guggenheim itself described the focus of Weston’s project succinctly as: “The making of a series of photographic documents of the West.”
That summer, between 6–14 August, Weston and Charis Wilson traveled from San Francisco up the north coast of California and back scouting locations for the recently commenced Fellowship. Accompanying them were photographer Willard Van Dyke and their mutual friend Gretchen Schoninger. It was a rewarding journey despite such tribulations as persistent fog, car troubles, and miles of towering, photographically challenging redwoods. Charis’ keen journal observations and Weston’s masterful images recording what would ultimately be two years of Fellowship forays are revealed in a number of publications. Most notable are the acclaimed 1940 book, California and the West, and a series of twenty-one Westways magazine articles published by the Automobile Club of Southern California between August 1937 and July 1939 as “Seeing California with Edward Weston.”
During that brief August journey, Willard Van Dyke made a remarkable body of photographs of Weston on or near the north coast beaches they visited. Taken with a Zeiss Contax 35 mm camera, each of the resultant silver prints measures approximately 4 3/4 x 6 1/4 inches (or reverse). Van Dyke gave Weston over two dozen of these little known vintage prints and on 28 March 1938 Weston wrote to express his delight in receiving them:
But my reason for writing now is to acknowledge the express packages. Willard, I wish you were here to receive my—and Charis’s—embraces, kisses, etc. etc. etc. And I wish you could have seen the excitement when we opened to the E.W. series. They are simply swell; we roared, and admired. To have these, the only record of this year’s Guggenheim, means very much to me,—means more because you were with us. As a photographer I can deeply appreciate all the work involved in making this set, and thank you from my depths.
Years later, Weston gave these photographs to fellow photographer and film maker Louis Clyde Stoumen, from whom Paul M. Hertzmann, Inc. acquired them. The dates and locations attributed to the images illustrated here are based on this author’s careful review of descriptions afforded by Charis Wilson’s journal, an explanatory letter from Charis to Paul Hertzmann and Susan Herzig, and such internal visual clues as location landmarks and Weston’s clothing.
Van Dyke’s visual record, combined with Charis Wilson’s incisive written impressions, bring this remarkable August 1937 trip to life.
“The photographer who stays at home has one great advantage over the photographer who travels—his familiarity with his surroundings. He can study his material constantly, know how it looks at different times of day and seasons of year. He knows when the light is best in all of his favorite places, when the weather will be good, what kind of clouds to expect.” —Edward Weston. “Photographing California [Part II].” Camera Craft, March 1939
“Weston on the Way” proclaimed The Carmelite on 26 December 1928: “Edward Weston is coming to Carmel for an indefinite stay, arriving early in January. He will occupy the Hagemeyer studio, with his son Bret [sic] Weston.”
Long an intellectual and artistic community of great natural beauty, Carmel offered an ideal location for a creative individual like Weston. He would call it home for most of his life and gain inspiration there for many of his greatest photographs. Even today, an indelible link persists between Weston—man, work and Wildcat Hill home—and the special ethos of the Carmel region.
“When an artist begins to sign his work it is indicative of a certain self-esteem, self-consciousness.”
Throughout his career Edward Weston reinvented his signature to align with his artistic evolution and the broader aesthetics of his times. As he progressed from a young Pictorialist “aesthete” in the 19-teens to an emerging Modernist in the 1920s and, finally, a consummate photographer in the mid-1920s through the 1940s, his signature transformed to reflect his self-image as an artist, the compositional character of his work and even, at the end, his deteriorating health. This post presents a representative sampling of signatures spanning the full range of Weston’s highly creative and productive life.
“The utterly famous photographer and the Grand Old Man of the American photographic world, Edward Weston…” — Shoichi Abe, Photo Art [Tokyo], November 1955
Weston’s association with progressive photographic movements was pivotal to his aesthetic growth in the 1920s, and brought him into the sphere of influential German artists and intellectuals. As a result, he is well represented in German and Austrian publications: fifteen known references in Germany and two in Austria.
Of paramount importance is Weston’s well-documented participation in the seminal 1929 Film und Foto exhibition in Stuttgart, Germany and its subsequent related venues. As illustrated above, his powerful portrait of Galvan Shooting appears in the catalogue published in conjunction with the February–March 1930 Vienna venue, Internationale Ausstellung: Film und Foto Wanderausstellung des Deutschen Werkbunds. Unlike the original Stuttgart exhibition, with twenty Weston photographs, Vienna included only eight.
“Edward Weston, the greatest American photographer, is currently exhibiting his works in Paris. This is the photographic event of the season!“—Daniel Maslcelt, “L’Art d’Edward Weston, Photo Cinéma, February 1950
Edward Weston’s name first appears in a publication from outside the United States in 1913, as a listing within an exhibition catalogue for the Toronto Camera Club’s Tenth Salon, 22nd Annual Exhibition. By 1958, the year of his death, this modest seed would flourish into an astonishing harvest of nearly 300 international references in books, newspapers, periodicals, and exhibition catalogues. The countries of origin include Austria, Belgium, Canada, China, Denmark, England, France, Germany, Holland, Palestine (pre-State of Israel), Italy, Japan, Mexico, Scotland, and Switzerland. Of these, the majority hail, in descending order, from Mexico, England and France—with Canada, Germany, Japan, and Holland not far behind. Of course, this merely reflects the published references we have located—there are certainly oh-so-many more left to discover. Discussing contributions from all of these nations would overwhelm any blog post. To begin, here is Part One of our two-part post presenting a tantalizing, representative sample. (Look for Part Two in February.)
“Could you give a more acceptable gift than a GOOD photograph?” —Edward Weston Holiday Advertisement, 1910
Seasons Greetings, One and All. In this holiday themed post we thought it would be diverting to present a selection of Weston related advertisements and promotional materials that span his career from 1910 to 1954. All were designed to evoke the holiday spirit and entice a discerning public to favor Weston with their patronage.
Perhaps the most delightful example is a photographic postcard Weston produced for his Tropico studio in about 1911 (see image, above). Illustrated with a portrait of his one-and-a-half year old son Chandler frolicking in a staged winter scene, complete with overprinted snow (Conger 14/1911), this postcard boasts: “A portrait by Weston has character, individuality and artistic taste. My aim is to have every patron say, ‘That is the best likeness I ever had.’”