Edward Weston: A Photographer's Love Of Life

by Matt Damsker

 

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Published by the Dayton Art Institute for the exhibition of the same name. Organized and with an essay by Dayton Art Institute Director and CEO Alexander Lee Nyerges. 341 pages; 100 plates. ISBN No. 0-937809-27-6 (hard cover); 0-937809-28-4 (soft cover).

From Dayton, Ohio, through stops in Oregon, Nebraska, and currently at The George Eastman House/International Museum of Photography and Film in Rochester, NY (where it remains through September 4), this first-rate exhibition of Edward Weston's work celebrates the great photographer at his most accessible. Mounted by the Dayton Art Institute, to which many Westons have been donated by the photographer's great-nephew, Jack Longstreth, the show strives to portray a Weston who reveled in life and the world, as opposed to the more commonly held notion that he was some tortured soul, the stereotypical brooding aesthete.

Dayton Art Institute Director and CEO Alexander Lee Nyerges goes to great lengths to counter that notion in his exhaustive catalogue essay, citing the efforts of Weston's second wife, Charis Wilson, with whom he seemed to find great happiness in California, to set the record straight. Most convincing, perhaps, is John Szarkowski's assertion that Weston's later work illustrates "a new spirit of ease and freedom" rather than a focus on death and decay. Says Szarkowski: "A sense of the rich and open-ended asymmetry of the world enters the works, softening their love of order."

At the end of the day, of course, all this may not matter, for we are left with self-validating art that virtually sets the agenda for fine-art photography. As I have written here before (in a review of Edward Weston: Life Work. Photographs from the Collection of Judith G. Hochberg and Michael P.Mattis, which accompanies another touring Weston show that continues through the start of 2007), Weston 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--established the highest artistic standard for succeeding generations.

Whether he was happy, life affirming, or not, 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, and he loved to experiment. For example, 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.

On the whole, the Weston images in the Dayton show are not as iconic as many of the Westons from Hochberg's and Mattis's collection, but they are certainly wonderful. A 1938 shot of 20-Mule Canyon in Death Valley is Weston at his abstract height, as is an image of a garden pepper that seems to anthropomorphically rival Rodin's "The Kiss." And his famed photo of a nude Charis, "Nude on Sand, Oceano," from 1936, is one of his greatest achievements, while the fists of pure rock that he captures in his 1937 photo of the Mojave Desert seem to define Weston's eye for the connections between human and non-human form.

Other images here, such as the tattered façade of a New Orleans plantation house from 1941, or the totemic sides of barns photographed in Ohio and Pennsylvania, are refreshing and startling examples of a less celebrated side of Weston. If anything, the portfolio of 10 color plates that are also included reveal a Weston who, late in life and hampered by Parkinson's disease, had found yet another world to explore. Indeed, Weston's purist association with black-and-white photography may be where his greatness lies, but these color shots are the equal, in their way, of his familiar classics.

Approached by the Eastman Kodak Company to shoot a color series for a promotion of its Ektachrome and Kodachrome transparency films, Weston agreed unhesitatingly, Nyerges tells us. "In color… I had to learn new ways of seeing," Weston said, but it is apparent from these shots that he had little difficulty in applying his aesthetic gift to a color palette.

Inevitably, the natural landscapes of these color photos are warmed and enriched in a way that Weston's austere black-and-white photography eschewed, yet the images are anything but postcard-like. The windblown hill of Point Lobos is a subtle study in Kodachrome tonality, with a patch of blue sky hardly perceptible in the upper right corner. And a color reprise of 20-Mule Team Canyon in Death Valley conveys silver-gold earth tones of otherworldly power. Even the more picturesque shots of cypress trees and nautilus shells are controlled exposures that favor detail and visual richness over any notion of Technicolor dazzle. These remarkable photos give us a Weston who certainly engaged the world on his own artistic terms. Whatever his emotional color, his legacy is beyond debate.

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.