Summary of Edward Weston
From mild mid-western salesman to bohemian California artist, Edward Weston helped revolutionize photography so that it became an important component of modern art. His philandering ways got him into trouble in his personal life, but elevated him to new heights in his profession - helping him to forge artistic relationships with other modernists and inspiring his lifelong drive to capture the essence and beauty of everyday objects. Through his promotion of straight photography and his daybooks, in which he recorded his artistic growth, Weston helped cement photography's place as a legitimate modern artistic medium and influenced an entire generation of American photographers.
- By creating photographs that transformed his subjects into abstractions of shapes and patterns, Weston helped bring the medium out of the Victorian age that favored pictorialist imitations of painting and into the modern era wherein photography became a celebrated medium in its own right.
- Similar to images used by the Surrealists, Weston's high resolution, realist photographs of organic forms and modern marvels encouraged viewers to reconsider seemingly mundane objects and form new associations with them.
- Weston cofounded the f/64 Group, which promoted rather than disguised the characteristics of photography and, in so doing, transformed the photographer from printmaker to artist.
Important Art by Edward Weston
Steel: Armco, Middletown, Ohio
It was during a trip to Ohio to visit his sister in 1922 that Weston came across American Rolling Mill Company (Armco) and, fascinated with the brute beauty of its industrial complex and giant smoke stacks, created this and other photographs of the steel works. A row of monumental, cylindrical smoke stacks flanked by warehouses that converge at their base and loom tall against the sky. This photograph and others in the Armco series mark a turning point in Weston's style from pictorialism's soft focus forms to straight photography's sharper resolution and detail.
Alfred Steiglitz was among the first to identify the clarity of this image and the choice of modern subject as signaling photography's emergence from the Victorian age into the Modern era. Had he still been publishing his magazine Camera Work at the time, he told Weston, he would have published these smoke stacks in it. Taking Steiglitz's praise to heart and deeply proud of his latest series, Weston took this Armco photo to Mexico two years later, hanging it alongside a print after Picasso on the wall of his studio for inspiration. There it remained even after Weston returned to California, in the possession of Tina Modotti until her death in 1942.
Palladium print - The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Weston created Excusado (the Spanish word meaning "excused" and a slang term for "toilet") during his second trip to Mexico in 1925. He channels the Duchampian concept of the readymade by taking this familiar, ordinary object and re-presenting it in an unfamiliar and artistic manner. By offering a frontal view of the toilet's base, its curving forms echoed in the patterned tiles below, Weston highlights the plumbing fixture's sculptural quality. The functionality of the subject remains apparent, but this new vantage point emphasizes the profane object's unexpected aesthetic elegance; while the commode's central placement within the composition as well as its dominance of space falsely suggest it is colossal in size.
It is no coincidence that Excusado, as well as Duchamp's Fountain photographed by Alfred Steiglitz eight years earlier, are very influential. Both encourage the viewer to reconsider the value of a banal object- the toilet. Because it best articulated the modernist tenet 'form follows function,' the toilet, according to artist Margaret Morgan, became the "grand signifier of 20th-century Modernism." For Weston, this image also foreshadows his series of high resolution, close-up photos of organic objects that he commenced upon leaving Mexico later that year.
Gelatin Silver Print - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City
Weston began photographing nudes - his largest series of close-up organic forms - in the early 1920s and continued over the next twenty years. Models included friends, family, and most frequently, his (many) lovers. While the body of this figure is not entirely exposed, nudity is implied by its inclusion in the series. The subject is seated with legs folded under and slightly askew, exposing knees and thighs, one in front of the other. Common among Weston's work at the time, his cropping and dramatic lighting create a high contrast image that encourages focus on the fleshy bumps and curves of the female form.
Similar to his straight photos of vegetables, shells, and landscapes, Knees exemplifies Weston's lifelong effort to capture the essence of ideal beauty. For Weston's second wife and model, Charis Wilson, the beauty of his nudes lay in "the rhythmic patterns, the intensely perceived sculptural forms, the subtle modulations of tone, of which these small, perfect images were composed." And yet Weston's nudes have provoked some Feminist critics to question why the artist, by so drastically cropping some of his nudes, sacrifices the individuality and identity of the sitter so that he may realize this goal. This issue not withstanding, Weston's nudes continues to be celebrated by artists and critics alike for doing something that no one had done before. As author Susan Sontag wrote, "he made nude photography respectable."
Gelatin Silver Print - SFMoMA, San Francisco, CA
In the late 1920s, Edward Weston began photographing what he called "still lifes" or individual ordinary objects at close range. Inspired by the bright, bold, simplified forms he observed in murals by Diego Rivera and Jose Orozco while in Mexico, the artist produced sharply focused portraits of subjects that prompt a reconsideration of their aesthetic potential. Pepper #30, one of at least 46 negatives he created of the vegetable over a two year period, is also the most famous of his pepper images.
Here, Weston captures a solitary, oddly shaped, bell pepper carefully placed inside a tin funnel that reflected light from above so as to highlight the object's bulbous contours. The result is an anthropomorphic vegetable that resembles two lovers intertwined, as in Auguste Rodin's The Kiss. Its three dimensionality is evident, despite the flatness of the printed image. Light brushwork along the bottom of the photograph adds textural interest and speaks to Weston's admiration for photographer Edward Steichen, who was known to manipulate his negatives during the printing process.
Weston described the pepper as taking "one beyond the world we know in the conscious mind," suggesting an affinity for modern surrealism. Indeed, one finds similarities between his Pepper #30 and Surrealist Hans Arp's curvaceous, even lumpy, sculptures created at approximate the same time.
Gelatin Silver Print - SFMoMA, San Francisco, CA
As one of Weston's monumental close-ups, Cabbage Leaf heightens ones visual understanding of this vegetable with its solitary display of a flayed leaf. The raised spinal structure and linear striations of the wilted form emerge from a dark, flat background as though a piece of relief sculpture. This creates a subtle undertone of grace and movement within the work. Indeed, the cabbage leaf becomes a sculptural work of art in its own right, elevating the common edible to an object of fine art, and thereby supporting Weston's efforts to expand his audience's visual consciousness of the world.
Weston photographed arrangements of cabbage over a nine-year period, from 1927 to 1936. In keeping with the method of straight photography practiced by the f/64 group to which he belonged, Weston created a high-resolution photo that relies on the object itself for visual interest, rather than manipulating the surface quality of the image as pictorial photographers did. Cabbage Leaf in particular is imbued with a Surrealist quality in that it depicts an everyday object with great precision and yet makes the viewer aware of an otherness or strangeness that we do not typically associate with it. Author Susan Sontag, for example, notes the subject's resemblance to "a fall of gathered cloth," adding that its title heightens our appreciation of its beauty by declaring that the gentle folds of drapery we so admire are in fact the veined, wilted leaf of a garden vegetable.
Gelatin Silver Print - The Art Institute of Chicago
Tomato Field, Monterey Coast
Weston's work often draws attention to the variable shapes and patterns found in natural objects and landscapes in a way that challenges the viewer's expectations of or familiarity with the subject. Tomato Field, Monterey Coast is a quintessential example of this. A field of tomato plants dominates the lower foreground of the photograph beneath a distant, slanted hilltop horizon at top. The aesthetic, reminiscent of collage, highlights visual juxtapositions, such as the contrast between a dark, clearly patterned foreground and a lighter irregularly shaped landscape or the flattening of the lower 2/3 of the picture created by the polka dot pattern versus the slightly varying sizes and spacing between plants that suggest a depth of field inherent to landscape. With this work, Weston forces the viewer to address the ways in which we visually interpret and experience landscapes.
In Tomato Field, Monterey Coast, Weston accomplishes what Paul Strand managed in Wall Street (1915) and his other photographs of New York City. But whereas Stand's photos transform urban man-made structures, objects, and the shadows they cast into abstract or geometric patterning, Weston relies on less predictable and more variable organic forms found in rural settings to meet the same end. In so doing, Weston effectively brought modern photography out of the city and into rural America and, like Paul Cézanne, Joan Miro, and other modern painters, challenged the traditional depth of field one expects from a landscape.
Gelatin Silver Print - SFMoMA, San Francisco, CA
Biography of Edward Weston
Childhood and Education
The son of an obstetrician and his pragmatic wife, Edward Henry Weston was born on March 24, 1886 in Highland Park, Illinois. Before his mother's death when Weston was five years old, she urged her son to pursue a practical profession as a businessman. It was Weston's father and sister Mary, nine years his senior, who soon recognized his artistic potential and encouraged him to consider photography. Mary, who was only thirteen at the time of their mother's passing, became the dominant motherly influence in Weston's life. Their father recalled: "they grew up with a double love - that of a mother and son and a sister and brother."
Weston began dabbling in photography in 1902 at the age of 16 when his father gave him his first camera - a Kodak box camera, Bull's Eye #2. The gift came with handwritten instructions from Weston's father and basic recommendations about lighting and how to choose worthy subjects. The youth's earliest photographs captured life on his aunt's farm in Michigan where he summered as well as park scenes in Chicago, including Washington Park. When four years later the magazine Camera and Darkroom published his photograph Spring, Chicago in a full-page spread, Weston left Illinois to join his sister Mary, then living in Tropico, California, with her family, to cultivate a career in photography.
Upon arriving in California, nineteen-year-old Weston, with his sister's encouragement, began work as a freelance photographer. Postcard camera in hand, he traveled door-to-door in search of work, taking pictures of families, children, and pets, among other subjects. More formal training was needed to become successful in the field, however, so Weston returned to Chicago in 1908 to study at the Illinois College of Photography. The clever youth breezed through the year program in only six months. Although he received no diploma for his early completion, Weston eagerly returned to California better prepared to make a name for himself.
Weston learned still more about photography working as a darkroom assistant and eventually a photographer in the portrait studios of George Steckel and Louis Mojonier in Los Angeles. The aspiring artist exhibited great skill in lighting and posing sitters. Having acquired some business, Weston soon felt prepared to open his own photography studio in 1909. Thanks in part to his new wife Flora Chandler's family money, the artist was able to erect what he described as a "little shack surrounded by flowers" on the same plot of land where their home stood in Tropico (now Glendale), California. This studio space doubled as a portraiture business and served as the artist's base of operations for the next 20 years of his career.
In addition to growing his photography business within this new, bucolic setting, Weston also voraciously read photography journals and began writing essays on his craft for publications such as American Photography and Photo-Miniature. Even as he fathered four sons (two of whom became photographers in their own right), Weston worked diligently during the next ten years, earning a reputation for his pictorial, soft-focus style. Most praised among his work produced at the time were his high key portraits and modern dance studies. For many of these photos, Weston used an extended exposure time so that the printed image appears brighter and lighter.
Within six years of starting his own business, Weston's style began to shift from the painterly, soft focus effect of pictorialism to more sharply focused, crisp photos. The artist's mutually influential relationship with Margrethe Mather, his studio assistant, model, fellow photographer, and lover for almost a decade, is credited with sparking this change. Weston's visit to the Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915 in San Francisco was also significant. There he received a bronze medal for his Child Study in Gray and, importantly for his artistic development, encountered work by the European avant-garde, including Cézanne, Picasso, Rodin, and Matisse.
Armed with a new appreciation for modern abstraction, Weston took another trip in 1922 - this time east to New York, where he visited famous photographer Alfred Stieglitz's 291 Gallery. Impressed by sharply focused photos of carefully cropped modern subjects by both Stieglitz and Paul Strand, Weston continued on to Ohio, the new residence of his sister Mary, and there captured his famous images of the Armco Steel Works. While photographing these modern industrial marvels, Weston also began recording his personal experiences and artistic experiments in a series of journals that have come to be known as his "daybooks."
Over the next few years, Weston's work, not unlike modern painting at the time, became increasingly abstract, focusing on form with the intent of capturing the essence of the thing pictured. With new-found motivation and having concluded his affair with Mather, Weston ventured to Mexico City in 1923 with his eldest son Chandler and his apprentice, model, and eventually his lover, Tina Modotti. Like Mather before her, Modotti, with her political mind and bohemian lifestyle, deeply influenced Weston. In Mexico, the artist created 750 photos of subjects that varied from the desert landscape and ordinary household fixtures to portraits of Modotti and political activists he met through her, such as Guadalupe de Rivera (Diego Rivera's wife at the time).
Weston's time in Mexico was also a time of reflection and self-examination. In his daybooks, Weston lamented being away from his sons and grappled with issues related to his tumultuous relationship with his estranged wife. Flora shared his pain. In a letter written to Weston, Margarethe Mather reported that back in their California home Flora "wept around here one A.M...blaming herself for holding Edward back." Struggle though he did with this separation from family, Weston never let it cloud his artistic endeavors. Nonetheless, Weston did venture home briefly in 1924, before returning to Mexico a second time in 1925 - now with another son, Brett, in tow. Although their marriage would never recover from Weston's philandering and extended absences, Flora must have realized the importance of her husband's work, because she financed his second trip to Mexico.
Taking inspiration from his surroundings, new relationships and famed admirers - including artists like Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and José Clemente Orozco - Weston returned to California in 1926 to begin the next level of his career that would propel him to well-deserved fame. But with his final departure from Mexico came the subsequent farewell to his lover, Tina Modotti.
Following his travels in the late 1920s, Weston created a new body of work that would become some of his most recognizable and modern photographs. He captured vast, rolling landscapes that seemed to devolve into flat patterns; his cropped nude forms became mere shapes; and curvaceous vegetables began to take on human qualities. He explained in his daybooks that he created high resolution, sometimes seemingly magnified, images of carefully cropped common places and objects to spark a reconsideration of the subject - to elevate a traditionally mundane form to the realm of high art. His close-up, incredibly crisp images of organic objects such as vegetables or seashells fused photographic and sculptural mediums.
In 1932, Weston and other prominent west coast photographers formed Group f/64 - an artist collective that shared a preference for employing the smallest aperture available on large-format cameras, f/64, to create high-resolution images. Weston along with other founding members of the group, including Ansel Adams, John Paul Edwards, Willard Van Dyke, Henry Swift, Imogen Cunningham, and Sonya Noskowiak, promoted avidly this new approach - that became known as "straight photography." Together these artists pushed the art form beyond the realm of pictorialism, so that, no longer mimicking painting, it could claim its place as an artistic medium in its own right.
Weston's work continued to explore the possibilities of straight photography for the remainder of his career. In 1937 and again in 1938, he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, becoming the first photographer to receive the prestigious award. He used the funds to travel throughout the American Southwest with Charis Wilson, who became his second wife a year after he divorced Flora in 1937. Though Charis was not a photographer as Mather and Modotti had been, she assisted Weston in his efforts to capture the American landscape and promoted his work through her writing.
Charis's childhood home located near Wildcat Creek in Carmel, California, became the couple's new abode. Weston found endless inspiration in this landscape. Even after their divorce nine years later, he continued to reside in a small wooden cabin on Wildcat Hill. In 1946, The Museum of Modern Art featured a retrospective of his work, celebrating his expansive career. Sadly, Weston began experiencing health issues the same year and was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, which brought his artistic endeavors to a halt by 1948. The artist died on January 1, 1958 in Carmel. During the last decade of Weston's life and for a time after his death, his sons Brett and Cole printed photos from their father's negatives. Both followed in their father's footsteps and developed their own careers as artistic photographers.
The Legacy of Edward Weston
Edward Weston's importance lies in his ability not only to change how viewers saw common objects, but also how we think about the photographic medium itself.
In commemoration of these accomplishments, the artist was officially inducted into the International Photography Hall of Fame and Museum in 1984.
Weston's work impacted a generation of photographers. His influence is perhaps most evident in the work of photographers Paul Caponigro and Wynn Bullock. Both artists have produced high-resolution, single subject compositions of organic objects, such as pears, apples, and even flowers that bear a striking resemblance to Weston's own work. Other notable photographers whose work owes something to Weston's legacy - specifically his abstraction of forms - include Aaron Siskind, Jan Groover, and Ray Metzker.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Edward Weston
- Edward Weston: His LifeOur PickBy Ben Maddow
- Margarethe Mather & Edward Weston: A Passionate CollaborationBy Beth Gates Warren
- Edward Weston: A Photographers Love of LifeBy Alexander Lee Nyerges