Masters of Monochrome: Part III- Edward Weston
Edward Weston and Margarethe Mather, 1922- (by Imogen Cunningham)
As a young man Weston had little interest in books and he never finished high school. At 16 he received a Kodak Bulls-Eye box camera as a gift from his father, which he quickly became proficient with while photographing his aunt’s farm and various parks around his home in Chicago. He developed his own film and prints, and at 17 (1903) his early photographs were exhibited at the Chicago Art Institute.
May had married in 1897, and in 1904 she moved with her family to California leaving Edward isolated in Chicago. He earned a living by taking a job at a local department store but he continued to spend most of his free time taking photos, and in 1906 he submitted his work to the magazine Camera and Darkroom who published a full-page reproduction of his picture Spring, Chicago. This is the first known publication of any of his photographs.
That same year he moved to California in order to be nearer to May. He worked for a brief time as a railroad surveyor, but he wanted more professional training in photography and after a fairly unproductive year he returned to Illinois in to enroll in the Illinois School of Photography for a nine-month course.Weston finished all of the class work in six months, but the school refused to give him a diploma unless he paid for the full class; he refused and moved back to California in the spring of 1908.
Back on the west coast he briefly worked at the George Steckel’s studio in Los Angeles retouching negatives, but he soon moved to the more established studio of Louis Mojonier where he spent the next several years learning the more practical aspects of the business.
Sometime in the summer of 1908 Weston was introduced to his sister’s best friend, Flora May Chandler. Flora was a second cousin to Harry Chandler, the head of “the single most powerful family in Southern California.” Although Flora was not as wealthy as her cousins, Weston realized that she had enough money to allow him to start working full-time as a photographer and they were married in January 1909.
In 1911 Weston opened “The Little Studio”, in Tropico California (now a neighborhood in Glendale) and spent the next three years working alone, making portraits of children and friends. Even with these mundane subjects he was highly particular about his work and he began to attract notice, winning prizes in national competitions as well as producing photographs and articles for magazines such as Photo-Era and American Photography.
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 had developed an intense relationship. Mather was part of the growing bohemian cultural scene in Los Angeles; outgoing, artistic and flamboyant she presented a stark contrast to Weston’s home life. He found her lifestyle irresistible and her photographic vision intriguing.
Mather became his studio assistant, and they worked together for the next decade making individual and jointly signed portraits of such luminaries as Carl Sandburg and Max Eastman.
Weston later described Mather as “the first important person in my life, and perhaps even now, though personal contact has gone, the most important.”
In the summer of 1920 Weston met Roubaix de l’Abrie Richey (“Robo”) and Tina Modotti, both of whom were part of a growing Los Angeles cultural scene. Weston and Modotti were immediately attracted to each other and they soon began an affair although Modotti and Robo were already in a long term relationship. The same year Weston 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 Tina Modotti became his primary model for the next several years.
In 1922 Weston visited his sister who had moved to Middletown, Ohio. While there he photographed the Armco steel mill, and these images signaled a transition from the soft-focus pictorialism of the past to a new, cleaner-edge style in his work. He recognized the change himself and later recorded 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 from Ohio Weston continued east to spend most of October and early November there. While there he met the artist Charles Sheeler, photographers Clarence H. White and Gertrude Kasebier and finally Alfred Stieglitz himself.
Soon after Weston’s return to California Robo -who had continued to be friends with Weston despite the affair with Modotti- moved to Mexico and set up a studio there to create batiks. He arranged for a joint exhibition of his work and photographs by Weston, Mather and a few others and in early 1923 Modotti left by train to be with him, but he contracted smallpox and died shortly before she arrived. Modotti was grief stricken, but she decided to stay and carry out the exhibition. The show was a success, and, due in no small part to his nude studies of her, it firmly established Weston’s artistic reputation.
After the show closed Modotti returned to California and made plans with Weston to return to Mexico together. In July Weston, his son Chandler and Modotti left California for Mexico City and within a month of their arrival he had arranged for an exhibition of his work at the Aztec Land Gallery. The show opened to glowing press reviews, and his reputation in Mexico increased the longer he stayed. He had a steady stream of local socialites asking him to take their portraits, but at the same time he began a correspondence with Miriam Learner, a woman he had known for several years.
He and Chandler returned to San Francisco at the end of 1924, and he started a new series of nudes with Lerner but the relationship didn’t last long and he returned to Mexico less than a year later, this time with his son Brett. Modotti had arranged a joint show of their photographs and it opened the week he returned; six of his prints were purchased for the State Museum.
In May 1926 Weston signed a contract with writer Anita Brenner for $1,000 to photograph folk art for a book she was writing. In June he, Modotti and Brett started traveling around the country in search of lesser known native arts and crafts and it took him until November of that year to complete the work.
By the time they returned from the trip their relationship had crumbled, and within less than two weeks he and Brett returned to California. He never traveled to Mexico again.
In 1929 he moved to a cottage in Carmel, and it was there that he finally found the solitude and the inspiration that he was seeking. That same year Weston met photographer Sonya Noskowiak at a party and by the end of the month they were living together.
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.
In 1932, The Art of Edward Weston was published, the first book devoted exclusively to Weston’s work.
During the same time a small group of 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 previously: the smaller camera allowed him to interact more with his models, and the nudes he took during this period began to resemble some of the contorted roots and vegetables he had taken the year before.
In early 1934 Weston he met Charis Wilson 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”.
On March 22, 1937, Weston was 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 purchased a new car and along with Charis set out on his 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, shooting 1,260 negatives. A year later Weston commissioned his son 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.
When the United States entered World War II 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. He 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.
A few years later Weston 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. 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, but within a few months she moved out and arranged to sell the property to him.
By late 1948 he was no longer physically able to use a 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 Cole, Brett, and Brett’s wife Dody Warren to catalog his images and oversee the publication and printing of his work.
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: the beach was later renamed Weston Beach. He had $300 in his bank account at the time of his death.
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