One does not think during creative work, any more than one thinks when driving a car. But one has a background of years – learning, unlearning, success, failure, dreaming, thinking, experience, all this – then the moment of creation, the focusing of all into the moment. So I can make ‘without thought,’ fifteen carefully considered negatives, one every fifteen minutes, given material with as many possibilities. But there is all the eyes have seen in this life to influence me. Edward Weston
This is the difficult one. The light is a trick, but it is not an illusion.
The man standing over the camera knows a secret thing about the light, and what it will reveal and conceal at the same time.
In front of him is a mollusk, a simple shell. It appears to glow and glow and glow.
He is taking the most important photograph of his entire career. Strangely, he knows this photograph will be his most important work.[i]
Everything now depends on the light.
The light that is a trick.
This man knows what light will reveal and what it will conceal.
His name is Edward Weston. The late daylight hour dances across his unreadable face.
The shutter closes with a pretty click.
Welcome to history, Edward Weston.
We’ve been waiting for you to arrive.
Of all the photographers we’ve discussed so far who crossed paths in Group f/64, Weston is the one people know best by name.
Weston’s work shows up in the most unlikely places, but it is always, always recognizable as the vision of one man.
Why? Everything about his work is elliptical.
Dunes, peppers, shells, nudes— the world curves in Weston’s eye.
The world bends as he lends the weight of his gaze to it.
And the world moves toward him. He is magnetic. He is single-minded, but as fluid as the surfaces he photographs.
Nothing will stand in the way of Weston.
All is laid bare for Weston. He knows how to see.
Weston’s nudes are easily the most famous photographic studies of the human body during the early period. And when you look at them[ii]— you’ll know why. Bodies are entirely new when Weston trains his eye on them.
What we take for granted as perfunctory or sexual about the body, Weston renders into a visual language so true and clear it’s hard to believe that these are only human bodies.
His models were often his lovers. Or his lovers were often his models. Weston is all art all the time, so it’s hard to tell where one story leads off and another begins. His models who are lovers were artists, photographers, writers[iii]. While he was married, he had relationships with Margarete Mather, Tina Modotti, and Sonia Noskowiak, among others. Many others.
Finally, Weston divorced his long-suffering wife and mother of his children to marry model and muse Charis Wilson[iv]. She was 19 to his 49.
People pay a lot of attention to Weston’s love life for two reasons.
The first reason is that Weston kept meticulous records of his entire life in his Daybooks[v].
Those beautifully written records are a primary reader for anyone in the arts who wants to know what it is like to be entirely focused on one’s art to the point where everything in one’s life leads back to art.
The second reason is that the images are singularly beautiful.
You see, Weston’s eye bends naturally to a curve. Curves bend into ellipses, so easily.
It’s no wonder then that Edward Weston is both an answer to the question of Group f/64 and a continual riddle.
Weston actually is the loop from the beginning and the end of Group f/64 in a strange way.
William Van Dyke— co-creator (with Ansel Adams) of Group f/64 movement— was first Weston’s apprentice. There’s the beginning. Van Dyke managed to keep the movement of Group f/64 going with his Gallery 683.
Here’s one version of what happened to break Group f/64 : The Great Depression began to rage in earnest.
For the population of the area that was later called the Dust Bowl, the golden light of the West Coast beamed like a lighthouse.
They walked through dust storms toward the rumors of good pickings in the golden light.
Entire towns left a trail of personal goods one the roadside in their rush to escape, to survive.
And how the hell are you supposed to make photographs in that kind of scene?
The theoretical dust was thick and heavy for a little while.
Where does art fit into a falling-apart world? What does taking a crisp picture have to do with starving families?
Everything. It has everything to do with what happens next.
Follow the light back to the West Coast where seven photographers are carving out their respective dominions in the photographic world.
Adams sweeps across the mythos of the American West. Weston shuts down his studio in Carmel, and finally finds his soul at Point Lobos near Carmel on the California coast. Willard Van Dyke strikes the tent of Gallery 683 and goes to New York to become a documentary filmmaker. Imogen Cunningham goes to New York, comes back, always photographing, pioneering
Of the original seven, four become famous. Two of the Group f/64 members never photograph again and disappear into the mist. The last of the seven, John Paul Edwards, photographs entirely in anonymity for the rest of his life.
But look! As Group f/64 fades in the jittery photographic flash of early modern history, singular figures like Weston, Adams, and Cunningham walk out of the twirling smoke to become icons in their own right. They get their museums and accolades, all right.
It is strange to think that what we think of as photography now— so much hinges on a sharply-tuned manifesto and seven people whose lives intersected for a maximum of three years.
And by the end of the brief era of Group f/64, every member will walk away to tell a different story— Cunningham and Adams cannot and will not share a version of what happened in Group f/64 in their later years. They did not ever, really get along all that well in the first place.
Stieglitz, the father of all modern photography, whose large heart welcomed so many photographers into the annals of art, will begin to have one coronary attack after another beginning in 1938.
And Weston? Ah, Weston!
His hand will be one of the ones to reach out to the next group of photographers to come up during The Great Depression.
It is his sharp eye these photographers admire, and his singular vision they emulate.
Photography became photography because of Weston, according to a famed critic in Mexico City.
The next group of photographers are standing in the wings, waiting to take their turn on the stage.
Their story is tied into the Works Progress Administration and the FSA photographers of The Great Depression
Weston will be there to help them into the spotlight.
And these new photographers will help Weston become even more famous to a bigger world over time.
Meanwhile, the light is playing its old tricks again.
Weston packs his entire camera kit in under two minutes.
He picks up the shell, examines its opalescent interior and smiles.
Inside his packed camera is an exposed image of a shell on flat sheet film.
The sheet of film glows, secret and luminous thing, in the gut of his camera, waiting to be exhaled into the world.
Weston will call it Nautilus — for the species of mollusk that it is. A mollusk that is an historical metaphor for elliptical perfection.
A sunset flares on the edge of the horizon.
Weston stands in that last light. He glows and glows and glows.
The light is a trick, but it is not an illusion.
Edward Weston left behind a clear legacy with his daybooks— brief, regularly updated prose entries that detail his art life as well as his personal life. The Edward Weston family website
, maintained by photographer Cara Weston, is filled with Weston photographs and details. You’ll see famous shell photograph and the daybook entry that went along with it there.
Once again, I will need to refer you to the Edward Weston family website to see the careful selection of Weston’s nudes.
As photographic works, you’ve never seen anything as exquisite as the female body through Weston’s eyes.
[iv] CHARIS WILSON gave a stunning interview
in the years before her death about her relationship and marriage to Weston. She is not the muse and model that we see in the movies. None of Weston’s lovers were traditional groupies. Oh, and add this to the insult-to-injury department— when Charis Wilson died, the New York Times wrote a long obituary about her… where they repeatedly misspelled her first name and had to issue a retraction.
Weston burned all the daybooks that date before his trip to Mexico with Tina Modotti in 1923. Weston went back and forth to Mexico from 1923 to 1927. Modotti, an actress and photographer, may have had hot hips and a sharp lens of her own, yet she also took time to push Weston to photograph in an entirely new way. You can get your own copy of Edward Weston’s Daybooks
. Weston wrote in his Daybooks, daily, for most of his life. They are luminous.
*ADDITIONAL NOTES Hey there! Just like last week, certain photographs are in the public domain, while others are not. That means while we are discussing the work of Edward Weston, we are LOOKING at the photographs of Ansel Adams.
The U.S. Parks Service owns some of Adams’ work, and that means his works are in the public domain.
Weston’s work, like Cunningham’s, is owned by family. You can find links to Edward Weston’s website in the endnotes above!
NEXT WEEK on OUR SUNDAY BEST! I will be writing about POV, or point of view, and WRITING! It will be a GAS, y’all! We will take apart TIME and SPACE and PERSON together like a set of Tinker Toys!
BUT TWO WEEKS from TODAY on OUR SUNDAY BEST— I will begin to tell you the THRILLING TALE of the photographers who shot the SWIRL and BANG of the GREAT DEPRESSION! We’ll be talking about the great EDWARD STIECHEN’S exquisite legacy— he tipped the world and spilled its photographic contents… ON the FLOOR! And oh, so, so, SO MUCH MORE!
*WANT TO READ THIS SERIES IN ORDER?*
OUR SUNDAY BEST: THE TIME GHOST RIDES THE LIGHT
*PROLOGUE: WHERE THE LIGHT CAPTURES US
*BOOKS & FILMS on Early Modern Photography
As always, all of my work in this area is inspired and informed by my mentor, photographer and writer Donald Ewers.