Weston’s Weston: Portraits and Nudes

Organized by Theodore E. Stebbins, Jr., and Carl Zahn. At the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

(Originally published in The Boston Phoenix, January, 1990)

Edward Weston (1886 – 1958) was a professional photographer before he fell in love with modern art, but modernism concentrated his vision and purified his style.  In the early 1920’s, he struggled to free himself from the constraints of pictorial photography and bourgeois life, and at mid-life, he left his first wife and a successful photography studio in Glendale, California, to live first in Mexico and then in Carmel, on the Northern California Coast.  There, he used the camera to pursue the simplified, abstract forms of modern art while practicing his characteristically California obsessions with health food, nudism, Zen, and physical fitness. His photographs of rocks and seashells, green peppers and windblown cypresses share with his nudes many of the same curves and textures, shapes and shadows.

Weston’s 1924 portrait of Tina Modotti shows her very close up, with tears in her eyes.  Under the harsh Mexican sun, shadows sculpt her lips and eyes; a mantle of thick black hair frames her massive, tragic face.  He also photographed Modotti nude, sunbathing face down on a striped blanket on a stone roof.  Now, the smooth, dark curves of her body are elements in an abstract composition, like the rough blanket, the chalky stones of the roof, the shapes of the sunlight and shadows.  In the portrait, she is a real woman, who weeps and makes you weep.  As a nude, she is a beautiful abstraction;  she is Art.

Modotti was one of the many women in Weston’s life, an Italian film actress who wrote him breathless, passionate letters:

“Oh! The beauty of it all!  Wine – books – pictures – music – candlelight – eyes to look into – and then darkness – and kisses … At times it seems I cannot endure so much beauty – it overwhelms me – and then tears come – and sadness – but that sadness comes as a blessing and as a new form of beauty – … Yes – to be drunk with desires – to crave their attainment – and yet to fear it – to delay it – that is the supreme form of love…”

For Weston, sex and photography were inextricably intertwined.  In the Daybooks where he recorded the events in his life, he barely distinguished between making love and making art.  Here he is describing dancer Bertha Wardell:  “Against her blue-veined, pearl-white thighs and torso was a fire-red focus of wavy hair…Before the hours of love she danced for me.  I felt and saw clearly — development should bring some fine negatives.”    His stenographer, Cristel Gang:  “Cristal has a body of exaggerated proportions.  To overstate her curves became my preoccupation.

Charis Wilson, who became Weston’s second wife, and was 19 when she met him:

“On April 22 [1934] a new love came into my life, a most beautiful one, one which will, I believe, stand the test of time…I knew now what was coming; eyes don’t lie and she wore no mask… And I was lost and have been ever since.”

One of Weston’s many photographs of Charis Wilson in 1936 on the Oceana dunes shows her lying face down with her head in the sand.  Her body looks almost calligraphic, curled and stretched like white writing on a page of white sand.

The woman on the dunes looks as if she has been tossed up by the sea, bleached and smooth, like the rocks and shells that Weston also loved to photograph.

Weston’s portraits of friends and lovers are so intense that their souls seem to flicker through their sensitive faces and expressive hands.  But Weston’s Nudes are seen in nameless fragments, as cool and smooth as marble.  You see their bodies, but their faces are turned away.

Describing his photograph of a green pepper, Weston wrote, “It is classic, completely satisfying… abstract in that is it completely outside subject matter.  It has no psychological attributes, no human emotions are aroused…”

Weston’s nudes, like his peppers, are great abstractions. Are they classic? Yes. Completely satisfying? Not for me.  I found something chilling about his reduction of the women he loved to the purified forms of modern art. They become objects under the camera’s mechanical gaze – the camera that Weston once called “perhaps my only love“.

by Rebecca Nemser for rebeccanemser.com

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