The Modernist photographer Edward Weston (1886–1958) may be best known for his voluptuous 1936 odalisque “Nude on Sand, Oceano,” depicting his muse and second wife, Charis Wilson, propped on one elbow in the dunes, her back turned to his lens. The sensuous image helped secure Weston’s reputation as a libertine, faithful only to his art. The myth is one that Alexander Lee Nyerges dispels in “Edward Weston: A Photographer’s Love of Life” on view at the Wadsworth Atheneum through December 31.
Organized by Nyerges, director of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts since August, the exhibition of vintage palladium and gelatin silver prints, color transparencies, family snapshots and letters opened at the Dayton Art Institute before making a nationwide tour. In 2005, it was shown at George Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y., where Nyerges, a photography buff whose prior study of Ansel Adams prepared him for his work on Weston, spent afternoons as a teen.
In the catalog accompanying the exhibition, Nyerges explains that Weston’s life “is one of near mythic proportions: a series of love affairs, sojourns to Mexico with the exotic Tina Modotti, a spartan lifestyle — truly the elements of which legends are made. Yet behind the exaggerated stories and tales of the frequently misjudged artist stands a man driven by passion, deep emotion and a unique eye. Although introspective, he was not the dark, brooding, bohemian intellectual and lover as he was often portrayed, but a man possessed by a relentless drive to seek beauty, perfection and emotionally charged images.”
The real Edward Weston, says Nyerges, was “a humble family man,” devoted in his own way to his children, even if flagrantly unfaithful to their mother, Weston’s first wife. Nyerges’s argument is bolstered by the current display, at whose core is a collection of photographs and documents saved by Weston’s grandnephew, Jack Longstreth, grandson of Weston’s sister Mary, arguably the most influential woman in the photographer’s life.
Mary Weston Seaman became a surrogate mother to Weston after their mother died when the photographer was only 5. She invited her brother, whose youth was spent mainly in Chicago, to join her in California when he was 20. Mary promoted his photographic career, which initially consisted of commercial work.
When Jack Longstreth visited his grandmother in California, he pored over photographs and relics of his famous great-uncle’s career, lovingly saved by Mary. When she died in 1952, Jack retrieved the archives, bringing them home to Dayton. Longstreth first met Edward Weston at his grandmother’s house in the 1930s, but did not see him again until the Museum of Modern Art in New York City organized a retrospective of the photographer’s work in 1946. Nyerges met Longstreth when he was director of the Dayton Art Institute, a post Nyerges held until earlier this year.
“In 1993, I offered Jack the opportunity to store the collection at the Dayton Art Institute in a secure, climate controlled facility,” Nyerges recalls. Half of the archive was subsequently given to the museum; the rest remains on loan.
Nyerges’s four-year inquiry into Weston’s life and career took the scholar across the country, from the George Eastman House to the Archives of American Art in Washington, D.C., then to the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona in Tucson, Ariz., and the Getty Museum in California, where much of Weston’s archives are housed.
The director’s most thrilling discovery occurred when Jack Longstreth walked into his office with three boxes containing 66 8-by-10-inch transparencies, early commissions in color photography undertaken by Weston on behalf of the Eastman Kodak Company in 1947, just before Parkinson’s disease ended his career. Ten of the images, among them views of Point Lobos in northern California and nautilus shells that harken to earlier studies, are illustrated in the catalog. In Hartford, the transparencies are backlit, their brilliant colors shown to perfection in the shadow boxes specially constructed for their display.
“This is the first time these masterpieces can be viewed by the public,” Nyerges said with satisfaction.
The Wadsworth Atheneum selected “Edward Weston: A Photographer’s Love of Life” as a companion exhibit to “American Splendor: Hudson River School Masterworks from the Wadsworth Atheneum,” a major exhibition also on view through December 31. The Weston show succeeds “Eloquent Vistas: The Art of Nineteenth Century American Landscape Photography from the George Eastman House Collection,” which closed on August 27. A fourth show, “Shifting Terrain: Contemporary Landscape Photography,” is on view through November 5.
Cecil Adams, head of museum design at the Wadsworth Atheneum, explained, “Particularly for our repeat visitors, we offer several ways of viewing landscape in the American experience as it moves further West and into the present.”
To minimize the scale of the galleries — four rooms on the second floor of the Atheneum’s Morgan Building — and to train viewers’ eyes on prints that, unframed, measure roughly 7 by 9 inches, Adams painted a wide stripe around the room at eye level. The framed Weston prints are single and double-hung around the galleries in typical museum fashion.
Both catalog and exhibition are arranged chronologically. Weston’s earliest art photographs from the 1910s are in the era’s prevailing Pictorialist style. They share with early silent movies a love of costume drama and mute, misty romance.
By the 1920s, Weston had rejected Pictorialism in favor of a new, hard-edged Modernism. A pivotal image of this time is “ARMCO Steel, Middletown, Ohio,” a gelatin silver print of 1922 that he described to his sister as “a forecast of my present work.” With Mary’s urging and a gift of $100, Weston traveled on to New York City to meet Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler, later a friend.
Weston spent 1923 to 1926 with artist Tina Modotti in Mexico, looking to the Mexican avant-garde artists Alfredo Siquieros and Diego Rivera for affirmation of his new direction. Weston’s 1924 photograph of Rivera, a relatively rare portrait by the photographer, conveys the physical and intellectual stature of Rivera, one of the towering artistic figures of his time.
Along with nudes, Weston’s still lifes of natural objects, shot at close range in the 1920s and 1930s, are his most famous works. On view is “Shell,” a gelatin silver print made from one of 14 negatives the photographer created in 1927. The series was well received by critics and marked the beginning of a fertile chapter in Weston’s career. He was particularly successful photographing peppers, which unlike shells, bananas and melons, he said, “never repeat themselves.”
In 1937, Weston was the first photographer to receive a Guggenheim Fellowship, which he secured again in 1938. He bought a car with his prize money and drove 25,000 miles in the course of exposing nearly 2,500 negatives, more than a quarter of his life’s work. Weston’s goal was to create an “epic series of photographs on the West.” The photographs span the gamut, from the surreal “Rubber Dummies, MGM Studios” of 1939 to “Surf at Orick, North Coast,” 1938, and “The Pool, Point Lobos,” 1939, among his most abstract images.
Weston enlarged his American odyssey in 1941 when the Limited Editions Club of New York commissioned him to illustrate a new edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. He wrote to the publisher, “There will be no attempt to ‘illustrate’: no symbolism except perhaps in a very broad sense, no effort to recapture Whitman’s day….This leaves me great freedom….” This time, Weston and Charis Wilson drove 19,000 miles through 24 states in eight months, Weston exposing 800 negatives of subjects ranging from Grand Canyon to New Orleans.
A more whimsical side of the artist is revealed in his photographs of the creekside home he shared with Charis in northern California. In a letter to his son, Weston wrote of their cats: “We now have 26, which is what I want for variety, both in photography and writing.” The couple’s playful book, The Cats of Wildcat Hill, was published in 1947.
“I think Weston is the best American photographer of all time, though I am sure he would disagree,” says Nyerges, who admires the artist’s vision and artistic sense. “He was the quintessential Modernist. In my favorite photograph, ‘Pelican’s Wing’ of 1931, he takes a simple piece of nature and makes it as powerful as the industrial images of his contemporaries. Through his photographs, he makes us see. That’s what makes Weston great.”
Nyerges will give a gallery talk at the Wadsworth Atheneum on Thursday, November 2, at 6 pm. Published by the Dayton Art Institute, the soft cover companion catalog, Edward Weston: A Photographer’s Love of Life by Nyerges, costs $29.95. The 340-page volume features full-size reproductions of Weston’s photographs along with an in-depth profile of the man behind the camera.
The Wadsworth Atheneum is at 600 Main Street. For information, 860-278-2670 or www.wadsworthatheneum.org.