The Greats: How Edward Weston Pushed Photography into Modernity

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With photography widely seen as lacking artistry at the turn of the 20th-century, Edward Weston’s expansive work ensured people took notice. Across still life, landscapes, nudes and portraiture, his forward-thinking mindset gave photography a much-needed modern touch.

Words by Hudson Brown

Photography by Edward Weston

As photography emerged from the Victorian-era and artists found creative ways to replicate reality on light-sensitive film, Edward Weston played a major role in bringing the art form to the wider world. Born in 1886 in Highland Park, Illinois, Weston’s early passion for the arts was encouraged by his warmhearted father and an older sister who gifted him a Kodak Bulls-Eye No. 2 for his 16th birthday.

Weston had an early success with the publication of a full-page image in Camera & Darkroom. This spurred on Weston’s desire to be a photographer, which was only further cemented when he visited his sister who had moved to laid-back Tropico, California. Having fallen in love with the region, this stretch of the Pacific Coast became Weston’s lifelong photographic homeland.

Nowadays, Weston is recognised as one of the 20th-century’s pioneering photographers. But his career didn’t have a glamorous beginning like some of his contemporaries. Although he desperately wanted to be a full-time photographer, he initially found work in California as a railroad surveyor. In his spare time, he would go door-to-door with a postcard camera, offering to take portraits of families and their pets for a dollar per dozen images. 

Eventually, Weston earned a living as a negative retoucher and gradually grew his list of clients, helping him open a basic photography studio that became his creative retreat for the next 20 years. Here, he became known for his pictorialist portraits – a style also used by Alfred Stieglitz, Ansel Adams and Margrethe Mather. With Pictorialism following in the footsteps of Victorian-era painters, early photographers developed the hazy aesthetic to distinguish the medium from more established art forms. Despite his burgeoning success, Weston soon sought a sharp change in direction.

“He grew his skill and reputation as a photographer by paying close attention to how the photographic industry was changing around him.”

Growing America’s Modernist Movement

With Weston having felt unsatisfied with his work for some time, his visit to the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in 1915 was a life-changing experience. This bustling world fair presented him with an up-close look at a series of avant-garde paintings by European luminaries like Cezanne, Rodin, Picasso and Matisse, filling his mind with new photographic possibilities. This creativity was also driven by his newfound relationship with bohemian photographer Margrethe Mather, who became his studio assistant and model. 

Although Mather’s photographic work has largely been forgotten, her influence on Weston cannot be overstated. She encouraged him to pursue his budding modernist instincts and adopt a style known to early photographers as ‘straight’ or ‘pure photography’. With progressive photographers of the time looking to reject pictorialism’s soft-focus and heavily manipulated process, Weston and other like-minded artists began shooting sharp, detailed images that searched for beauty in everyday objects and settings.

As Weston spent the next few years refining his approach, he drew further inspiration from his friendship with Austrian architect Rudolph Schindler, known for his minimalist architecture. With Weston adding anonymous built objects like roads and signs to his visual vocabulary, one of the only distinguished buildings he captured was Frank Lloyd Wright’s winter home, Taliesin West. As Weston penned in his notebook, a modern artist had to deeply consider “the architecture of the age, good or bad – showing it in new and fascinating ways”. In 1922, Weston got the chance to put his new photographic ideas into practice. Following a visit to Stieglitz’s renowned 291 Gallery in New York City, he came across a sprawling industrial plant, the Armco Steelworks, where he captured some of his best-known work.

With Weston keen to seek out new creative scenes and develop his thoughts around abstract photography, he travelled to Mexico City with Italian-born artist and activist, Tina Modott. Here, he became immersed in the Mexican Renaissance through encounters with influential art figures like Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco. Having developed a fascination with the region’s art, architecture and desert landscape, Weston produced early examples of his iconic rock and cloud formations. He also delved into still life photography, seeking out textures and tones hidden within traditional earthenware, household items and palm trees.

Pepper No. 30 by Edward Weston.

“Pepper No. 30 became one of the still life genre’s most enduring images”

Cementing His Legacy

Returning to the Pacific Coast in 1926, Weston was no less inspired “to make the commonplace unusual” through photography. Based in a small wooden cabin close to Carmel Bay, Weston began an obsessive period of photographic experimentation using fruit, vegetables and seashells. With ‘Pepper No. 30’ becoming one of the still life genre’s most enduring images, in many ways, Weston considered this image to be the culmination of his artistic progression. 

“It is a classic, completely satisfying ‒ a pepper ‒ but more than a pepper; abstract, in that it is completely outside subject matter. It has no psychological attributes, no human emotions are aroused: this new pepper takes one beyond the world we know in the conscious mind.”

He also spent long periods documenting the natural beauty of Point Lobos, with its undulating sand dunes, jutting trees and elegant rock formations. Just as Ansel Adams’s images are synonymous with Yosemite and Eliot Porter with New England, Weston’s emotive and detailed images have become symbolic of California’s unique coastline. 

Towards the end of Weston’s photographic career, which was cut short by Parkinson’s disease, he also co-founded Group f/64 alongside other pure photography devotees like Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham and Willard Van Dyke. This highly influential photography collective was dedicated to promoting sharp and unmanipulated imagery, with the aim of encouraging audiences to reflect on their daily surroundings with greater appreciation.

With Weston’s photographic work spanning an incredible variety of genres, techniques and influences, there’s no doubt that he played a special role in bringing America’s photographic movement into the modern world. As Weston described: “My true program is summed up in one word: life. I expect to photograph anything suggested by that word which appeals to me.”

“When subject matter is forced to fit into preconceived patterns, there can be no freshness of vision.”

How to Capture Images like Edward Weston

Edward Weston was always on the lookout for ways to improve his work. Here, we’ve outlined a few simple tips to give your own photography a push in the right direction.

ENGAGE YOUR CREATIVITY

Throughout his expansive career, Weston took an individualistic approach to his photographic creativity. Although he achieved considerable success creating pictorialist images and likely would have continued to do so, he pushed himself to engage with the medium’s cutting-edge. As Weston said: “When subject matter is forced to fit into preconceived patterns, there can be no freshness of vision.”

FOCUS ON SHARPNESS

As Weston developed his modernist approach to photography, like the European avant-garde movement, he decided that recreating the stark realism of everyday life was an act worth pursuing. Coined as ‘straight photography’, Weston explained his creative philosophy: “The camera should be used for a recording of life, for rendering the very substance and quintessence of the thing itself.” 

USE VISUALISATION TECHNIQUES

In addition to his advocacy for using a small aperture to widen the depth of field, Weston also strived to avoid cropping his images as much as possible. To do so, like Ansel Adams, he believed that visualisation was essential to creating work that reflected his creative intentions. Try picturing the finished image in your mind’s eye before pressing the shutter. 

“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,” said Weston.

DRAW INFLUENCE FROM EVERYWHERE

Although Weston began his career creating relatively basic portraits, he grew his skill and reputation as a photographer by paying close attention to how the photographic industry was changing around him. Seek out innovative work online, head along to exhibitions and consider how areas outside photography can influence what you do with a camera. As Weston encouraged: “I would say to any artist: don’t be repressed in your work, dare to experiment, consider any urge, if in a new direction all the better.” 

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Hudson Brown

Hudson Brown is a Melbourne-based freelance writer when he's not travelling the globe. His words have been featured in the likes of SBS Food, Treadlie Magazine and Paper Sea Quarterly, while he was previously the editorial assistant for small footprint living publication Assemble Papers. He is also a regular contributor to Concrete Playground where he covers the latest art, culture and gastronomic happenings around town.

2020-11-09T01:00:37+00:00Categories: Photography|Tags: , , , , |