Edward Weston, a renowned and influential American photographer of the 20th century, is known for his sharply detailed and composed B&W images of semi-abstract nudes, landscapes and organic forms of vegetables, shells and rocks. Initially starting his career and excelling in working in a soft-focus pictorial style, in 1922, post a visit to photograph the ARMCO Steel Plant in Middletown, Ohio, marked a turning point in his career where he renounced his Pictorialism style to focus on the abstract form, emphasising sharper detailing. The images he took of the Steel Plant were straight images – simple, true and unpretentious (Edward weston.com, 2020). He later wrote-
“The camera should be used for a recording of life, for rendering the very substance and quintessence of the thing itself, whether it be polished steel or palpitating flesh.”(Weston, 1922)
Weston produced his first progressively independent images, notably a bold series of frame filling heads, that he referred to as ‘Heroic Heads’. The models for this series included his intellectual friends, whom he and his companion, Tina Modotti, associated with during his years in Mexico..
Between 1927-1930, Weston photographed a series of impressive close-ups of shells, peppers, kale, and halved cabbages, in a way that elevated these everyday objects to a sculptural level, bringing out their rich textures and impressions.
“The shapes of the peppers Weston photographed became women, his women became landscapes, and his landscapes emerged with attributes of all living nature. Whether the forms in this picture resemble waves, backs, buttocks, or breasts is immaterial. They are made of shifting sand, and that is the subject of the picture.”(Met Museum, 2020)
By the 1930’s, his nudes evolved from a pattern of semi-abstracts to specific people, often with visible faces, existing in a specific place at a specific time. In the same way, some of his greatest portraits are the ones that he made of his own family in the mid 1940s, extremely captivating and rich in their clarity of vision and the flexibility of their technique, making them timeless and unforgettable (Britannica, 2020).
His innovative and highly creative interpretation of his subjects juxtaposed with his revolutionary approach to composition, lighting and form was influential in changing the history of photography as a medium. His ability to transform landscapes, portraits and still life into mysterious visual images is spectacular (Artnet.com. 2020). Taking photography out of the Victorian age, where it only served as a pictorial afterword, he took everyday objects and elevated them to a higher level by transforming them into unusual extraordinary objects. He offered a window to see these ordinary objects with almost an unreal essence attached to them and by doing so made them mysterious and mesmerising (Guardian, 2010).
In 1929, after moving to California, he photographed the first of the many trees and rocks at Point Lobos, developing a style leaning towards sharper contrasts and a full tonal scale. In 1932, he became the founding member of the group f/64 along with Ansel Adams, Willard Van Dyke, Imogen Cunningham and Sonya Noskowiak. 1936 was the year that marked the beginning of one of his finest series of works- nudes and sand dunes in Oceano, California (Eward weston.com, 2020).
“To record the quintessence of the object or element before my lens, rather than an interpretation, a superficial phase, or passing mood—this is my way in photography,” he once said.(Weston, 1936)
Between 1938 and until his death in 1958, he photographed the huge stretch of shoreline, now called the Point Lobos state reserve. The photographs that he made there of rocks, trees, driftwoods and just plain nature in every form, possess an ethereal quality that is both harsh and sensual at the same time. These profound images that he made before he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1946, make him as synonymous with Point Lobos as Yosemite is to Ansel Adams (Guardian, 2010).
Weston’s contribution amongst the most influential photographers of the 20th century is substantial. Along with Ansel Adams, he paved the way to a modernist style approach to photography, creating sharply focused and thoroughly detailed B&W images made by a large format camera. “The combination of Weston’s stark objectivity and his passionate love of nature and form gave his still lifes, portraits, landscapes, and nudes qualities that seemed particularly suited for expressing the new American lifestyle and aesthetic that emerged from California and the West between the two world wars” (Center for Creative Photography, 2020).
Despite being based on a very simplistic foundation of the object and the background, these images exude importance and are powerful images. They are isolated, self contained and have no reference to the outside world. “The isolation of the subject from any reference to the outside world and the seamless acuity of its description deprives it of scale and context and allows it to operate as a metaphor for the organic unfolding of life itself” (Szarkowski, 2020).
Another one of his famous photographs, of a simple object- a bedpan, Weston beautifully demonstrates the aesthetics of “forms follow function,” by drawing out the crucial construction of an everyday object like a mundane bedpan and elevating it to an aesthetic level through his camera.
“It eschews the documentary role of the medium so completely that the subject of the photograph becomes not the object within the frame, but the beautiful simplicity and unmannered geometry of the picture.”(Met museum, 2020)
“To see the Thing Itself is essential.”(Weston, 1930)
Key points and learnings from Weston’s works:
- Merging the realism of photography with elements of abstraction by taking close ups and details as seen in his nudes.
- Form follows function.
- Sensual and provocative.
- Even sharpness and a full tonal scale.
- Usage of smooth paper prints to capture the maximum of both tone and texture.
- Subtle contrast between light and dark.
- Balance of recognisable forms with abstraction and unfamiliarity, yet preserving the identity of the form.