Edward Weston: A Modernist Pioneer
Edward Weston is a canonical figure in the history of photography. As a modernist pioneer, his artistic contributions changed the course of the medium. With an unparalleled ability to bring out the beauty from the most ordinary, everyday objects, Edward Weston helped define a bold new aesthetic for photography. With a long career lasting almost forty years, Edward Weston’s body of work created a distinctly American vision, expanding photography’s visual language. Spanning two world wars and the Great Depression of the late 20s and early 30s, Weston developed his famous body of work during seminal periods in American history.
Moreover, alongside photographers Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham, and others, Weston founded the “Group f/64″, who became strong proponents of an American Westcoast movement in photography, “straight photography,” which stood in favor of modernist ideals. Weston’s modernism, which aimed to present subjects within a magnified, natural, and unfiltered glory, stood in contrast to the era’s prevalent notion that photography needed to imitate painting to be considered art. This conceptual expansion of photography’s possibilities ultimately helped define the medium as fine art in itself.
An Influential Practice
Almost all major photography collections have the work of American modernists. Thus, the photographs made by Edward Weston still resonate with a significant impact on contemporary audiences. Above all, Weston’s photos combine technical virtuosity with a straightforward composition. So influential was his practice that his versatility and continuous artistic growth helped introduce a distinctly American style. His photographs were sharp, focused, full-frame and contact size printed from large negatives.
The Early Years
Born on the outsides of Chicago, Edward Weston began his photography career after studying at the Illinois College of Photography, a vocational school for photographic training. His first photographs were published in 1906, marking the beginning of a long career until his death in 1958. After marrying Flora Chandler, whom he has children with that eventually followed in his photography career, and gaining experience working at a photography studio, Weston opened his own in Tropico, now Glendale, California. Edward Weston gained international recognition for his portraiture thereafter, a business endeavor that would provide the photographer with the financial independence to pursue his creativity. With this ability to explore, Weston traveled and studied new forms of photography. After visiting his sister May in Ohio, he took photographs of the Armco Steelworks plant, marking a turning point in his career towards his renowned, detailed style. Afterward, Weston would travel throughout the US and later settle in California, meeting other influential artists along the way. His further development as a photographer came with his move to Mexico from 1923 to 1927. He wrote of these years:
“The camera should be used for the recording of life, for rendering the very substance and quintessence of the thing itself… I feel definite in my belief that the approach to photography – and its most difficult approach – is through realism.” – Edward Weston
Weston would return to California and settle in Carmel to continue to produce an essential collection of photographs. In 1937, Weston garnered the first Guggenheim grant awarded to a photographer, and in 1946 he was given a major retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMa.)
In Shells, Weston demonstrates how photography has the capacity of capturing the essence of its subject. Once the image is taken, the work lives on its own terms; the photograph is no longer only a representation of an object; it becomes an exploration of ideas. Weston explored the forms and organic composition of shells, simultaneously creating an intimate and bold vision. It’s after this that a Weston shell becomes an iconic photograph – if ever one exists. In its pure, unadulterated presentation, Weston captures a true wonder of nature.
Inspired by Californian painter Henrietta Shore, who used nautilus shells in her paintings, in 1927, Weston began to photograph shells and become consumed by this practice.
“I worked all Sunday with the shells – literally all day. Only three negatives made, and two of them were done as records of movement to repeat again when I can find suitable backgrounds. I wore myself out trying every conceivable texture and tone for grounds: glass, tin, cardboard – wool, velvet, even my rubber coat!” – Edward Weston
An Influence on Weston’s Later Works
The exploration of shells would become the genesis for Weston’s later work with natural forms and close-ups; the shells are the backbone investigations that eventually led Weston to create his Pepper series.
“Shells is an example of the ‘pure’ or ‘straight’ style that characterized Weston’s still life photographs. These terms first emerged in the 1880s to refer to a photographic approach that prioritized high contrast, sharp focus, and an emphasis on the formal qualities of the subject, as opposed to the pictorialist tradition, in which subjects were photographically manipulated through soft-focus, cropping, and composite image techniques. “- Tate Britain.
“The pristine beauty and fine-tuned technical perfection’ of Weston’s still-life and landscape photography during the late 1920s and 1930s ‘would define the look of “pure” photography for generations to come.” Mia Fineman, MET curator
Reaching the Sublime
If a photograph can reach the sublime, we would argue that Weston’s Shells does. It stands apart from time and presents an almost lyrical dimension with its sensuous, smooth curvilinear form of whites and grays. A nearly imperceptible tonal range from pearly white to charcoal grey is set against a jet-black background. In the end, Weston posits the question, “are these merely two shells held in balance, or do they speak to the larger wonders of nature and the beauty of organic forms?”
“The camera sees more than the eye, so why not make use of it?” – Edward Weston