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Edward Weston: Photography and Modernism


"Edward Weston: Photography and Modernism" features over 140 rare vintage prints demonstrating the great originality and strength of the artist's mature work from his first experiments with modernism around 1920 through his last works completed in 1948. This exhibition has been created to pay tribute to his role within the context of the modernist movement, which inspired artists, architects, musicians, writers, and photographers in the early decades of the 20th century. Weston's photographs are shown alongside some of the most important modern masters. Included are telling examples by photographers Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand, Imogen Cunningham, Tina Modotti, and his son Brett Weston and by painters Georgia O'Keeffe, Arthur Dove, Charles Sheeler, and Willem de Kooning. Edward Weston: Photography and Modernism will be on view at The Phillips Collection from June 1 through August 18, 2002. (left: Edward Weston, "Hot Coffee," Mojave Desert, 1937, silver print, 7 7/16 x 9 7/16 inches, The Lane Collection, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

"Edward Weston saw himself as an artist, not only a photographer -- yet he was deeply committed to his medium and proud of his exploration within it," said Stephen Bennett Phillips, Associate Curator at The Phillips Collection. "In this exhibition, Weston's photographs are juxtaposed with paintings and photographs by other modern artists of the period that Weston knew and admired. By demonstrating connections to his contemporaries, Weston's work inspires an even more profound appreciation of his original and memorable prints."


Exhibition Overview

Called "the quintessential American photographer of his time," Edward Weston (1886-1958) is best known for his still lifes of peppers and shells, his heroic portraits, and abstract close-ups of nudes, rocks, and trees. The hallmarks of Weston's best known work -- a commitment to clarity and simplification, truth to materials, and interest in the purely formal qualities of mundane objects and everyday subjects -- all defined his work as modern. The modernist works he created from 1920 until he gave up photography in 1948, due to ill health, forever changed photography.


Introduction to Modernism

Weston's early experimentation with modernism begins with the soft-focus, romantic pictorialist portraits he took of friends and models and culminates with a much different series of nudes taken in 1936. The artist's experimental mood begins to reveal itself around 1920, as seen in a pair of portraits -- Johan Hagemeyer (1920) and Ruth Shaw - A Portrait (1922). The first composition features Weston's friend and fellow photographer, Johan Hagemeyer, where the image is divided by a strong vertical at the exact center and then balanced by a nearly white parallelogram at left with a flat, dark shape containing the portrait on the right. With this work, Weston has successfully created an essentially flat, nonobjective image. The second, a portrait of Ruth Shaw, features only the eye, forehead, and hair of the model, yet has three dark triangles at the corners and a geometric white shape at the center that overpowers the sitter. Both Johan Hagemeyer and Ruth Shaw - A Portrait signify Weston's acceptance of the fact that portraiture could be arbitrary and that abstraction was as important as capturing a likeness.

In 1922, Weston traveled from his California studio to New York City where he met Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand, Georgia O'Keeffe, and Charles Sheeler among others. Meeting these artists encouraged Weston to continue his exploration of modernism. Armco Steel (1922) -- created just before Weston's arrival in New York -- was taken at the American Rolling Mill Company in Ohio. This bold vertical composition of seven tall smokestacks that appear as one giant, stepped tower demonstrates Weston's complete move away from the pictorialist style. Weston's treatment of the human body also underwent significant changes as he ventured deeper into modernism. A series of nudes taken in 1934 features sharply focused images that address the female body -- and specific parts of the body -- both abstract and sensual.


Mexico: 1923-1926

Weston spent two long periods in Mexico between 1923 and 1926, immersing himself in a culture he felt was spiritually and aesthetically richer than his own. He was accompanied to Mexico by Italian-born actress Tina Modotti -- his lover, model, studio assistant, and liaison with the Mexican avant-garde -- who volunteered to work as his apprentice in order to learn photography herself. His time in Mexico represents a pivotal period in his career, during which he developed the spare, modernist vision that marks his mature style. As historian Nancy Newhall put it, Mexico was "Weston's Paris." There he had intensive exposure to the Mexican avant-garde movement artists such as Diego Rivera, Jean Charlot, and José Clemente
Orozco, access to ancient monuments and the Mexican landscape, and an introduction to indigenous art forms. His Mexican photographs fall into several interrelated series: monumental portraits made with a hand-held camera; crisp images of clouds, landscapes, and buildings; and boldly geometric still lifes and nudes.

Palma Cuernavaca (1925), a stark image of the trunk of a palm tree rising through the center of the composition, captures Weston's growing fascination with geometry and symmetry. The rings of the cultivated palm -- parallel and even -- are almost factory-made in their precision, and the composition echoes his earlier photograph, Armco Steel. San Pedro Y San Pablo (1924), a view of an interior court, shows Weston flattening space and compressing form as his work again approaches geometric abstraction. Weston's bold experiments in Mexico reach a high point in the sculptural Excusado (1925). This still life of a porcelain toilet, perhaps an homage to Marcel Duchamp, is powerful yet sensuous as Weston divorces the toilet's function from its form. Regarding this work, Weston wrote in his daybook, "Never did the Greeks reach a more significant consummation to their culture...."


After 1927: "High Modernism"

Returning to California late in 1926 and opening a studio in San Francisco, Weston embarked on an extraordinary two decades of work that placed him at the center of American modernism. Accelerating his exploration of abstraction, Weston sought sculptural beauty in the natural world. In the next few years, he produced some of his most memorable nudes, as well as a remarkable series of close-ups of organic forms including shells, peppers, onions, eggplants, artichokes, and cabbages. The artistic breakthrough that resulted in the earlier Excusado was brought to a new level as Weston produced works such as Chambered Nautilus (1927) and Pepper (1930). The first captures the symmetrical, luminous curved form of the shell against a dark background. In Pepper, one of the photographer's best-known works, a simple vegetable is transformed into a massive form, one with the muscularity of a human torso and the modeling of a great work of sculpture. Much of Weston's work in this period is sculptural in effect, influenced by Constantin Brancusi's way of transforming organic shapes into simplified, iconic imagery. (left: Edward Weston, Pepper, 1930, silver print, 9 1/2 x 7 9/16 inches, The Lane Collection, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

In 1929, Weston moved to Carmel where he would spend the rest of his life. At the nearby Point Lobos nature preserve, he made direct studies of rocks, gnarled cypress trees, and kelp by experimenting with flat patterns and texture. Close-up, these common objects are removed from their everyday context and their scale rendered ambiguous. Weston found a purity of form that embodied the modernist credo, "nothing but the essential." These compositions relate the organic abstraction in the paintings of O'Keeffe and Dove.

Late Modernism

While his earlier work emphasized magnification and fragmentation, in the 1930s and 1940s Weston often stressed the wholeness and interrelatedness of things. This new attitude resulted, in part, from the sheer variety of his subjects. As the first photographer to receive Guggenheim Fellowships (in 1937 and 1938), Weston traveled across the western United States, recording anything that stirred his interest. The fruits of this labor were featured in the book California and the West (1940), which was the basis for the 1996 exhibition at The Phillips Collection, Weston's Westons: California and the West.

Weston's late work is bittersweet in mood and majestic in spirit. In the late 1930s, he responded to surrealism and Dada in his experimentation with unexpected juxtapositions of incompatible objects in dreamlike, often ironic images. Without manipulating subject or medium as his contemporaries often did, Weston explored surrealism to move beyond the high-modernist formalism that had dominated his work up to this time. Photographs such as "Hot Coffee," Mojave Desert (1937), an image of a huge coffee mug shaped sign advertising the one beverage that would be unbearable to drink in the desert, is situated against the backdrop of the desert demonstrating the new direction of Weston's work. The irony continues with the dislocations of scale of cup and background, paralleling one of the techniques of surrealism. (left: Edward Weston, Driftwood and Auto, Crescent Beach, 1939, silver print, 7 11/16 x 9 5/8 inches, The Lane Collection, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

The exhibition will also include a section on his photographs that verge on abstraction. Weston's images of graffiti, Wall Scrawls, Hornitos (1940), of spilled tar at the shore, Tar on Rock, Point Lobos (1939), and of cracks in a car roof, Burned Car, Mojave Desert (1937) all evoke the "automatic writing" and emphasis on accident that would become hallmarks of abstract expressionism by the mid 1940s. During this time, his style had evolved toward looser compositions, focusing on pattern, texture, and line. These works reflect Weston's continuing sensitivity to contemporary art by foreshadowing the spatially indecipherable and gestural characteristics of abstract expressionism.

This exhibition is organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

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