Edward Weston’s highly detailed, intimate portraits of semi-abstract nudes, landscapes and organic forms established his reputation as one of the foremost Modernist photographers in America. A founder member of Group f/64 alongside Ansel Adams and Imogen Cunningham, Weston’s preoccupation was the presentation of objective texture, rhythm and form in nature.
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Edward Henry Weston was born on 24 March 1886 in Highland Park, Illinois, as the second son of Edward Burbank Weston, an obstetrician, and Alice Jeanette Brett, a Shakespearian actress. Alice died when Weston was five years old and his sister, Mary, brought him up in Chicago. When he was sixteen Weston’s father gave him a Bull’s Eye #2 camera that he used to photograph parts of Chicago and his aunt’s farm. He developed his own photographs and showed a natural talent for the medium. His first photograph was published in Camera and Darkroom in 1906. Shortly afterwards, Weston moved to California and worked briefly as a surveyor before becoming an itinerant photographer.
In 1908 Weston enrolled in the Illinois College of Photography in Effingham, Illinois, but by the age of 21 he was back in California, working as a retoucher for several portrait studios in Los Angeles. Weston married his first wife, Flora Chandler, in 1909. They had four children together but within several years the couple became estranged and Weston would have a string of affairs with models, studio assistants and members of the burgeoning Bohemian scene in LA.
Weston opened his own studio in Tropico, California, in 1911, named ‘The Little Studio’. He quickly gained international renown for the quality of his portraits undertaken in the fashionable soft focus Pictorialist style. He met Margrethe Mather in 1912 who became his model and studio assistant. Mather had previously been a prostitute and was part of the Bohemian scene in LA. Weston was attracted to her uninhabited lifestyle and he would later say that she continued to be the most important influence over his work long after their relationship had finished.
The photographs Weston took of the Armco Steelworks in Middletown, Ohio, in 1922 marked a turning point in his career. He replaced his Pictorialist style with a precise, often abstract, Modernist aesthetic. The same year he went to New York and met the group of photographers associated with Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O’Keefe. In 1923 Weston moved to Mexico City and opened a studio with his assistant and lover at the time, Tina Modotti. During his time in Mexico, Weston’s reputation and fame grew as Modotti and he staged a series of well-received exhibitions, but it was after his return to California in 1926 that he started producing the still lives and close-ups of natural forms and nudes for which he is best remembered. Modotti described his study of a shell, Nautilus (1927), as “mystical and erotic” in recognition of Weston’s attention to surface texture. Weston’s urge to render “the very substance and quintessence of the thing itself, whether it be polished steel or palpitating flesh” can be considered as the beginning of a tradition of West Coast artists interested in psychological implications of surface texture continuing through to the work of Ed Ruscha and the Pop artists.
In 1929 Weston moved to Carmel, California, where he focused on photographing abstract, natural forms. He became a founding member of Group f/64 in 1932 alongside Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham and Willard Van Dyke. Naming themselves after the optical term denoting the level to which the camera lens had to be set in order to ensure maximum sharpness in both foreground and background, the group aimed to achieve an aesthetic of precise crispness that would allow for the “true” nature of the subject to emerge. Weston would state his aim as “to clearly express my feeling for life with photographic beauty, present objectively the texture, rhythm, form in nature, without subterfuge or evasion in technique or spirit, to record the quintessence of the object or element before my lens, rather than an interpretation, a superficial phase, or passing mood”. For Weston, the camera could distil the subject to an elemental pureness, stripping away any painterly pretence.
Exhibitions and Awards
Weston became the first photographer to receive a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1936. Using the grant to go out West with his assistant and wife-to-be, Charis Wilson, he produced 1,400 negatives. In 1946 the Museum of Modern Art, New York staged a major retrospective of Weston’s work, cementing his reputation as not only one of the most important photographers of the twentieth century, but also as one of the most important artists. In his later years Weston suffered from Parkinson’s disease but he oversaw the printing of his work by his sons Brett and Cole.
He died on 1 January 1958 at his home in Carmel.