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The Unknown Weston : Edward Weston's Career--and International Fame--Began in Los Angeles. A New Show at the Getty Brings His Early Works to Light

November 23, 1986|JERRY LAZAR | Jerry Lazar is a Los Angeles journalist, screenwriter and photography collector.

Edward Weston is celebrated today as one of the world's great photographers, an artist who pioneered the medium and showed the world that a photograph need not emulate a painting to qualify as a work of art. Weston created a body of work that has become an integral part of the field's visual grammar: non-erotic nude studies that emphasize form over content; majestic still lifes of commonplace vegetables; magnificently textured close-ups of the natural formations in the rocks, trees and ocean at Point Lobos near Carmel. With almost religious zeal, he produced sharp, crisp images of what he called "the thing itself," and so became the spiritual father of what is known as "straight" photography.

Weston was drawn to such a variety of subjects as a byproduct of his nature, for he was a restless man. Throughout his life, he was a wanderer and a philanderer, incapable of staying in one place or with one woman for any length of time. His travels and his love affairs are legendary. The one constant in his life was his art; he once ranked the passions of his life, in order, as "photography," "my sons" and "women." Today he is revered as much for his devotion to his medium as for his contributions to it.

To commemorate the centennial of his birth, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has launched a comprehensive Weston retrospective that will tour the United States through 1990. The Huntington Library in San Marino is also displaying a selection of Weston prints from the second half of his career, which he gave the institution as a condition of a Guggenheim grant. But the most unusual exhibit of Weston's work is to be found at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu. Its theme is Weston's early years in Los Angeles--a chapter of his career that is often all but forgotten in studies of his work, though his affiliation with Los Angeles lasted, on and off, for 30 years. Many of the Getty's 50 prints on display have not been seen publicly for 70 years. Part of the reason for this oversight is that, despite Weston's extraordinary local success as a portrait photographer and the international success he achieved here as an art photographer, Weston himself came to disavow his early works. His admirers will be surprised at the style of these seminal photographs, primarily because they lack the sharp-focus clarity that imbues his later work. For this reason, Weston destroyed nearly all his plates from that era. The few prints that survive were handed down to descendants of the friends he gave them to.

So why mount an exhibit that Weston himself would have hated to see? "Edward Weston is the most important visual artist--in any medium--with roots in Los Angeles," says Weston Naef, the Getty's curator of photographs. "He is not only one of the great giants in the art of photography, he is the only artist whose work is known in every country of the world where there is visual literacy. It is important for us to acknowledge that he has genuine artistic roots here. He is more often associated with Carmel and Northern California, but it was with photos made in Los Angeles that he had his first international fame."

The Getty photographs date from 1906, when Weston came from Chicago at the age of 20 to visit his older sister, May, and her husband in a section of Glendale that was then called Tropico. Weston fell in love with the wide-open terrain, the promise of adventure, and he decided to stay.

Weston's career began with the purchase of a post-card camera--the precursor to today's Polaroids--which he carried from door to door, providing local families with photographic souvenirs of their children, pets and even their deceased relatives in caskets awaiting burial. From that he graduated to a job retouching negatives at a downtown Los Angeles studio. This apparently represented enough of a display of financial stability to win the hand of his sister's friend Flora Chandler, though it would ultimately be her earnings as a third-grade schoolteacher that would support them and their four sons. (Money woes plagued him throughout his life. The $35,000 that a single Weston print posthumously fetched at a recent Sotheby's auction would have sustained him for a decade or more.)

Weston worked his way up from darkroom assistant to full-fledged photographer, all the while taking pictures of friends, family and scenery around Tropico, for his own amusement. By 1911, he had developed enough confidence to build his own studio in Tropico, a $600 shack described at the time in a local newspaper as "a diminutive bungalow . . . almost hidden by palms, banana plants and shrubbery." The first week of business yielded only $1 in sales--for a dozen post cards--but eventually Pasadena socialites and Hollywood stars found their way up the daisy path and onto the old mohair couch in Weston's 11x14-foot cabin. One newspaper item spotlighted Weston's "portraits of children, the most difficult branch of the art," and noted that his prices were "most reasonable."

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