SAN DIEGO — Last year was the centennial of Edward Weston's birth, a fact promptly noted by the County Museum of Art in a concise exhibition from its collection, called "Things Seen, Things Known." It took another year for three other local institutions to pay their Weston tributes, in a trio of shows at the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Huntington Art Gallery and the Norton Simon Museum, but once the centennial ball got rolling, it wasn't to be stopped until 1990.
"Supreme Instants: The Photography of Edward Weston," the major retrospective marking the occasion, premiered last November in San Francisco. Now on its third stop, at the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego (through Aug. 13), the show will have visited 13 cities when it winds up, March 1, 1990, at the institution that organized it: the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona in Tucson. (Southern Californians will get another chance to see the exhibition at the County Museum of Art, June 1 to Sept. 4, 1988.)
Even those who think they have had enough already are likely to find some unfamiliar Weston material among the 237 images in "Supreme Instants," billed as the largest and most comprehensive survey ever assembled. Devotees will be warmed by the personal tone of the show that includes photographic portraits of Weston, letters to other artists, pages from his journals and the camera he used in Mexico.
Weston, of course, is of special interest in California because he lived here, with several interruptions, from 1906 until his death in Carmel in 1958. In fact, he is something of a cult figure. At a recent Weston symposium in Los Angeles, people who knew the master could be heard arguing over details of social gatherings that included him several decades ago. Photography watchers with a bit more distance on the subject are inclined to give Weston his considerable due--as one of the 20th Century's greatest artists and innovators--while taking his contribution for granted, now that it is so firmly entrenched in history.
If nothing else, "Supreme Instants" proves that Weston became as good as we remembered but that he did a lot of work before he came up with those voluptuous peppers, nudes and sand dunes. Perhaps the most compelling aspect of his vision is his ability to merge sensuality with purity. As Beaumont Newhall points out in the catalogue, Weston wasn't always so "straight" a photographer as he was believed to be--indeed, he was a master of dodging--but he certainly had an eye for fluid lines and refined form at the same time as he reveled in the suggestive folds and bulges of nature.
Weston first gained attention as a soft-focus pictorialist, but when he changed direction and became an advocate of "straight" photography, he destroyed most of his early (pre-1922) work. The exhibition nonetheless provides a glimpse of the art of his youth in a 1904 picture of the Lake Michigan surf and several dreamy portraits. He photographed a rapturous woman up close and meticulously placed other figures as centers of interest in asymmetrical designs. Different as these images are from his mature, sharp focus work--and from the 1922 photos of telephone lines and smokestacks that immediately followed--they show his characteristic attention to detail and his taste for the sensuous.
As we wander through Weston's transitional work done in Mexico in the '20s, his close-ups of plant forms, cropped nudes, western landscapes and unforgettable explorations of Point Lobos, we see sparkling images that probably looked startlingly real when they were made. Today, we tend to think of Weston as a classicist, but much of his work seems passionately romantic. The difference in interpretation is only partly due to passage of time and loss of innocence. It also proves that he covered all bases as he photographed real things and imbued them with studied form and effusive emotion.
Ben Maddow, Weston's biographer, will give a talk called "An Ironic Distance," Thursday at 7:30 p.m., at the Natural History Museum Auditorium in Balboa Park. Information: (619) 239-5262.