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Charis Wilson dies at 95; model, muse and last wife of photographer Edward Weston

Wilson was deeply involved in Weston's career and influenced his work. She also was the author of several books, including, with her husband, 'California and the West.'

November 25, 2009|Mary Rourke

Charis Wilson, the muse, model and last wife of art photographer Edward Weston and the author of several books including "California and the West," which the two co-wrote, has died. She was 95.

Wilson, who had been suffering from various age-related ailments, died Friday in Santa Cruz at the home of her close friend Joseph Stroud, her daughter Rachel Fern Harris said.

A free spirit who took up with Weston when she was 20 and he was 48, Charis (pronounced CARE-ess) Wilson posed for a number of his photographs, many of them nudes, but her involvement with his career went far beyond modeling. Wilson edited articles on photography by Weston and traveled extensively with him for his work.

"She was one of the great models and one of the great artistic muses of the century," Arthur Ollman, director of the School of Art, Design and Art History at San Diego State, told The Times in 2007.

"Charis was fully involved in the making of Edward Weston's art during a very productive period in his life," said Ollman, who included the couple in "The Model Wife," his 1999 book on artists and their spouses.

A spirited subject

Wilson's entry into Weston's life led to a change in his formalist style, according to critics. Images of "her youthful face and womanly form" show how Weston the "self-conscious aesthete" had matured into an artist, "capable of indulging in true sentiment," critic Andy Grundberg wrote in a 1990 New York Times review of a Weston exhibit at the International Center of Photography.

Photographs of Wilson rolling down a sand dune (“Dunes, Oceano,” 1936), floating in a swimming pool in Carmel (“Floating Nude,” 1939) or sitting on a chair in Weston's studio with a robe casually draped over her shoulders ("Nude," 1934) are unlike nudes Weston had been known for.

A number of the Wilson images are included in "Eloquent Nude: The Love and Legacy of Edward Weston and Charis Wilson," a 2007 documentary featuring archival footage and interviews with Wilson, directed by Ian McCluskey.

"He had been the master of the close-up of body parts," Ollman said of Weston. In "Dunes, Oceano," however, "the model is moving in space, there is no horizon line. It was a breakthrough for him, largely because of Charis' spontaneity. Her uninhibited style gave Weston a freedom that was vitalizing to him," Ollman said.

Weston was aware of a change in his style. "The first nudes of C. were easily amongst the finest I had done, perhaps the finest," he wrote in his daybook in April 1934.

One of the best-known photographs he made of Wilson shows her fully dressed. In 1937's "Charis, Lake Ediza," she sits on the ground leaning against rocks wearing pants, a pullover and tall boots. Her head is wrapped in fabric to ward off mosquitoes when traveling and camping outdoors. There is "a look of exhaustion on my face -- since identified by critics as 'sensuality,' " Wilson wrote in her 1998 memoir, "Through Another Lens: My Years With Edward Weston," co-written with Wendy Madar.

The 28-year age difference between Wilson and Weston gave their romance "a Bohemian, May to December quality," photography dealer and historian Stephen White said in a 2007 interview with the Los Angeles Times. "Charis brought an essence of youth, when Weston was starting to wear out."

Soon after they met in Carmel in 1934, she began to pour her writing talents into advancing his career. Along with editing his articles for Camera Craft magazine, she wrote some of them under his name, she recalled in her memoir. "My goal was to make the articles sound exactly like Edward Weston," Wilson wrote.

"She did write under his name," Ollman confirmed. "It was easy for her and slavishly hard for him."

Wilson also managed Weston's studio, captioned and cataloged his negatives and kept up his business correspondence. In 1936, she helped him write an application for a Guggenheim fellowship, expanding on his brief statement to make it a five-page presentation. He won a Guggenheim in 1937, the first one ever granted to an art photographer. It was renewed for a second year in 1938.

The money funded a series of road trips that led to the book "California and the West," which was published in 1940.

Wilson drove their Ford, and Weston scouted the landscape. She kept a diary that was the basis for the text of the book, which features close to 100 photographs by Weston. It was a critical success that "settled any lingering doubts I had about my value as a partner," Wilson wrote in her memoir.

"You feel the presence of Charis strongly in the book," White said of her contribution to "California and the West."

In her relaxed, informative writing style, Wilson described a crab apple tree "in a full coat of snowball blossoms" that Weston photographed "forty-six miles from Glendale on U.S. No. 66." She reduced Death Valley to "a hundred miles of desolate geography" and noted "a wheezy rattletrap" truck that passed them on the empty road.

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