Weston was born on 24 March 1886 in Highland Park, Illinois, to a surgeon and his actress wife. His mother died when he was but five years old, and he was looked after, mostly, by his older sister, Mary, though their father did remarry. Aged 16, he was given his first camera, and began spending much of his free time taking photographs. He left school early, and took a job in a department store. A few weeks after his 20th birthday, Camera and Darkroom published Weston’s picture Spring, Chicago - the first known publication of any of his photographs.
That same year Weston left the Chicago area to live near his sister who had moved to Tropico (now Glendale), California, though he returned to Illinois for several months to study at a photography school. In 1909, he married his sister’s best friend, Flora Chandler, a teacher who was several years older than him but who was part of a wealthy family. They would have four sons together. Having worked in photography studios for several years, Weston now began working full-time as a photographer. In 1911, he started his own business in Tropico, The Little Studio, taking commissioned photographic portraits. With very high standards for his own work, he soon made a name for himself, winning prizes, publishing photographs in specialised magazines, and being invited to stage one-man shows.
Weston’s work at this stage was considered to be in the pictorial style, imitating Impressionist painting by suppressing detail in the darkroom, but it would not be long before he moved away from atmospheric effects, towards realism, and a new emphasis on abstract form and sharp resolution of detail. In particular, he developed a technique that concentrated on the image as seen, eschewing any later darkroom manipulation.
In 1913, Weston met the photographer Margrethe Mather, a liberated Bohemian, and began an intense affair. She became his studio assistant, and then some years later, his business partner. She was the first person, apart from his family, that he photographed in the nude, starting around 1920. That year, he met a Los Angeles couple Roubaix de l’Abrie Richey, known as Robo, and the actress, Tina Modotti. With Richey’s knowledge, Weston carried on an affair with Modotti, who also modelled for him in the nude, and became his main model for several years thereafter. Meanwhile, Weston visited New York and photographers there, being much encouraged by the great Alfred Stieglitz.
Soon after Weston’s return form the east coast, Richey moved to Mexico City to set up a batik workshop. He was arranging a joint exhibition for his work and Weston’s when he contracted smallpox. Modotti when to join him but by the time she arrived, Richey had died. She decided to continue with the exhibition. It proved a success, and established Weston’s reputation there, leading him to spend most of the next few years in Mexico, mostly with Modotti, but also sometimes with one or other of his sons, holding exhibitions, travelling round the country taking photographs of many ordinary objects, but also folk craft, and generally strengthening his artistic reputation. When his relationship with Modotti finished, he returned finally to California in 1926.
Now, Weston turned to large scale close-ups of natural objects, such as shells, vegetables (see Pepper No. 30), trees, revelling in the textures, and to a more abstract form in his nudes. He, and his son Brett, moved to a studio in San Francisco but then settled a little further south in Carmel. In 1929, he met the photographer Sonya Noskowiak who became his muse, and stayed with him for five years. The Art of Edward Weston, a first book exclusively devoted to his work, was published in 1932. The same year, he formed, with other photographers, Group f/64, which held a critically successful exhibition at the De Young Museum. In 1934, a new love - Charis Wilson - replaced Noskowiak, and a nude of Wilson taken in 1936 would become one of Weston’s most famous photographs. Around this time, he and Brett again moved, this time to set up a studio in Santa Monica Canyon.
In 1937, Weston became the first photographer to receive a prestigious Guggenheim grant, which eased his ongoing financial problems, and led to publication, in 1939, of Seeing California with Edward Weston, written by Wilson. The same year, he married Wilson, and the following year they published together California and the West. Subsequently, Weston was invited to illustrate a new edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, which led him to travel thousands of miles, and take many hundreds of photographs, of which 49 were selected for the book. From 1945, Weston began to suffer from Parkinson’s Disease. A major retrospective of his work opened at the Museum of Modern Art in 1946, by which time he and Wilson had separated. Weston’s last years were spent organising his negatives, and selecting images for exhibition or publication. He died in 1958. Further information is readily available online, at the official Edward Weston site, at Kim Weston’s website (Kim being Edward’s grandson), Wikipedia, and Encyclopaedia Britannica.
For many years - until he met Charis Wilson in fact - Weston kept a diary, or, as he called them, daybooks. He is known, however, to have destroyed diaries that he kept prior to going to Mexico, leaving no trace of them. He also burned his Mexico diaries, but not before editing them and having a typescript made. It is this typescript, edited by Nancy Newhall, while Weston was still alive and with his approval, that was published in 1961 by The George Eastman House as The Daybooks of Edward Weston, Volume I - Mexico. George Eastman House announced publication of the first volume in its bulletin, Image, saying: ’Seldom has an artist written about his life and art as vividly, as intimately and as sensitively. We know of nothing comparable in the literature of photography. [. . .] Day after day Edward Weston wrote down his thoughts about life and photography, outlined his hopes, catalogued his despairs, mercilessly criticized his photographs, and recorded every experience which moved him.’
Newhall, in the first volume, gives a firsthand account of how Weston’s daybooks came to be published: ‘The Mexican period exists now only in a typescript badly done sometime in the late 1930s or early 40s: “Yes, the MS was ‘monkeyed with’ by a German girl. It was supposedly just copied... In my original copy, which was longhand, the punctuation was dashes - (‘modern’) - Since the first typewritten copy, each person has punctuated, paragraphed and spelled according to heart’s desire.” Edward burned the original MS; he had already cut from what the various typists received nearly all references to the agony he suffered over Tina Modotti’s other lovers; nothing at all remains of his agony over his eldest son, Chandler, a thirteen-year caught first in the cross-fire between his mother and father, then in the crossfire between Tina and Edward. What remains of the Daybook in this period, battered and twisted as it is by the German girl’s attempts to give it a romantic Goethean style, is still valid. I have cut only redundancies - the parties, the bullfights, the Mexican toys which in the original become monotonous, - and a few vulgarities and sentimentalities of the kind Edward could no longer stand: “Reading, for example, such lines as ‘I drew close to her and kissed her’ shivers me, makes me out a pretentious prig. I can’t take it! Seeing it in a book would turn me into a hermit. Is there much of that stuff?…Otherwise he thought it “not too bad - except when I try to write.” The years in Mexico were only the beginning. “Did I tell you that I have eight years of Day Book, post Mexico? Memory tells me it makes the Mexican period seem pallid.” He was right, and here, though it has suffered heavily from his razor, we have the original MS in his massive scrawl. It is briefer, more incisive; his passion like fire eats at what in him was unessential to his purpose: “to present clearly my feeling for life with photographic beauty... without subterfuge or evasion in spirit or technique.” ’
The second volume - The Daybooks of Edward Weston, Volume II - California - appeared in 1966, and together with the first volume are a remarkable, extraordinary record not only of a great artist’s private life, but of the detailed progress and development of his art, his artistic genius. Here are several extracts from Volume I.
1 November 1924
‘The exhibit is over. The naked balcony walls presented a sad and stripped void as we glanced back to be assured no print was forgotten; but no time for tears, for already a new exhibit is on! Tina and I for the first time are showing together; indeed, it is her first public showing, and I am proud of my dear “apprentice.” We went directly from the “Aztec Land” and under the auspices of the Secretaria de Education Publica hung ten prints each in the Palacio de Mineria. It is a big affair: Rafael, Chariot, Felipe among our friends are also showing.’
2 November 1924
‘El Dia de los Muertos. Like mushrooms magically appearing over night, los puestos - in celebration of the Day of the Dead - once more are with us. More numerous, more varied than ever, they line both sides of two blocks and the street centres as well, I wondered and searched untiringly for my occasional concrete reward; this time I found more “Mexican porcelains” - animales de barro - clay animals - a magenta-colored dog mouthing a green basket, excellent in form, and, at the same booth, a wildcat biting into a green snake . . . [. . .]
Yesterday, with the band’s salute, President Obregon formally opened the exhibit at the Palacio de Mineria. Our photographs are simply and well displayed. Tina’s lose nothing by comparison with mine - they are her own expression.
Sunday Evening. D. H. Lawrence, English author and poet, in with Louis Quintanilla. My first impression was a most agreeable one. He will sit for me Tuesday.’
3 November 1924
‘After experiencing the ever-recurrent condition of being “broke”, I have sold two prints: “Palma Cuernavaca”, and a nude; besides, I have four definite dates for sittings. Such prosperity is overwhelming! Tomorrow I dine at a luncheon in honor of the United States Ambassador to Mexico. God knows his name - I don’t - but duty calls. In preparation I trimmed the fringe from my trousers and borrowed a hat from Rafael. Now to buy a collar and I shall be ready for the fray.’
4 November 1924
‘The sitting of D. H. Lawrence this morning. A tall, slender, rather reserved individual with a brick-red beard. He was amiable enough and we parted in a friendly way, but the contact was too brief for either of us to penetrate more than superficially the other: no way to make a sitting.’
21 November 1924
‘To Fronton - Juego de Pelota - with Pepe, Chandler and Tina. “You may find it more thrilling than ‘los toros’,” said Pepe. I did not, though it was exciting, to be sure - a game to make, by contrast, our tennis and baseball appear quite tame. The Latins evolve sports that are spectacular, sensational, dangerous, and always elegant. Every second of the play was scintillating; one fairly gasped as the pelota shot through the air like a bullet while the players executed most miraculous passes, involving dramatically tense and beautiful postures.
Preceding our departure for Fronton, a surprise was afforded us by the arrival of Chariot, Nahui Olin, Federico, Anita and several bottles of wine. They had come to celebrate! And this is why - at the recent exhibit in the Palacio de Mineria, I was awarded first prize for photographs (one hundred and fifty pesos)! Quite unbelievable. I shall await undue enthusiasm until the money is collected. The honor of winning amounts to nothing: we had no real competition. Diego Rivera was on the jury, who else I know not.’
24 November 1924
‘Sunday in the “Secretaria” patio I made two dozen Graflex negatives of Diego Rivera. As yet they remain undeveloped. Also started an undertaking which I have already given up, that of copying his work for reproduction in a book to be published about him in Germany. It looms as too great a task without ample renumeration, which is uncertain. There are some who feel that Diego’s work is too calculated, too entirely a product of his brain. For me it is emotional as well as intellectual. For a man to paint murals twelve hours a day - sometimes even sixteen hours at a stretch - and day after day working quite as a day-laborer might, not awaiting “mood” or “inspiration”, it is amazing to me how much feeling he attains in his work. Only a man of great physical strength, possessed of a brilliant mind and a big heart as well, could have done what Diego has.
Yesterday I felt, as I have before, the preoccupation of his work. Direct questions were often entirely unheard, his eyes would be utterly oblivious to surroundings - then suddenly he would start out of himself, break into a broad, genial smile, and for a few moments Diego the dreamer was gone.’
25 November 1924
‘I said to Tina, having noted several interesting items in a downtown bookstore, “Let us go on a book-hunting expedition, I am hungry for a new thrill.” We were successful in acquiring a number of additions to our library, mostly books reproducing the work of contemporary painters. Ferat, Grosz, Dérain, and a volume on African sculpture - what splendid things! - and how fine is Derain!
Now my orders are printed and the stage set for more sittings. It will take many orders to pay the expenses of our return trip.’
29 November 1924
‘Diego, refering to my head of Galván, said, “Es un retrato - portrait - de Mexico.”
I cannot work in such feverish haste as I do with my Graflex and register quite the critical definition desired. F/ll is the smallest stop possible to use without undertiming when making portrait heads in the sun, - setting the shutter at 1/10 second and using panchromatic films, - thus when depth is required my difficulties are increased. Diego’s ample belly as he sat on a packing box in the Secretaria patio, swelled forward quite like a woman pregnant, presenting much difficulty.
Jean thinks they are the most interesting set of proofs from a sitting that I have done in Mexico. Well - I do like some of them, yes, a number of them, yet I could wish, especially with Diego, that I had made something to be very enthusiastic over. In each proof I find a fault, granted a minor one, and I had hoped for a quite perfect negative from this sitting, not just because Diego is a big artist, rather because he is especially interested in my work.
Last evening we went to a “studio tea” at Fred Davis’s home: a genial host, delicious food and drink, many beautiful things, mixed to be sure with an overwhelming number of bad ones. But I am impatient, I cannot enjoy social gatherings; the meeting with a few friends, one or two at a time, is the only form of contact that appeals to me.
I face the fact that I find myself really happy only when I am lost behind my camera or locked in my dark-room. So today I became happy for a while: I photographed more of my “juguetes Mexicanos”, this time the “pajaritos” - little birds - in blue, - exquisite things in line. I combined two of them on my ground glass. Perhaps three negatives will be considered worth printing. Martial music, - soldiers pass below, - a bedraggled lot but with brave front: not to be denied, dogs of sorry mien march with the procession somewhat lowering its essayed dignity. Tonight Chapultepec Castle is a blaze of light. - All this is preparation, for tomorrow is Calles inauguration.
Surely here in Mexico we live in another world for Thanksgiving Day was passed quite unremembered! - perhaps it should have been.’
30 November 1924
‘Technically dissatisfied with what should have been my best photograph of “los pajaritos”, I spent another several hours attempting to duplicate it: impossible to place even inanimate objects exactly as seen before. I still think my failure the best seen negative though the actual difference is ever so slight.’
2 December 1924
‘In the same way that I ruined part of my last sitting of Tina done two months ago, I fogged today’s by turning on the white light during the development. It almost seems that fate has decreed against my doing what I wish to do in the way of portraying Tina. But one of the negatives made this morning pleases me: the glare of light on the azotea destroyed all the delicate modulations in Tina’s face. It was flat and uninteresting, - too, the eyes were filled with unpleasant catch lights. I must call the sitting a failure. We shall try again tomorrow.
After ordering prints on our exchange, amounting to 230 pesos, Mr. Fred Davis intimated that he would like at least four or five more prints, so I shall have clothing to the value of some 380 pesos. Good luck indeed!
Tomorrow a big day: in the morning Tina again, in the afternoon Jean Chariot. Diego was pleased with his proofs. They are, I will say, well seen. His choice was one in which his huge bulk was exaggerated, and his face expressed a cynical sadness.’