Edward Weston:

The Last Years in Carmel

at the Art Institute of Chicago, through September 16

By Fred Camper

When I first looked at reproductions of Edward Weston’s prints almost 30 years ago, I found them inert and dull, skillful but lifeless. And I figured that since Weston himself had published these black-and-white photos in books, I’d given them an adequate viewing.

A few years later the Museum of Modern Art presented a big Weston retrospective, and I learned a lesson I’ve never forgotten. Intending a brief visit, I stayed for hours, overwhelmed by the photographer’s complex, dynamic use of shapes and tones–by his mysterious, silent, formally perfect world. Looking at those rich and intense blacks, I realized that great works of art often depend on ineffable subtleties ruined in reproduction–by duplication in a book or in a video of a film.

Later I developed a taste for a wider range of photographers, from Atget to Friedlander, but Weston remained my favorite: he’s the best exemplar of photographic high modernism, capturing preternaturally sharp images that could be created in no other medium. And Weston’s greatest works, in my view, are his late landscapes of California’s Point Lobos, near the home he’d occupied in Carmel since 1938. These form the bulk of a magnificent group of 76 prints at the Art Institute, mostly made by his son Brett under Weston’s supervision in 1953, five years before he died. The fine catalog includes razor-sharp reproductions of every work in the show and an insightful essay by Art Institute photography curator David Travis, who organized the exhibition. Still, the reproductions can’t convey what makes the prints so sublime.

Subtleties of texture and tone are the first thing that set the prints apart. The luminous, airy sea foam in one Surf, Point Lobos, 1938 (different images often have the same title) isn’t nearly as spectacular as the liquid-smooth rock surfaces–though dark, they seem to glow with an inner light. In Sea, Point Lobos, 1940, dark specks of floating kelp have an unaccountable weight and power, disrupting the reflective surface of the Pacific. In Granite Cliff, Point Lobos, 1944, cracks in the cliff register as deep cavities–secret hiding places or passageways into some other world. Yet despite such contrasts, the prints always present a balanced, harmonious whole.

Travis reads many of these pictures as metaphors for Weston’s emotional state. And for the non-Point Lobos pictures, such interpretations are illuminating. Weston responded to the onset of war with provocative, almost surreal images; the faintly kinky Civilian Defense, 1942 shows his wife, Charis, reclining nude in a gas mask, a witty if mordant comment on the discordances war introduced into ordinary lives. Portraits of his sons, all of whom were to serve in the military, have a humanist warmth rare in Weston’s nudes. And many portraits of Charis made while their marriage was coming unglued (she left in 1945) show her face in shadow; magnificent studies in inscrutability and distance, they reveal far less of her personality than portraits of sons Brett and Neil do of theirs.

But I can’t see the Point Lobos pictures as autobiographical. To do so seems reductive–and even Travis notes that Weston himself tended to reject psychological interpretations of his work. While a cracked rock face might recall wrinkles, and thus mortality, the problem with such readings (expressed in wall labels with less subtlety than in the catalog) is that they leave out so much. Pictures of dead pelicans might reflect on human mortality, but the vivid, dynamic way Weston frames the corpse in Dead Pelican, Point Lobos, 1942–with wings spread and beak pointing straight up–makes the creature look ready to spring back to life. Resurrection, or at least the idea of nature’s cycles, seems as much a subject as death.

Indeed, Weston can’t help but depict the natural world as diverse and ever changing, given that Point Lobos is an area of dramatic geological and ecological differences located at the boundary of land and sea, long considered the place where terrestrial life originated. The cracks in a rock face are as much evidence of growth as decay, becoming repositories of new soil and hosting tiny plants that will eventually transmute stone into soil. Many other photos of the same cliff make the same point: Point Lobos, 1944 shows bunches of flowers blooming from crevices, making the picture a study in the competing textures of hard stone and soft plants, deep darkness and variegated light.

Weston was an atheist, but it seems that in the Point Lobos pictures he was retelling the Genesis story, perhaps most obviously in Point Lobos, 1938, in which the sun peers from behind a cloud over a sea framed by rocks. Here the light source is supremely clear, causing reflections on the water below and making the backlit shore rocks a deep, inky black: an image that would be corny in other hands seems to represent the moment when light was first created out of darkness. Weston’s print renders light and darkness as living presences–as it does a band of rain showers near the horizon, their dynamic, supple grays contrasting with the dark rocks and bright sun.

One needn’t consult the Bible to see how deeply Weston understood ecological lessons, which were far less a part of the mainstream in his time than today: that all parts of the natural world participate in the whole, that even rocks give rise to new life. In photographs from the late 20s and early 30s, including some of Point Lobos, Weston tended to focus on individual objects, representing them with uncanny precision. But here his compositions connect parts to a whole, making everything seem alive, even the stones–works in progress still being shaped by the sea, rain, and wind.

All of Weston’s best work is a mix of documentation and abstraction, of immediacy and distance, of tactile, random surface and hidden order; like Mondrian, Newman, and other modernists, he searches for ideal forms. He himself tended to describe his photographs as documenting the world, though he also wrote of wanting to make works worthy of classical music; indeed, the distinguished photographer Minor White, an early follower, compared Weston’s late Point Lobos pictures to the late quartets of Beethoven, and Travis makes a good case that these images are characteristic of a great artist’s late period, when he’s working for himself, not to impress others.

Weston’s stated interest in capturing “universal rhythms” is evident in Floating Driftwood, 1945, which juxtaposes two similarly curved pieces of wood, one a rough, broad piece floating and the other thinner, smoother, and sitting on a rock marked with multiple curved lines. It’s as if a hidden order, a universal dictionary of forms, had suddenly revealed a few of its entries. In Dead Pelican, Point Lobos, 1945, the bird’s curves are echoed by long reeds that float on the water beside it; rocks visible underwater, some rounded, add another layer of texture.

In Fog and Cypress, Point Lobos, 1938, bands of sunlight seemingly brighter than the sky glisten off the edges of some rocks, while distant trees are veiled in a light gray mist that makes them far less palpable. These trees seem to symbolize Weston’s whole achievement, in that what we see is both physically present and physically removed, at once an ensemble of real objects and an abstract study in blacks, grays, and whites revealing a unity and order visible only on photographic paper. Looking at a Weston picture and slowly realizing how its diverse elements connect is like seeing a print appear in the developer tray: unifying the image in the mind’s eye resembles the photographic process itself. Yet the subtleties unique to photographic prints set what we see apart from the world of objects. It’s as if we were being allowed a glimpse of the ideal forms visible as shadows in Plato’s cave.

Many of the landscapes here make significant use of darkness: caves and shadows in which nothing is visible. This could signal Weston’s contemplation of his own death–Parkinson’s disease forced him to stop photographing in 1948. But in many pictures this darkness could also be taken as a more general void–as Weston’s openness to incompleteness and human limits in compositions that seem otherwise marvelously self-sufficient. His distanced portraits of Charis could also be signs of his respect for the unknowability of an other.

Weston’s last work, Point Lobos, 1948, may seem undistinguished at first. The contrasting textures are vivid in this arrangement of rocks on coarse sand, but the composition is not. Travis describes this work as a depiction of “forces spent,” and there is a kind of memento mori contemplation to its austere beauty. As Travis also points out, Weston’s late compositions were less obviously controlled–and here we have the most passive, accepting composition of all. The rocks are there because they’re there. The image has an almost Zen purity, revealing that the hidden order Weston sought his whole life is sometimes manifested in no apparent order at all.