It’s the delicate veil of hair on her leg that draws comments now, but when Edward Weston took the pristine nude of his lover, Charis Wilson, in 1936, it was the pubic hair that was troublesome. Wilson, now 75, has written that she remembers Weston poring over the print with a magnifying glass, trying to determine whether he could send it through the U.S. mail.
The picture was taken on the hot, bright sun deck of the small house in Santa Monica where the couple and three of Weston’s sons were living during the depression. Wilson had dropped onto a blanket near the open doorway of an adjacent bedroom to pose, but she couldn’t hold the position. The sun was too intense. When she bowed her head to escape the glare, Weston caught her folded in on herself, luminous and convoluted like so many of the objects that obsessed him.
They had met in Carmel two years earlier. Wilson was a nubile 19-year-old, the daughter of Harry Leon Wilson, a popular novelist of the time, and Weston was 28 years her senior, but it was high romance right from the start. Their eyes locked across the proverbial crowded room; a charged introduction followed. Even in Weston’s life of “supreme instants,” this one stood out. They agreed that she would come to his studio to look at prints.
When Wilson arrived on the appointed day, however, she found that Weston had been called out of town. She was greeted instead by his incumbent (and unsuspecting) mistress, who obligingly brought out a series of photographs that set Wilson’s head spinning. They were a revelation: mundane subjects–trees, rocks, vegetables, shells–had been transformed by Weston’s astoundingly detailed close-ups into powerful, mysterious entities.
There were nudes too, more realistic and moving than any Wilson had seen before. When Weston returned, she came back to his studio to model for him, and at the second session she became his lover. Here’s Weston’s account of it, from his journal:
“The first nudes of C. were easily amongst the finest I had done, perhaps the finest. I was definitely interested now, and knew that she knew I was. I felt a response. But I am slow, even when I feel sure, especially if I am deeply moved. I did not wait long before second series which was made on April 22, a day to always remember. I knew now what was coming; eyes don’t lie and she wore no mask. Even so I opened a bottle of wine to help build up my ego. You see I really wanted C. hence my hesitation.
“And I worked with hesitation; photography had a bad second place. I made some eighteen negatives, delaying always delaying, until at last she lay there below me waiting, holding my eyes with hers. And I was lost and have been ever since. . . . Perhaps C. will be remembered as the great love of my life.”
For the next ten years they lived a bohemian life together, sharing sparse quarters in Santa Monica and later back in Carmel with one or more of Weston’s four sons from his first marriage. Wilson served as his lover, wife (they married in 1939), administrative and photographic assistant, model, and traveling companion.
During their stay in Santa Monica, she also became his ghostwriter–an interesting development, because Weston is known as a photographer who also wrote. She began by helping him expand a four-line Guggenheim Fellowship application into a four-page document that got him the grant. “After that,” she says, “I wrote everything [that was published] under his name. All of his statements, all of his photographic articles [including major essays in which Weston describes his photographic theory and practice] . . . and a lot of letters.”
She also wrote his portion of California and the West, a book they did together combining photographs and text, which chronicled their two years of Guggenheim-sponsored work and travel.
Weston wanted to teach Wilson to be a photographer, as he had taught other women who had preceded her in his life. She resisted, in part because she felt that “by sticking to writing, I might very well be able to do more for him than I ever would by getting into photography.” By 1945, however, she was disillusioned. He had shown her a new way to look at the world, but the apprenticeship was over; life with Weston, and photography itself, seemed oppressive. “I felt that I had failed at what I was doing with him, and that I had to break it off,” she says. “I wanted to go ahead and do everything else in the world but photography. I’d just had enough.” They were divorced that year.
Wilson was married again in 1946, to a labor organizer. She bore and raised two daughters and settled into a conventional life in Eureka, California; it was a life as removed as could be from her not-so-distant bohemian past. Once, she says, when a film came out about Weston, which she knew contained nude pictures of herself, she had to hold her breath–hoping it wouldn’t come to the attention of her new friends and neighbors. To her relief, though the film “played all around in the provinces,” it never came to Eureka.
Weston died in 1958, after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease. In 1967, Wilsons second marriage ended in divorce and her oldest daughter was murdered during a visit to Europe. She stayed in California and supported herself off and on with an array of odd jobs (crab picker, fish filleter, teacher’s aide) and now gets by on social security. She has written about Weston, including a graceful introduction to a book of his nudes, and has been at work for a dozen years on a full memoir of her time with him. She hopes it will finally be done this year, and says she’ll be “bloody glad” to have it over. She doesn’t want to have to think about it anymore.
Weston’s photograph of Charis Wilson in her salad days on a Santa Monica sun deck is currently on display with other work by three generations of Weston photographers (Edward, son Cole, and grandson Kim) at the Suburban Fine Arts Center, 777 Central in Highland Park (Edward Weston’s birthplace). The center is open 10 to 4 Friday and Monday through Wednesday; noon to 4 Saturday and Sunday; and 10 to 8 Thursday; the exhibit runs through April 5. Admission is $2, and a poster of the photograph of Wilson is available for a donation of $10. For more information call 831-3810.