1886-1909 | Early Life and family
To understand Weston, one needs to understand the man behind the camera – not the artist or the creator, but the person. The greatest influences on Weston as a man were, undoubtedly, his family. For Weston, his family was the source of his formative influences; the motivation to transform himself from a Midwestern youth destined for business into a California artist; and the inspiration that made his life complete and thus fostered his ability to create great works.
Weston’s beginnings provide us with a glimpse of those very inspirations. In his earliest years, his grandfather and father were his important influences. His Grandfather, Edward Payson Weston, was a literary doctor. The principal of a private school for boys in Framingham, Maine, the eldest Weston moved his family to Lake Forest, Illinois, a Chicago suburb just west of Oak Park, to open a school there. He brought with him a cultured and well-educated lineage that could be traced back to John Alden and Priscilla Mullins in the early Massachusetts Bay Colony. Their forebears arrived in the still wild American province from Kent, England, only ten years after the Mayflower docked in Plymouth. Grandfather Weston was keenly interested in the literature of Edgar Allen Poe, Washington Irving, and others and no doubt provided the seed of inspiration that sparked Edward Weston’s lifelong passion for reading and literature.
The photographer’s father, Edward Burbank Weston, was a stalwart and well-respected medical doctor with a practice in Highland Park, Illinois, a northern suburb of Chicago. Soon after Edward Henry Weston was born in 1886, the family moved to an affluent neighborhood lined with elegant Victorian townhouses not far from the University of Chicago. It was here that the young Weston grew up. His childhood was marred with the death of his mother when he was only five years old, which brought him closer to his sister, Mary, nine years his senior. It would be his sister’s influences that helped to change his life as a young man.
Edward Burbank Weston, Edward Weston’s father
In his Daybooks Weston recorded the words of Diego Rivera that “Each artist carries the seed of another.” Weston acknowledged, “The efforts of many come to the sharpest focus in one man. I have always felt that the great importance of my closest friends as influence: names unsung to a wider public. And further back in time, parents,-father, sister, uncle, aunts, – and so on, an endless chain, each link of importance to an impressionable child, and man.” Ever one of a rebellious nature against the established norms of society, Weston concluded this thought by writing, “But, – I cannot recall, give credit to a single school teacher!”
Dr. Weston, his father, was an avid sportsman and a skilled archer with a keen interest in his children. It is he who should be credited with first instilling a passion for photography in his son. In 1902, when the younger Weston was barely sixteen years old, his father gave him a Kodak box camera, a No. 2 Bulls-Eye model – apropos for a father and son devoted to the sport of archery. Young Edward was visiting on a farm in Michigan that summer when his father wrote him:
Dear Ted, August 18, 1902
I will send the Kodak. I have no book of instructions, but will get one if I can. But I think you can work it. Don’t try to take any inside views, which require a time exposure. Take onlysnaps . . . You’ll not have to change anything about the Kodak. Always have the sun behind or to the side – never so it shines into the instrument – Don’t be too far from the object you wish to take, or it will be very small. See what you are going to take in the mirror. You can only take 12 pictures, so don’t waste any on things of no interest. You’ll find enough for the 12. After you are ready, and see your pictures in the Kodak, all you have to do is press, or move, the lever sideways. Press it steadily until you hear a click. Then you have your picture, and the instrument is set for the next . . . After you have made an exposure, you must turn a new film into place. Before you use the Kodak you will see a figure in a hole in the rear, No. 1. After you have taken a picture turn the thumbscrew until No. 2 shows. Then you are ready for another picture. Don’t forget to turn the film, for then you will have two pictures on the same film – and both spoiled. I hope I have made it plain. I’ll get you an album to keep pictures in . . . Love to all. Your affectionate Father.
The fine doctor provided good fatherly advice that would be a source of influence for an entire career. Rarely did Weston work on interiors; his work is often very close in. His reverence for sunlight and its impact on a finished photograph can hardly be overstated, and rarely, if ever, did Weston waste an exposure on “things of no interest.”
In response to his father’s careful instructions, Edward wrote back two days later with great glee, “Dear Papa, Received the camera in good shape. It’s dandy . . . Took a snap at the chickens, I think it’s a good one . . . Tomorrow I intend to take the house when the sun is right. I can see a fine picture in the mirror from the ridge-looking down . . . Your loving son – Ed.” Reminiscing years later, Edward said, “I remember the day my father gave me my first camera – one of Mr. Eastman’s new Kodak’s . . . My life was changed from that day on – I was in love with photography.”
Back in Chicago, the youthful photographer preferred to “play hooky” from school and record images of snow-covered Chicago. He soon after purchased a “stand camera” with money he saved “penny by penny, walking ten miles to save ten cents, denying sweets, selling rags and bottles.” When he developed the first print with this newer, professional model, he let out an “ecstatic cry . . . It’s a peach!” and ran, “trembling with excitement, to my father’s library to show this snow-scene made in Washington Park, – a tree, a winding stream, snow covered banks.” The photograph was not without a price, however, Weston recalled: “I slipped into the stream and rode home on the Cottage Grove cable car with my trouser legs frozen stiff as a board.”
His sister, Mary, would later remind him, “Don’t forget the cultivated taste of our father and his father and so on back, serving as a stepping stone . . .” She reminded Edward that their father “just loved things for themselves and the joy of doing them.” These must have been sweet and motivating word to Edward who thought so highly of his father, a resolute and commanding personality.
‘ . . . THROW YOUR LAUNDRY IN WITH OURS . . .’
When Mrs. Weston died, Mary assumed many of the motherly responsibilities for her younger brother. Although his father remarries, the young Edward never accepted his fathers’ new wife as a surrogate stepmother. Her existence is not mentioned in Weston’s mountain of correspondence or his thousands of journal entries. Of his mother, Alice Jeanette Brett Weston, he could only remember “a pair of . . . burning eyes – perhaps burning with fever” and her dying wish that he become a businessman rather than a doctor of letters or medicine. In a letter saved for the family scrapbook, we read their father’s words on Mary:
Mary was then 13 years old, and Ed (Ted) was 4. From that time she was for years, more a mother than a sister. A mother could not have cared for a child more faithfully or successfully, than she did; and they grew up with a double love – that of a mother and son, and a sister and brother.
Edward treasured his sister for the remainder of their respective lives. “She was my mother as well as sister – a wonderful woman,” he would later recollect. Beyond the bond of brother and sister, mother and son, Edward and Mary also shared the same internal drive and vision. Charis Wilson wrote, “Edward felt in her the same energy of spirit and appetite for life that kept him always pushing past boundaries of the already known and tried.”
Playing the part of the older sister, she recalled an event from childhood “when a hand reader came to see Grandma Palmer and she took your hand and read it and she said ‘you poor little boy. I see lots of trouble in your life. Your hand crisscrossed with so many fine lines.” Later, Mary clearly relished knowing that the fortuneteller had been wrong.
Edward long lamented that Mary had been “cheated out of a life of her own. She had been born first and of the ‘wrong’ sex, so – as she herself would say in later years – she had to be a bow for her father” until Edward came along; and then, when their mother died, “she took over the job of being a mother for him.” When she married, she went straight from mothering him to mothering her own children.” Edward “saw her as having been denied the chance to grow in her own right and, as a consequence, having dedicated her efforts towards forwarding his career.” Their adult relationship was one of a society of mutual admiration and extremely close ties despite the limiting factor of geography, mobility, and differing lifestyles.
In 1897, when Edward was 11, Mary married John Hancock Seaman in Chicago. Only a few years later, the Seamans, moved to the Los Angeles suburb of Tropico. In those first days of the twentieth century, Tropico, since renamed Glendale, was a vast, unpopulated valley dotted with orange groves and bungalows. The Seamans settled into the new Southern California lifestyle without harsh winters and blessed with abundant sunshine. Mary remarked later in a letter on the primitive conditions, lamenting, “The floor is dusty, oh, my – just like Michigan – no sidewalks.”
Back in Chicago Edward obtained employment at the Marshall Field’s department store with his Uncle Theodore Brett, his mother’s brother. It was a job he quickly came to despise. His sister later reminisced, “You were determined to come out here and not go into the wholesale dry goods business. He (Uncle Theodore) never forgave me for turning a dry goods salesman into a photographer.” Years later, according to oft-repeated Weston family lore, when Uncle Theodore had come to live with Mary in their very modest Glendale bungalow, he admonished Edward for having strayed from a career in business. His uncle lamented. “Eddy, you should have stuck with me at Marshall Field. You’d be wearing diamonds now!”
Both Uncle Theodore and Aunt Emma maintained close ties with their nephew. When Aunt Emma died in early 1928, Weston recorded his regret that “With her passing, goes one of the important figures in my life. She has mothered me since my own mother died, when I was five years old. Even in recent years a letter almost always held a check or a dollar bill, admonishing me to buy a good steak, that I did not eat enough!”
In 1905, Mary began a letter-writing campaign to Edward with the very clear intention of enticing him to move to Southern California. He was nearing twenty years of age and clearly not happy with the confining restraints of his early career in business. Mary wrote to Edward, half trying to convince herself of her happiness in her new home and half aimed at implanting guilt and enticing him to the sunshine and warm breezes of the Pacific coast: “I know I shall love it here when I get settled. I shall never be satisfied until I get you out here – I can never live long without you – my first baby -” She followed this note with a rejoinder announcing, “Spring is here and you must be thinking about your vacation in California. Never mind what you wear, grease your pants and slide here if you have to.”
Edward planned to visit his sister, and she waited with great anticipation. Continuing her letter-writing lobbying effort, she elevated the pending vacation to the hope of something more permanent when she wrote, “I can’t think of anything but your coming . . . I’ll have a little screen room built for you so you can have your pet scheme of sleeping out doors all the year round – I mean for a week – ”
The visit was delayed, causing Mary to express her anguish to Edward: “Homesick it is! I have cried my eyes out more than once for the sight of your little smiling face. I feel better now tho. It seems some way as tho I were going to see you soon.” Providing her best motherly counsel, she advised, “There comes a time in everyone’s life, little boy, when he had to decide for himself . . . When it comes to a question of deciding upon ones life course I don’t know how much one person owes another. This is the place for you without an atom of a doubt. Every year you spend back east is so much lost to you. This is the country you have been longing for. There is not a foul person in this country – everyone succeeds.”
She even enticed him further, stating they didn’t have a laundry bill but a laundry machine! “Come out and throw your laundry in with ours.” Mary painted a picture of bounty with peaches so big that she “ordered ten pounds at the grocery store and got five peaches.” Likewise she boasted of “cream so thick we have to thin it out before it will pour.” When she described the California landscape where “mountains make the grandest dark outline against the sky,” she exclaimed, “Oh these mountains! You would be wild over them. I’m getting the fever.” These dramatic descriptions of the land almost presage the dramatic images Weston captured years later during trips across the West during his Guggenheim Fellowship. In a motherly fashion, Mary admonished him to “eat right. Be more regular or you’ll regret it all your life.” Mary clearly made an impression on her younger brother, for he would long follow a very healthy vegetarian diet in which he took great pride and satisfaction.
Her campaign continued through the fall of 1905, helping to allay some of his fears that time had passed and it would be too late or futile to come to California. In her most dramatic pronouncement, she claimed, “No matter how old you are when you get out here you will think you are just beginning to live.”
During her time in Los Angeles, Mary had already made friends with several people, including the young and attractive Flora Chandler. The daughter of a wealthy land-holding family who would later own the Los Angeles Times, Flora unknowingly became another card that Mary dealt in the ever-growing case for a permanent western sojourn for Edward. At first she advised Edward, “Don’t bring any girl to California with you. Wait a while and then after you are settled, if there is anyone you want, you can go back and get her. This is hard country on women – I’m afraid you are a little impulsive. Hold your horses and wait till the right girl comes along.” By the spring, Mary had introduced her “great friend” Flora Chandler into a letter later describing her as “one of the finest girls I ever say and now, don’t faint, I am going to play the accompaniment to three songs for her concert in May. Haven’t I cheek?” To up the ante even further, she exclaimed, “They have a gramophone and 250 records. Some of them cost $5.00 a piece.”
Shortly thereafter, Edward Weston packed his bags and took the train to Southern California. His arrival on May 29, 1906, provided great gladness to his sister’s heart and introduced the young man to a way of life and environment that would soon change his life forever. His first impression of California and the West was immensely positive. “It was just the land of sunshine and promise and everything was doing well.” His new setting was an inspiration and an ever-beckoning source of warmth and comfort. In later years, when he traveled elsewhere, he longed for his adopted state. When in Mexico, he recorded, “The roses are blossoming now in California.” When traveling east on his Leaves of Grass project, which took him from the state for the better part of seven months, he wrote Mary from Texas, “getting further east and south, and increasingly hotter. Calif. remains quite good enough for me.” On his return trip the following January, he celebrated in a card to her, “I almost wept to be in the real west again; we saw and felt it when we crossed into N. Mexico.”
Before he arrived in California, Weston’s interest in photography received a boost when his work Spring, Chicago was published in 1906 in Camera and Dark Room. The photo was heralded for a composition that was “highly satisfactory and the treatment shows that the maker is possessed of considerable artistic taste as well as technical ability. The print . . . is very pleasing to the eye . . . We hope to see more of Mr. Weston’s work.” In support of his success, Mary offered her heartfelt congratulations: “Dearest Ed, Hurrah for photography. Isn’t that criticism a dandy!”
Whether Weston really intended this to be a vacation or a permanent move, the decision for all intents and purposes had been made for him before his arrival. Mary introduced him to Flora Chandler, seven years his senior, and before long, he began to settle into the comforts of Southern California living.
Although his jobs provided him employment, they produced little satisfaction and even less time for his love of photography. Probably with the encouragement of his sister, Weston invested in a postcard camera and began a house-to-house effort as a more or less itinerant photographer offering his services for family portraits, funerals, and other more mobile sittings.
Weston later recorded his recollection of those first days:
About this time I went West on a two weeks’ vacation and decided to remain in California. Jobs were infrequent, money needed, so I turned to my camera and canvassed house to house in the little village of Tropico, making postcards for a dollar a dozen – family groups on the porch, children, pets. I was still in my teens and had not yet decided on a career. In Chicago I had worked in a wholesale dry-goods house, in California I had punched stakes with a surveying crew. I can’t recall now whether the idea was a sudden one or had built up gradually, but I decided that I would be a portrait photographer.
It did not take long for him to realize that he lacked the requisite skills to excel in his newfound profession. Returning to Chicago in 1908, Weston enrolled in the Illinois College of Photography to hone his expertise. After six months, he returned to Los Angeles and found work as a spotter and darkroom assistant in the studios of George Steckel and Louis Mojonier, whose photography business depended upon a steady volume of sitters. Weston recorded the ins and outs of the professional portrait business and determined that he too would pursue his entrepreneurial calling and venture out on his own.
During the 1910’s, Weston would pursue the American dream – an independent entrepreneur in the burgeoning virgin city of greater Los Angeles, a husband, a father, a member of the landed gentry, and an artists, replete with cape, ascot, pipe, and all the other affectations. He lived a life drawn straight from a Hollywood script.
In 1909, while working for Steckel and Mojonier, Edward and Flora married. A year later, in 1910, his first son, Chandler, was born. Chan’s birth was followed in 1911 by Brett, then Neil in 1914, and finally his youngest, Cole, in 1919. By the time of Brett’s arrival, Weston had gathered the financial and psychological momentum to invest in a small shed that he built as his very modest studio, waiting room, and dark room. The studio in the dusty one-acre yard of his modest Glendale house in 1911 was “a little shack surrounded by flowers.” In relatively short order, he had a steady stream of clients who descended upon his modest accommodations for his highly acclaimed portrait work. Weston believed, “There is at least a comfortable living for the right man, and best of all the feeling that one’s work is a ‘labor of love’ and not a pot-hunter’s sordid drudgery. From this humble beginning, in a board-and-batten shed with only the sparsest of amenities, began the career of Edward Weston.