1915-1922 | Career Beginnings
Edward Weston’s career and personal life took many twists and turns. His early career bore all of the hallmarks of success, both financially and professionally. Weston’s burgeoning portrait business was warmly described in an article written for The American Magazine in 1915, four short years after he had established his studio. The writer, J.C. Thomas, described a bucolic setting for Weston, who was able to enjoy the fruits of success in business while surrounded by a simple country existence:
Out in the town of Tropico, a beautiful suburb of Los Angeles, stands a shack studio of rough boarding that is so full of art that its range of influence reaches to the ends of the earth. In that studio, which cost perhaps six hundred dollars to build, dreams and works Edward H. Weston, “photographer” as the simple mission-style, brown stained sign hanging in front of the door announces.
Thomas emphasized the escape to the country as a contributing factor in Weston’s success. He described the setting as a counterpoint to the awards that had begun to be heaped on Weston. Among his honors were those of the London Salon of Photography, where five of his six works submitted “were deemed worthy by the judges of hanging beside those of the most noted photographic artists in the world.” The honorary secretary of the 1915 Salon, Bertram Park, deemed that the “best group of photographs by the same artist at the Salon was that by ‘Edward H. Weston, of California.'” Weston was also awarded first prize at the show at the Northwestern Photographers’ Associations in St. Paul, Minnesota, as well as three top prizes at the Toronto Photographic Salon. Thomas went on to say:
Weston was shut up in the city for several years in a huge studio, where he did nothing but print plates all day long, a cog in a machine. It was not until he tore himself free from the city and built his shack in the country that he began to develop his individuality and widen his artistic horizons to the ends of the earth.
Weston took a serious, businesslike approach to his photography. He read voraciously at the beginning of his career, including the leading journals of his day – Photo Era, American Photography, British Journal of Photography – wrote articles, exhibited, and lectured. The 1910’s were his formative years as a professional, and his yeoman-like attitude helped to propel him into a position of stature in the field. The young professional took broad aim at success in his chosen occupation and achieved it handily and with aplomb, despite being located in a dusty, distant, youthful Los Angeles suburb.
Weston’s writings and lecturing engagements during the first decade of his career were numerous. He authored articles for many of the same journals he read, especially American Photography and Photo-Miniature.
At the same time, Weston maintained a successful portraiture business in his modest studio built on the same one-acre lot as his equally modest house. Despite its relative remoteness from the city and its country-like setting, Weston fared well. (Ironically, today the original Weston homestead is a rental truck parking lot located on a busy four-lane thoroughfare in the midst of a sprawling and very urban Glendale). There are no signs of the previously bucolic existence except for the distant mountain peaks, which maintain their natural splendor, just as his sister, Mary, described them nearly a century ago.
The Weston home also bustled with the banter and cries of his four sons. His life with Flora and the boys was probably little different from that of countless others in similar circumstances. But somewhere along the way, Weston became distracted. His fidelity waned, and his attachment to middle-class domestic life evaporated. But there is little evidence that he ever experienced a diminished interest in his boys, his sister, or his ever-strong circle of friends. Weston’s affairs, both professional and extramarital, with Margrethe Mather, Tina Modotti, and others are well documented. Suffice it to say that by 1920, Edward Weston had matured and changed.
The priorities of his life had evolved into a triumvirate, which included his sons, his photography, and his friends and lovers. The odd person out in this equation was clearly his wife. Shortly before his death, Cole Weston, the youngest son, again lamented the poor treatment his mother received. “She was a lonely woman. Lived a lonely life,” he said. Cole wholeheartedly believed that her importance in the evolution of Edward Weston as a great and successful artist has been severely underestimated and even more severely misunderstood. This thesis presents an interesting and daunting challenge to be attempted in the future. For the remainder of their lives, Edward and Flora maintained an uneasy exchange. Cole reflected, “They just couldn’t live with each other. As the story goes, he said he knew he ‘should have never married her.'” Recalling his childhood (Cole was we should remember, the youngest son and only four years old when his father departed in 1923 for his first trip to Mexico), Cole reflected, “I don’t recall as a child my father ever sitting down with the family for dinner. My mother and father were at odds with each other.” Yet, Flora would often provide him with money. In fact, she did so for many years after their initial separation when he moved to Mexico. Despite her continuing support, Weston railed against the domineering and caustic effect she had on his life and on his relationships with his sons.
‘TO CONQUER THE EAST . . .’
A turning point in his life was reached in 1922. Among the several epic events, the first was an exhibition at the Academia de Bellas Artes in Mexico City. His protégé and lover, the beautiful actress and aspiring photographer Tina Modotti, and Modotti’s husband, Roubaix De l’Abrie Richey, who ironically was a good friend of Edward, had arranged the exhibit. This link to Mexico would prove important the following year.
The second important event that year was a visit to his sister, Mary, who had moved with her family to Middletown, Ohio. John Seaman’s career had necessitated a break with their adopted Southern California home and her close proximity with her brother. It also took them to New York City, another fortuitous event, as we shall later see, before they returned to Glendale in 1935. Weston later recorded his recollections about the trip for his Daybooks:
I had gone to visit sister May and John and family in Middletown, Ohio, prior to sailing for Mexico – a farewell visit for which John sent money. Well John and May got their heads together, decided to help me on to New York since I was already almost there and might not have such a chance again.
The Middletown visit was something to remember with auto drives through the hills and dales of Miami Valley, all resplendent in autumn colors, and over the river into Kentucky, to Dayton and Cincinnati too. But most of all in importance was my photographing of “Armco,” the great plant and giant stacks of the American Rolling Mill Co. That day I made great photographs, even (photographer Alfred) Stieglitz thought they were important! The reunion with Sis and family was all the more than I had hoped for. John’s interest in my work was outstanding and deeply appreciated by me. It was his desire to help me on to New York.
Venturing on to New York City, Weston was “out for blood – to conquer the East.” He set high hopes for his visit, making contacts with galleries and collectors, meeting other photographers, taking in museums, and making photographs. One of his prime missions was to meet the venerable photographer, publisher, and gallery owner Alfred Stieglitz. Prior to his New York visit, Weston considered the city the center of the art world and that of photography. Stieglitz was a virtual demigod. His summary of that day is quite telling:
I took my work to show Stieglitz. He laid it open to attack, and then discarded print after print, prints I loved. Yet I am happy, for I gained in strength, in fact strengthening my own opinion. I was ripe to change, was changing, yes changed, when I went to New York, had been showered with praise with meant very little to me, for all the time I knew I was showing my past.
Of Stieglitz, Weston also commented that he “has not changed my direction, only intensified it, stimulated me – and I am grateful.” Only two years later, Weston dreamed that Stieglitz was dead. “‘No,’ said the person, referring to a newspaper, ‘not dead but dying,'” he recalled of the dream, which he interpreted as a forecast of a “radical change in my photographic viewpoint, a gradual‘dying’ of my present attitude, for Stieglitz had most assuredly been a symbol for an ideal in photography towards which I have worked in recent years.” Weston had found his new vision, beginning with his photographs at Armco in Middletown. He felt free to return to his beloved California without the lure of New York tugging for his return.
Weston also met photographers Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand, both of whose work he was familiar with from Camera Work and other sources. He was impressed with Sheeler’s photographs of New York but later recollected that he was not as impressed with Strand, finding “too much of Stieglitz in [his work] at that time.”