The Man Not the Myth
If Weston is guilty of creating a false impression of himself as a lover, he is equally guilty of creating and perpetuating the myth that he was a loner. In that same passage from April 1927 about three lady loves, Weston goes on to state, “But I don’t want that: quite the contrary, I crave simplicity.” This is not to say that he desired to be alone, but to avoid the complications that a hectic life of love would have on his work. Later that summer, he recorded as an opening passage one July morning, “I am alone: the family away at Topanga Canyon. Blessed by aloneness!”
Weston’s writings help to perpetuate his image as a loner. A few passages from his Daybooks help to illustrate this point. In 1933, Weston had enjoyed a visit from his son, daughter-in-law, and grandson at Wildcat Hill in Carmel. His grandson Teddie had just enjoyed a brief sojourn alone with his grandfather while his son Chan secured a job in San Francisco. Weston had recorded, “I have full responsibility for Teddie. How completely can the demands of a child of his age command one’s time!” Upon saying their farewells, he observed, “The house will be quiet, I will be able to work better; but I shall miss him very much. They drove away in a drift of fog. Well, all the better for a day of darkroom work.” The first conclusion could easily be Weston was relieved by Teddie’s departure, for it allowed him darkroom time. But maybe it is the fog that makes the darkroom time possible – for there could be no taking of photographs. As the year came to a close only a few months later, Weston lamented, “I miss Teddie, when I have time to think of him; the same could be said of Cole, in fact all who are close to me. I have a faculty of going for days or weeks without thinking of my dearest friends and relatives; then suddenly I become conscious of them.”
Weston developed coping mechanisms that allowed him to focus on his work without being unduly hampered by separation from his friends and family and its resulting loneliness. It is a defense mechanism people often employ, especially in today’s transient mobile world, where friends and family are often separated by distances of space, time, and effort. Nonetheless, Weston placed value on both his closeness to people and the ability to be alone. Who doesn’t?
I had the rare opportunity yesterday – to work alone – everyone away – – but an equally rare phenomenon found me unable to take advantage of my opportunity: I found nothing new enough to excite me. The kitchen yielded nothing as fine as my egg cutter or the eggbeater. I considered the grocery store: a halved red cabbage, yes, but out of season – peppers, squash, eggplant, eggs, – the latter, and the eggplant too, I am not through with, but as yet it has not come to me how to use them again. So I played a Caesar Franck Symphony, a Bach Concerto, – read, sunned myself, dreamed. A rare day after all.”
“I like to be alone; it had connotations of adventure!” he once recollected. To him, being alone was not about being lonely or antisocial and had no connections to negative social leanings. His family, friends, and loves perpetually surrounded him. Unlike most lovers, Weston established and maintained close relationships, some of which were with lovers, some of which were not. Many of his loves became lifelong friendships that outlasted the brief and heady romantic stage of their relationship. In many respects, Weston had matured greatly, and he drew comfort from the circle of family and friends that surrounded him. In his journal he recorded, “Though my friends mean very much to me, I have grown away from any need of their presence, – indeed to be alone is a condition I welcome, greatly desire. To know that my friends love me and I them, to see them at rare intervals, is enough. More and more I am absorbed in my life’s work.”
Cole adamantly dismissed the notion of his father being withdrawn. “All these myths, a reclusive in an ivory tower. Hah!” he remarked. “He was anything but! Sharing his philosophy with people, looking at the work of other photographers and saying, ‘I wish I had done that!’ He was humble about his ability and his art.” Cole countered the popular belief with his simple explanation: “Dad was a quiet person.”
Weston thought of himself as a carefree and happy individual. Despite the harshness and deprivations of the war, Weston maintained a healthy sense of humor. To his sister, he continued the stream of nearly daily correspondence – both postcards and letters – that was once his lifeline with his beloved Mary and at the same time a way to make life merrier in a time of great seriousness. The Weston’s were subjected to rationing, blackouts, and the ever-persistent threat that at any moment an enemy attack would be landed on his beloved California coast. Both he and Charis volunteered as “spotters,” vigilant on the lookout for enemy aircraft and submarines. The war trauma even extended to a virtual ban from Point Lobos, his haven and inspiration for photography. The military considered the point a strategic area and banned casual and recreational use. Yet his spirits remained high.
Among the many whimsical postcards he sent Mary is a picture of the Norris Dam in Tennessee, a card he likely acquired during the Leaves of Grass journey, which he inscribed, “Our new swim pool. I dug it! Yrs Forever. E – .” Another card depicting a statue of a massive Native American carried this quip, “Just had this statue installed on out front lawn. Looks pretty nice. Will scare away all Japs.” He sent another picture postcard depicting a Middle Eastern tribal group with the message, “Our next door neighbors. They are going to vote for Dewy for President and H. Fish for V. Pres.” A committed FDR Democrat, Weston liked to blend humor with his strident political views, especially with his immediate family and friends. Weston was anything but apolitical or apathetic.
During his heydays of the 1920s and 1930s, Weston enjoyed the party life. Once, when gathered with friends in San Francisco, Weston joined fellow photographer Annie Brigman in a costumed pantomime on the history of photography. Weston posed as the “Father of Photography,” while Brigman played the role of “Mother.” Close friends Johan Hagemeyer, photographer Imogen Cunningham, husband Roi Partridge, his friend Roger Sturtevant each played roles as well. On many other occasions, Weston was the life of the party, especially if the affair involved dancing. His friend Semma Weatherwax recalled many an evening when Weston would perform exotic dance routines with a host of female partners. Among her favorites were the times that Weston dressed as a woman. To do so, he stripped down to his shorts and wore only the barest of clothing. They were lighthearted affairs indeed. Looking back at her years with Edward, Charis Wilson reflected in her autobiography, “You couldn’t live with Edward in those days and fail to enjoy life.” Reflecting further, she remarked, “He could just do what he thought was important and have a great time doing it. For him, having a great time was always a part of it. He was not sober and serious.”
Weston’s priorities were straightforward and simple: his family, his work, and his friends. “The most important thing in his life were his sons,” son Cole commented in a 2002 interview. “That was pretty obvious.” He had little room in his life for the pursuit of material possessions. His bohemian-like lifestyle is testimony to that fact. “He died with less than $300,” Cole said. “He never bitched about being poor. He was always poor. The exception was in the Guggenheim grant and occasion sale. He didn’t feel he needed all the things we have today – a car, air conditioning, and a washing machine – all the things we think we need.” Even Weston’s approach to taking photographs was dictated by this philosophy: “In choosing equipment there were two points to be kept in mind: (1) that all money saved on general equipment would mean more film, more travel; and (2) that all time saved by simplifying equipment and daily procedure meant more time photographing.”
Cole reflected, “Simplicity was the most important factor influencing his work. . . .Weston lived and worked with the barest essentials.” Weston adamantly stated, “Dare you to walk alone, and unafraid of criticism or your pocketbook?” He accepted and embraced the counterculture of his day – a bohemian existence peppered with a clear penchant for vegetarianism and a spartan way of life. He found solace in the words of the contemporary German philosopher Keyserling, who wrote, “One can live without superfluous sumptuousness, and that on the whole one lived better in this way. Perfect organization achieves just as much as a state with slaves.” Keyserling also reflected, “Is it literally true, that today things, not persons, are dominant? They cannot really be.”
Life in the Weston household, whether it was in Mexico, or in San Francisco, or finally in his years of spare comfort on Wildcat Hill in Carmel, was always a unique experience. Nancy Newhall first met Edward and Charis in 1940. Nancy and her husband, Beaumont, had become great friends with the Weston’s. Several years earlier, Beaumont, the first curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, included Weston’s work in his massive undertaking surveying the first 98 years of photography. The exhibition surveyed both historical and contemporary artists with a breathtaking range of work that numbered more than 800 photographs. (More impressive is the fact that Beaumont assembled the show in less than a year from photographers and museums across the country). Reporting on her first visit to the Weston homestead, Nancy described the “Weston way”:
The Weston way of life, we learned, involved the minimum time and effort in the kitchen or at the dishpan. Breakfast was coffee; you could help yourself to fruit and honey if you liked. Lunch was eaten in the hand – a hunk of cheese, a few dates, an avocado. Around four o’clock, when light gets bleak in the west, there was a cry for “Coffee!” At nightfall, all hands dropped work and joyously collaborated to make supper a feast. I found this simplicity and freedom exhilarating.
One can just imagine the bustling household on the hill. Its winding path up from California Highway 1 is lined with trees along the northern banks of Wildcat Creek. The household of Weston’s was ever changing. Edward and Charis were constants, while each of the sons and his respective family came and went with surprising regularity along with a cast of countless friends and neighbors. Amidst it all, Weston carried on in great spirits. Reporting to his sister, he wrote, “Mary, Mary, Charis is tooting on recorder. Hawks are screeching, little insects singing, cats purring, ocean crashing, planes roaring by. I have just finished 10 letters, all on photography, or in some way related to it. One acquired duties along with fame (which doesn’t mean much).”
The life Weston successfully pursued, although not financially rewarding, was one that provided him great comfort. In a card to his sister in 1945, Weston rejoiced in his successes, reporting to her, “I’ve found out how to live and work (creatively) without using precious time earning a living.” Weston was committed to his art and shunned the life he termed a “living death,” such that a “lifetime job in an office-building with several thousand others rubbing elbows, is an ugly way of dying without even knowing you are dead.” Despite his successes in photography, Weston lamented, “I have no use for money, either, except when it enables me to study the things I like and make the pictures I wish.” He once even fancied a life tied to the land: “I have a little farm, too, of one acre. Sometimes I think I would like to go out there and make my living from it.” But he quickly added, “But I cannot do two things at once.”
When Weston settled in Carmel, he mused, “Is this sojourn to Carmel and attempt to escape, a refusal? Not at all! I am not a reformer, a missionary, a propagandist, – not in a militant concrete way. I have one clear way to give, to justify myself as part of this while, – through my work. Here I can work, and from here I send out the best of my life, focused onto a few sheets of silvered paper.”
In a 1930 article on photography, he closed with an interesting perspective that sheds light on his philosophy of life: “Personal growth is all that counts. Not am I greater than another, but am I greater than last year or yesterday. Each of us is in a certain stage of development, and it would be a drab world if we all thought alike.” In other writing, he contended, “Life is fluid, ever changing. Understanding is not reached through vicariously-acquired information, but in living and working, fully.”
Weston’s approach to life – his lifestyle itself – is well-expressed in a statement he prepared for an exhibit in New York City in 1932: “In a civilization severed from its roots in the soil, – cluttered with non-essentials, blinded by absorptive desires, the camera can be a way of self-development, a means to rediscover and identify oneself with all manifestation of basic form, – with nature, the source.”
When Cole was considering the possibility of photography as a career upon his release from the military at the end of World War II, Weston eagerly provided him with philosophical and practical advice on the matter that encapsulates his own approach:
My mind is teeming with all the things I would say in response to your new adventure – photography. Naturally it is a tremendous subject to me, has been for 43 years . . . There are two approaches, maybe three, to any art: you can make it a real business first of all, in which case “Art” could, probably would, be killed; or you can live for your art, and maybe grow lean in the living, or try to combine the two approaches . . . I have learned that you can’t make a lot over money, get rich, out of your own hide, no less than the corner grocer; that if you wish to go alone and live an unhurried life, eat well enough, and support wife, mistress or children (or all six at the same time) then you must give the public something they can’t get anywhere else, and you must cut down, keep down overhead . . . Profits are secondary. Cover your expenses, and acquire experience.
To his father’s advice, Cole later reminisced,
We were poor. When Dad died, he only had $300 in the bank and was selling his prints for $25 . . . When Dad was photographing vegetables, after he was finished, we would eat them. He used to tell us, “don’t eat the bananas (or whatever) until I can photograph them.” Brett always said to Neil and me, “You know I ate Pepper #30.” And I would say, “Oh come on, Brett. How do you know you ate it?” He would say, “Well it makes a hell of a story anyway, doesn’t it?” And it does . . . We were rich in the things that really matter – love, life experiences and great stories.
Weston relished in the small joys of life. Although his driving passion for photography often required him to make personal sacrifices of time and energy, he maintained a balance between his work and life’s precious idle time. While finishing is work for the Leaves of Grass illustrations and printing orders he had obtained on the seven-month trip through the states, he paused for a moment to write his sister, “I would rather be out in the sun gardening or wood cutting! Subversive thoughts!” Describing a “typical” day to his sister, he recorded,
Darling – program for a typical day: clean of chores, such as kindling, wood, garbage, read Whitman for lines to illustrate, take sunbath – when there is any – to gather Vitamins X, Y &Z, for dark-room counteraction; mix chemicals, 7 sort, for negatives printing; print until 8 or 9 PM, eat & to bed; repeat same next day.
XXXOOO to Sis and Jean – E & C [Edward and Charis]
Weston relished his time in the sun. He reported to his sister that he couldn’t “take more than five hrs. per day in darkroom. Getting middle-aged. I make up of it with sun baths – when there is sun!” When his time in the darkroom became too much and the sun was absent, he occupied his time with other domestic chores, including making sure “floor oiled, doors planed so they will close!” He also attended to his paperwork. But “When I get too tired of desk work I pull weeds.”
Charis reflected on Weston’s dedication to the task at hand: “Edward had the talent of giving himself wholly to whichever mode he was in – work or play.
Weston was a complex man who balanced thoughts of sentimentality with the practical application of living for today. He could as easily wax poetic about the past as he could recognize the dangers of doing so. During the early years of World War II, he reminisced with Mary about the more idyllic times of his Guggenheim and Leaves of Grass years, times he called “the good old days” that were “carefree, happy, full of vitamins and gin.” The war years presented challenges to Weston. Shortages of gas and other rationing kept the Weston’s close to home for the duration. Although not overly sentimental, Weston yearned for earlier times as the war ended its third year of conflict: “Memories come back of carefree days when we did not carry a watch, had no radio, slept on the ground for two years!” Through it all, his interest in making photographs remained paramount. While preparing for his major retrospect over at the Museum of Modern Art in 1946, he penciled a missive to his sister, lamenting, “I would rather be making new photographs; one’s past is past! Too bad when you become a part of history.” His priorities for fame and recognition had matured into the challenge of producing art for art’s sake. Gone was the mad rush to achieve lasting fame that he previously sought throughout his career. Weston’s aspirations had been realized in their most simple forms. Little could he have imagined the tremendous fame that he would one day realize.
In a letter to son Neil, he philosophized about becoming too sentimental:
I too have thoughts “of the good old Carmel days – of Bach, and boats and boys growing up; it does not seem so long ago, really isn’t. But I often wonder if the “good-old-days” is not one of man’s carefully built up myths, protective fairy tales, self-told, which enable him to face the future hopeful for a return of similar oasis. Despite your slaving, it may be that someday you will look back and remember most clearly “the good-old-days” when you were building the boat. Don’t think that I underestimate what you, all of you boys are going through . . . – and you are but a fragment, symbolic of America’s travail.
But this sounds like a sermon. Blame my great grandfather, who was a preacher, for any tendency to spout, though maybe grandpa did not fall back on well chewed clichés, such as “symbolic of America’s travail” – to which brilliant piece of rhetoric I say B.S.
Weston long held the opinion that “I am one who has been keenly alive to the life of today: never have I mourned for the past of ‘Greek glory’ or any other period.” Weston believed that the “spirit of art is ageless” and that regardless of the subject matter, great art’s “appeal is universal.” As a free spirit, Weston adopted the perspective of others who had preceded him in the world of art. He recorded a quote from Cezzane for his own edification: “Art which is not based in excitement is not art.”
LIFE AND DEATH
Much of Weston’s work has been misinterpreted as dark, even morbid. One art historian labeled his Leaves of Grass work from 1941 as “astonishingly and quite frequently funereal.” Another speculated that the “forbidden nature” of the subject matter may have been too powerful for Weston and Wilson to handle, causing them to accidentally allow a negative to be double-exposed, a rare occurrence for the duo. Minor White, the photographer and art historian shared his perspective and deemed Weston to have an “obsession with death.” On this view, Charis Wilson retorted, “I can only say that Edward would have roared with laughter at this. He always had a healthy acceptance of death as a natural part of life.”
Weston himself argued against the myriad misinterpretations of his work and his life. He defended himself by saying, “As for Death as a theme – it certainly didn’t start with the dead man on the Colorado Desert. Before 1910 I did skulls and dead Joshua trees on the Mojave Desert. But then as now, Death was not a theme – it was just a part of life – as simple as that.” One of these early landscapes, a view of the Mojave Desert in 1913, presages his work from his Guggenheim fellowship years later. Death looms in the form of a steer’s skull and skeleton lying beneath a decaying desert tree. Death was hardly a preoccupation for Edward Weston, only 27 years old, a new father, budding photographer, and energetic businessman.
Weston maintained a healthy understanding of the interconnectedness of life and death. This may be best illustrated with his almost overwhelming fascination with the bullfights of his Mexican years. Weston went to the arena for bullfights often. He recorded his observations and thoughts in many an interesting passage in his Daybooks. In November 1923, he mused about the romance and drama of the event.
A tense, breathless, expectant moment – another door swung open to admit the on rushing bull . . . But in this game of life and death in el Toro, the bull alone is foredoomed; he is to die, there is no hope . . . A sudden impact of horse and lance and bull – a momentary swaying from the shock – the long lance in the bull’s side – the bull’s horns in the horse’s bowels – then . . . the horse streamed pink guts onto the sand and dropped to his death. This was the ugliest and saddest part of the fight, though upon reflection one must admit that the horse dies a glorious and honored death! – less sordid that that which otherwise would have awaited him, pulling his creaking cab at the bite of a lash.
Weston deemed the event to be “spectacular, dramatic and beautiful.” For him the bullfight represented a struggle between life and death – the forces of nature that provided his life and work its most basic source of inspiration. The bullfight was a metaphor for life itself and illustrates not a morbid or prurient fascination with death but a mind that was always inquisitive and fascinated with life.
One of Weston’s most startling, yet sympathetic, photographs from his Guggenheim travels is his portrayal of a dead drifter he and Charis happened upon in the Colorado Desert. In a postcard sent to Neil from El Centro, California, he exclaimed, “Found a dead man in desert, – he had just died. Ghastly connotations, but beautiful.” His almost child-like fascination with death overcame the more sullen and final aspects that death often connotes, even the death of strangers. Later in life, this healthy perspective came in handy as Weston struggled with the impending finality brought on by Parkinson’s disease. Even in the face of death, Weston maintained a wonderful sense of humor. In early 1949, he wrote Mary about his excitement on the arrival of a new experimental drug. He closed the message with a transcription of the drug’s warning label, “Caution: New drug limited by Federal law to investigational use,” and signed his card, “Love – Guinea Pig Edward Weston.”
Weston was keenly aware of death and the world around him. At Point Lobos he found the peace and solace of a world bursting with life. It was a life and warmth he embraced. His photographs from Point Lobos are not dirges from a funerary procession, but the joyous strains of a Bach concerto celebrating life. A telling passage from his daybooks illustrates this well:
At noon hour we walk, to the beach or toward the caller – the latter straight down Monte Verde to Santa Lucia, from village pines into the open country. There we lie in a secluded bower of wild growth, wind protected, hot and watch the fiber empty into the ocean. Often the tide was up, a natural dam until the river spreads over the low lands. Before us is a meadow of yellow mustard, sprinkled with purple, a home for meadowlarks. The background of rounded hills, Point Lobos, foam-washed in the distance, eastward a barn, protected by lone black cypress, sea gulls soaring inland, wisps of swift-sailing fog, or banks of April shower clouds, – all rich in fulfillment, Life. And not so many miles away “bread lines,” hunger, mobs, murder, Death.
Moreover, Weston’s photography changed through the years as his experience grew. His expanding landscapes and increased contrast of the 1940’s are a direct result of his tireless exploration of new subjects. He had exhausted his discoveries with vegetables, shelf, and other natural matter by the early 30’s; his classic images of dunes, deserts, and mountains characterize the mid-decade, and these, too became a part of his past. Charis Wilson described this exploration as key to his character. When working through these series, “each new photograph might seem to him to be the ultimate rendering until it was surpassed by a succeeding version that revealed a new aspect, or provided a more penetrating view. The one day he would realize he had said all he had to say about a particular subject, and he would be impatient to move on to new material.” This was reflected in Weston’s own words. In writing to Nancy Newhall, he commented, “Every time that I change subject matter, or, viewpoint, a howl goes up from some Weston fans. An example: in the E.W. Book is a reproduction of “Shell & Rock – Arrangement’; my closest friend, Ramiel, never forgave me for putting it in the book because it was ‘not Weston’ . . . So I am not actually surprised to have to condemn . . . work that will go down in history.”
This later work, often described as morbid and obsessed with death, did not reflect a preoccupation with his own mortality. “Edward had always seen death and decay – along with birth and growth – as inseparable parts of the life process. Like many artists, he found objects and life-forms to be more interesting visually after they had been transformed and reshaped by the environment.” Wilson contended “He probably would not have looked twice at the main subject of North Coast (Wrecked Car, Crescent Beach) 1939 if it had been a shiny new car instead of a unique model of utter dissolution. Nor would he have been likely to make dozens of photographs in Rhyolite, Nevada, if the buildings had been in prime condition instead of being noble ruins that caused him to dub the place ‘America’s Athens.'”
In his declining years, Weston struggled against the limitations of Parkinson’s disease. His ability to take photographs or work in the darkroom had evaporated. The unsteadiness of his hand made these impossible. “I have not made a photograph since 1948. That hurts,” he would later admit. His writing became more labored and tedious. Life in general was difficult. “I am busy God knows, but accomplish little. Takes too long to do the simplest task. Dressing and brushing teeth become real chores.” Most frustrating was his need to rely on Brett and Cole for assistance with his photography. He lamented to Mary, “I can’t help wondering if I will ever print again! I’m not sentimental about it, just practical.” Resignedly he admitted, “So, there is no such thing as unalloyed peace and security.” At the end of a rainy morning, he dreamily noted to Mary, “I wish I could ‘shuffle’ down to see you, but I fear not. Just the humdrum tasks of dressing and eating take all my energy and patience. Just keep alive – – – I wonder why!!? And now sun shines – Much love, yr Bro.
Weston’s struggles with Parkinson’s were debilitating. He suffered from bouts of depression that caused concern among his friends. In a touching letter from his friend and publisher Merle Armitage in 1946, we read, “You said to me coming back from Henry Miller’s that possibly you need a psychiatrist. I don’t think you do . . . but you certainly need something to break the spell of depression and untruth which now have fastened itself unnaturally upon you . . . You are a great person, and you are one of the true and noble people who walk the earth.” Despite his struggle, he took his disability and impending demise in stride. While writing to his niece Jean, he humorously marked the place where he stopped writing the card when he was “dumped” on the floor – a result of his instability from his disease. “Nothing serious happened but I went down with a loud ‘clunk.’ I am getting so used to falling that I think nothing of it. Love to you, Uncle Ed.”
Even when the effects of Parkinson’s disease had limited his mobility and put a halt to his work, other than supervising his sons in the darkroom, Weston maintained his wry sense of humor. He also kept his promise to his sister, who remained in her house on East California Street in Glendale, suffering the ravages of a severe stroke that had left her paralyzed, by continuing to write her constantly. Despite the ever-increasing difficulty to steady his hand and write legibly, Weston did his best to communicate with his invalid sister, realizing they were both bound and limited by their respective illnesses. Even when Weston had little to report, he managed to express his sense of humor to Mary. Writing her in the summer of 1951, Weston lamented that there was “No news – not even the weather is news.” He further humored his sister by playfully insisting that he could “make news by biting a cat; only I could never bring myself to bite a cat. I could easily bite a dog! Especially my neighbor’s Doberman pincer.” Weston’s playful attitude was evident even in the face of adversity. To Mary he recounted, almost gleefully, an encounter that most people would reflect on with apoplexy: “An unusual noise awakened me last night; I turned on the light and saw an animal back off the sofa which I thought was a coon, threw a shoe (they are sweet animals but fight our cats) and then saw a white plumed tail. It was a skunk. We got liberally sprayed.” Life on Wildcat Hill had reached a new level of meaning that night, one that Weston was sure to remember for years to come.
When searching for more information about his childhood, Edward wrote Mary, “I should like to have some data from you, but not too much on diaper days. Yes, I remember the big pins, your drawings, and the book of engravings.” With Mary suffering from the effects of the stroke at the same time Edward’s Parkinson’s disease progressed, it is interesting to note the search for one’s beginnings and the reminiscences of youth. Quite possibly, in the growing face of mortality, Edward was looking to his youth for closure on his life. Equally possible was a certain sentimentality that settles in when one is facing one’s own demise.