Camera Work: The Weston Influence
Ruth Calvo’s blog Saturday Art featured Frida Kahlo, an artist from Mexico in the early 20th Century, wife of Diego Rivera, who befriended Edward Weston, influencing Weston’s work. I commented on the connection, and decided to make Weston the center piece for this Sunday’s Camera Work. Now, one would expect to find images representing the artist’s work as Ruth did and I expected to do so here. However, researching available images, it became clear that it is a minefield of copyright questions as much of his work is copyrighted. Still. So rather than run the risk of a takedown, I chose not to run any images with sufficient quality to do justice to his work. Instead, I’ll post links to sites which do have reasonable representation of his images here and here. The Getty collection is particularly interesting, including portraits, one of whom is of Igor Stravinsky.
I have an excellent large scale book of his work and quotes produced by the New York Graphic Society around 1984. I want to quote a passage from it:
“It would seem as though the greatest work from those who paint, etch or photograph must come from ugly or sordid surroundings-or at least from surroundings not to near the completion grandeur-For one feels the artist’s greater achievement when a New York slum-in all it’s sordidness-is raised to a glorification of reality-while the most serious interpretation of, for instance, the’ Taj Mahal’ would not be likely to stir one intellectually nor emotionally-for one has the realization that the building is already and end in itself-not to be used as a basis for further interpretations.”
-EW “Random notes on Photography”, 1922
I tend to agree with that, especially about photographing something like the Taj. I have no urge to do so myself. It is complete, and putting borders around it by photographing it does it a serious injustice.
Yet, what can be of greater grandeur than the best nature has to offer? We have no compunction about photographing that!
I responded in Ruth’s blog with this statement: “Weston is probably the sine qua non in my embrace of photography as a passion.” I used to hold Ansel Adams in that position, but as time went on, however splendid his towering achievements embraces, a return to Weston’s work jolts me, even today, to “look again”. Adams work is like the Taj, no need of further interpretation. But Weston with his range from stunning to sublime to ordinary and back to stunning is a tour de force. The borders of Weston’s photographs simply mark “completion”. Not extraction. Completion. Nothing exists outside the borders offering anything more. I have no sense of artistic abandonment by the artist, as I do with many paintings. Or music. No wish to go back and tweak it, just a bit more.
Weston is by no means alone in accomplishing this. The degree to which he carried this sense throughout his work is remarkable. For instance, I recall a somewhat stupid comment by a photography teacher to the effect that “there is no photograph that cannot be improved by cropping”, a rather absurd statement. Simply doing a thought experiment on that idea, continually cropping the same work over and over, settles that. Weston’s work is impossible to crop. He leaves nothing out, needs nothing more to be wished for, except more of his work!
Technically, another dimension shows up. Ansel Adams was the essential technician. He documented his process, calling it “The Zone System”, abstracting it to the point that it doesn’t matter what materials, process or chemistry you choose to use, you can get there with his methodology,. Weston is another story. You want to replicate his look? Good luck! He used specific film, paper, developers and process and if any part of this is missing, you will not get his look. Not that Ansel didn’t prefer certain products. He did. Because of the Zone System, Ansel could go beyond problems like Kodak dropping some of his cherished papers or film.
I got caught in that trap myself. I have certain prints that, if I try today to duplicate today, won’t work as initially printed. I zeroed in tightly to the paper and developer, and suddenly, the paper vanished from production! Even with the onset of digital, I cannot re-create that look. I would have to come up with my own inks for the printer, at the very least. What they might actually be, I have no clue. ( I never challenged Adams on this issue. I wish I could have!)
For those photographer’s here who wonder: What paper? it was called Medalist.
I haven’t touched on a crucial change Weston made early in his career, the conversion from Pictorialism to straight photography. Pictorialism, an influence on some photographers unsatisfied with simply straight photography, endeavored to mimic a painterly approach, something for which there is a revival today due to the digital process. Adams, Weston and others founded Group f64, which became the mainstay in elevating photography to it’s best advantage; straight photography.
I’ve been writing for several hours now, and barely scratched the surface. Haven’t found in my own work, a suitable substitute for one of his photographs. But I’ll do one anyway. The photo illustrating today’s subject is the closest one to which I may approach Weston’s work. It is an image of which I wrote above, the image whose unique print cannot be duplicated. It was shot with an 8×10 camera, same as Weston, Adams and a coterie of other photographers use, some yet today. It has a major defect on the neg which, when printing in the darkroom became a huge stumbling block. The scan however, was duck soup to fix. Less than an hour in Photoshop: Done!
Photo ©1966-2015 Lawrence Hudetz All Rights Reserved.