“Photography suits the temper of this age – of active bodies and minds. It is a perfect medium for one whose mind is teeming with ideas, imagery, for a prolific worker who would be slowed down by painting or sculpting, for one who sees quickly and acts decisively, accurately.” – Edward Weston
Weston's early work was entirely indebted to Pictorialism, with its penchant for profound meanings and a mysterious chiaroscuro or sfumato. A 1920—1921 series devoted to a mansard room with figure, however, revealed a considerable feel for structural clarity and highly sensitive illumination. At the time—as for most of his life Weston earned a living with studio portraits, especially of children.
Straightforward photographs of the seven enormous smokestacks of Armco Steel, an Ohio industrial plant, marked the turning point in Weston's career. The year was 1922. Conversations with Alfred Stieglitz and Paul Strand during the New York trip that followed may have contributed to his decision to take the path of "straight photography" from that point on. The break with everything that had gone before was biographical as well. Weston left his family of five behind in California and spent three years traveling in Mexico with the Italian photographer Tina Modotti. Portraits of his lover ensued, photographs of pyramids, humble houses and squares, objects of folk art, popular murals, and cacti. His objectivity went so far that he lent a palm tree (Palma Cuernavaca, 1925) the rigorous look of a factory chimney. Pictures of a washbasin or a toilet bowl (Excusado, 1925) had a lapidary beauty of monumental effect. "Here was every sensuous curve of the 'human form divine,' " noted Weston in his day book, "but minus imperfections."
After his return to California, there emerged his renowned "object-icons," whose majestic lucidity still remains unmatched: a nautilus shell photographed frontally and from various angles, like a chalice; fruit, pumpkins, onions, radishes—but especially peppers, whose velvety shimmer prompted him to ever-new variations. A leaf of cabbage was lent the dignity of a Rubens drapery. Feminist commentators have taken offence at the dispassionate care Weston devoted equally to vegetables and his female models. As a reviewer in the Village Voice remarked on a New York retrospective years later, "Since he was both a vegetarian and a great lover, he also treated them equally as delicacies."
A bay on the California coast near Big Sur, known as Point Lobos, became as great a treasure trove for the photographer as Galapagos was for Charles Darwin, inspiring images of the beach littered with driftwood and animal cadavers, bones and seaweed, tide pools, and surf-hollowed rocks. For Weston, this was a laboratory for the generation of a new, sculptural cosmos.
Two Guggenheim fellowships, in 1937 and 1939, freed Weston from commercial jobs. He traveled through California, Arizona, New Mexico, Oregon and Washington, concentrating on landscapes. One quarter of his superb life's work emerged during these two years alone. From beetles' tracks in the sand to monumental panoramas, Weston captured the entire range of landscape features and events. Many of the views and texture studies were so strongly abstracted as to anticipate the painting of Abstract Expressionism, notably those of Jackson Pollock, Mark Tobey, and Willem de Kooning.
Excerpt taken from 50 Photographers You Should Know by Peter Stepan