Tom Hibbard


Edward Weston:
Philosophy of the Visible

'I think, therefore I exist' has important implications for the medium of painting. Putting thought into a painting gains for it existence--substance and forms. But where does this leave another visual medium--photography? Setting aside the question of 'special effects', in photography you can think about composition and you can think about the selection of subject matter, but the clicking of the button that takes the photograph and the development of the photographic negative are mechanical acts, routine and thoughtless in a way that is somewhat anathema to western humanist canon.

Descartes went on--'Nay, I am that very thinking or the mind'. This gives some latitude. Existence has the character of thought. The context for Descartes' famous remark was in rejecting Thomas Aquinas' 'first cause' argument on the grounds that the endless search for the 'prior' was irrelevant. Descartes was more interested in deriving significance from what was immediately in front of him. He wrote that '...there are two ways only of proving the existence of God, one by means of the effects due to him, the other by his essence or nature...' It seems Descartes was not merely--as is usual--hastening with strict, self-justifying argument to hold in place Christian conception and hold out God. He was attempting to admit the nature of existence. Though he didn't go this far himself, Descartes' lack of interest in 'first cause' seems to have evolved into the modern notion of a cause-less existence. Descartes described God as that which 'is the cause of its own existence', and recent philosophers seem drawn to this as applicable to existence generally.

I don't intend to argue that Descartes is the father of photography. In fact, photographers might scorn a philosophical introduction to a discussion of photography. I sense a pride in the upstart status of the newer medium. Photography shuns philosophical baggage. It presents what is visible. Photography doesn't look for reasons or content derived primarily from rationality. It spurns cause-and-effect and focuses--a photographic term--on the unexplained and often exceptional surface of objects. 'Oh but isn't it tedious to bring in extra-textual issues', comments a defender of a controversial photography exhibit. Photography doesn't say, 'I think, therefore I exist'. It asks the question, 'What happens to existence if I don't think?' It says, 'I don't think, therefore I exist'. Or perhaps, 'I don't think, therefore you exist'. Or, 'I don't think, therefore it exists'.

But this isn't far from Descartes. Current philosophy favors empiricism, objects and the probable over the possible, the ideal and the rational. Thought isn't so much reason as consciousness. In its concern for 'the present' and in its boundless, perhaps impulsive exploration of subject matter, American photography comes across as philosophical in a similar manner. It doesn't philosophize. It is based on philosophy. Modern photography and its well-known practitioners--Stieglitz, Evans, Adams, Parks, Frank, Brandt, Mapplethorpe, Bourke-White and many others--have in their intellectual and physical explorations achieved the status of a major art form. They have done this by way of departure, by accepting the unartistic aspects of the medium.

As a prime example of this I would like to offer the work of Edward Weston, one of the most controversial and influential of the American photographers of the first half of the twentieth century.

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Weston was born in the Chicago area. His youthful interest in photography was encouraged by a visit to an exhibit in 1903 of the works of Alfred Stieglitz at the Chicago Art Institute. He worked on his photography--for which throughout his life he never lost enthusiasm--completed some schooling in it and eventually settled in California where in 1909 he married Flora Chandler, began a family and his career. The marriage produced four sons, Chandler, Brett, Neil and Cole. Weston started a successful portrait studio in suburban Los Angeles, where his photographs were done in the soft-focus, romanticized and impressionistic Pictorialist style of that time. In the early 1920s his marriage and career experienced an abrupt change with Edward moving to Mexico with Tina Modotti.

In my opinion, it would be simplistic to view this juncture as Weston's escape from middle-class married life to find the inspiration for his real artistic work. One reason is that, though the Masters of Photography book has no photographs from his Pictorialist period, this seems like an omission, partly because Weston had already achieved an international reputation in that style. Another reason is that one of the most fascinating aspects of Weston's work in retrospect is that it remains a question whether his marriage to Flora Chandler ever ended. This possibility itself introduces a critical element to some of his best known photographs.

Unquestionably his style did undergo a change. Weston first left California alone to visit a sister in Ohio. He took some outdoor photos in this area of the Armco Steel Company. He continued his travels to New York City where he met Stieglitz and others and came in contact with ideas of photography newly breaking away from the Pictorialist style. The candor of 'sharp-focus', perhaps combined with his travels, seems to have radically liberated Weston's idea of subject matter. Yet the eccentricities of his style and of his sense of values were probably in place to some degree long before.

One of the early photographs in the Masters of Photography book is of a blank-faced man sitting in a room in the company of only a bookcase, pillow and the plaster-covered structure of the building. Perhaps this is a reference to expressionist paintings. But there is something else in it that is more characteristic of Weston's photography and, in my opinion, explains why Weston was disposed to disdain the work of Ansel Adams, though the two photographers were friends and close colleagues, Adams' admiring remarks being featured on the back of the Weston Masters book. In general Weston frames his subject matter within surprisingly noticeable limits, often clipping its edges. If Weston and Adams are similar in intent, Weston seems to have felt that Adams takes the easy way so to speak by going long distances to find appropriately spectacular subject matter. For Weston, the challenge was spotting the spectacular within the confines of the in some way unique world at hand. It is as though Weston never left that rudely plastered room, and all the evidence of whatever was and is beyond it could and should be obtained by photographing things--a light switch, a door handle--from inside it.

This is a large topic, because it can be related to black-and-white. Concerning changes that the new millennium might have brought, one of these it seems is the demise of black-and-white films and photography. Perhaps I am wrong. I hope I am. Black-and-white gave a lot of artists, Weston included, a confident feeling of being able to manage the subject matter of their artworks. Being limited by black-and-white seems to have simplified the problems of composition. It allowed a world of delight for which everything outside could easily be made a part. Here again I think the comparison of Weston to Ansel Adams is illuminating. None of Weston's prominent photographs is in color; though he tried it, he doesn't seem to have been interested in it. Adams' photography and photographic ideas anticipate color and are often only a short step from it. The supernatural feeling of a mountaintop would be enhanced by effects of end-of-the-day gold or fantastically bright red or silvery blue colors. But the stark simplicity, the opaque, forthright visibility of Weston's photography would be dissipated by color. Weston took pictures of form. Color would have transformed Weston's photographs into the 'nature pictures' he disliked.

And just a word more on black-and-white in relation to film, for this seems true also of some of the best movies ever made. The haunting gothic imagery of Seventh Seal or Wild Strawberries would lose its mystery and impact in color. The shadowy, half-hidden, secretive characters of Casablanca would lose their special flavor, their raison d'etre in among a million of uplifting hues. In film, black-and-white seems to relate to The Night. Are we, then, to have no more Night (as it seems to state--speaking of the existence of God--in the New Testament). If so, allow me to say one thing in parting--though black-and-white films (more than photography) seem to be a thing of the past, the values of black-and-white were known commodities. It wasn't merely because they were simple that they were controllable but also because their function was known to the photographers, actors and directors. I have not seen anything that describes the values of color as replacements. What do colors mean? What is the significance of this new world of colors? What are the rules that control it and that it portrays? In my opinion, color though it can give more impressive effects, in photography and film makes each of the composite parts less special in the sense of less ostentatious. The overall effect is more a blend. In black-and-white, the contrasts of a limited range of color set up sharp contrasts in character and action. Artworks no longer have the good guy-bad guy dichotomy but a divergent number of ambiguous standpoints in between. No more 20,000 Years In Sing Sing or They Live By Night. In my view, color takes away drama and impact and, surprisingly, though in its infancy it was mostly associated with fantasy, makes everything more ordinary. It enhances, broadens the ordinary.

I think it is worth pointing out that photography was black-and-white from its beginning. It never was 'realistic'. Though it boasted 'photographic accuracy' and seemed to threaten painting on these grounds, in certain terms, it wasn't accurate at all because it did not photograph color. Its realism was qualified in this sense. I think photographers and some artists, such as Lionel Fieninger who seems to have done some sketches based on early photos of Henri Cartier-Bresson, sensed this all along. It meant that in the back of their minds photographers were always aware that they were making something unreal, something in a way 'mysterious', aesthetic or 'weird', in this sense a strange 'vision' and artifact.

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The first of Weston's extra-marital affairs was with a photographic assistant that lasted a week. The next was the well-known relationship with the notorious Tina Modotti. Modotti did many things to say the least. She was a native Italian, married a poet who died and was an aspiring Hollywood actress when she met Weston. In what appears to have been one of the worst public relations moves of all time, Weston left southern California with Modotti and one of his sons to live and photograph in Mexico around 1922.

Whatever else it was it was a good time to be taking photographs in Mexico. The country had finished a revolution in 1920 and was full of ferment. Several leading Mexican artists were attempting to establish a native art movement called Mexicanidad. Among these were Diego Rivera and his sometimes wife Frida Kahlo. Weston and Modotti became friends with both of these and others. Weston did at least one impressive portrait of Rivera. I have read accounts that claim Modotti eventually had love affairs with both Rivera and Kahlo, though this might be apocryphal. Several international figures were also present, including Leon Trotsky, Sergei Eisenstein, Octavio Paz, D.H. Lawrence and apparently later Andre Breton. I have not been able to establish the time frame, but it seems that especially the ideas of Breton from his Surrealist manifestos, his idea of the 'innocent vision', affected the others. (Actually, the connection might have been made not in Mexico but in Europe while Rivera was in exile there around 1908 to 1910.) Weston taught Modotti photography, and she eventually became a well known photographer mostly of conditions of the poor in Mexico in her own right.

In about 1927 Weston returned alone to the U.S. and settled in Point Lobos just south of Monterey which was to be his residence for the rest of his life. Quite a bit still lay ahead for him, including a marriage to and divorce from Charis Wilson and his most famous photographic collection, California and the West, with text written by Wilson. Most of his best known photographic work was still ahead. In 1937 Weston was awarded the first ever Guggenheim Fellowship for a photographer for a project of photographs to accompany a special edition of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. The Fellowship was renewed in 1938, but the project was interrupted by World War Two. Shortly after the war, Weston was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. About this time he had a milestone show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and another in Paris several years later (1950). With the assistance of two of his sons and others he began making prints from his negatives. Weston took his last photographs in 1948 around his home in Point Lobos, where alone on New Years Day 1958 he died sitting on his porch.

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Not the least of the benefits of Weston's relationship with Modotti were the stunning nudes he was able to take of her trim, muscular, exceptionally sensuous body. I give credit to Weston that none of the many photographs of Modotti approach the quality of Weston's photos of her. Nudes are traditional fare for photography, perhaps through the efforts of photographers such as Weston. I believe that in the powerful attractiveness of Modotti's body Weston saw or attempted to see some of the things that he had perhaps heard discussed in relation to Surrealism and Breton, namely the 'unification of opposites' and perfected vision with differences refined from it. Weston's uniqueness was in applying the Surrealist terminology to the medium of photography. What Weston achieved with these Mexican photographs was perhaps a unification and a vision of sorts, but it was opposite of the lofty intellectual vision that Breton had in mind in regard to painters such as Douanier Rousseau. What Weston achieved was a blinding totality, a disturbing, purely visible objective work based not on unity but division.

I don't say that following their break-up Weston could not shake the memory of Tina Modotti. Weston seems to have been of a hard, exceptional nature. But I do say that his subsequent artwork was influenced by a lesson he learned in their breaking apart. The completely self-enclosed world of the Modotti nudes, the satisfied, wanting-nothing-else innocent vision of warm complete conciliation of all emotional strands, the devilish 'guilty vision' of naked Modotti as new madonna does not appear in the works that followed. Instead, in all of his notable work afterward one finds on the one hand an elemental, superficial visibility but at the same time a newly haunting sympathy, a human complexity in the artwork itself that contradicts the visibility and refers to something far away in another, completely different realm. Perhaps Weston became aware of the idea of separation or separateness.

Take for instance the California landscape photographs. Even his panoramic views of rivers and mountains record a faint eroticism. In the striking contours of sand dunes with large concave black areas of shadow, in the repeated geometric peaks and valleys of Zabriskie Point, Weston's photographs are remote from anything straightforward. He changes everything into something else, not something else in particular, merely something else. In some cases, this is so successfully done the views could hardly still be called landscapes. His subjects are conceptually unusual--knotted exposed root systems and twisted sections of driftwood. This seems true also of his later portraits--of controversial or unusual people such as Igor Stravinsky (on exhibit in a 2002 show at the Milwaukee art museum), himself and Robinson Jeffers. I don't say they are photographs of something in his mind. They are photographs that offer evidence that the surface of reality is demonstrably referential to something other than itself. They are photographs, I would say, whose meaning becomes predominantly subjective.

Shortly after his return from Mexico, Weston began to do still life photographs, close ups of everyday objects. One the most famous of these is a still life of a green pepper. In his day book that he kept throughout his career Weston wrote of this series of photographs,

it is classic, completely satisfying,--a pepper--but more than a pepper:
abstract, in that it is completely outside subject matter. It has no
psychological attributes, no human emotions are aroused, this new pepper
takes one beyond the world we know in the conscious mind. To be sure much
of my work has this quality, many of my last year's peppers, but this one,
and in fact all the new ones, take one into an inner reality--the
absolute--with clear understanding, a mystic revealment. This is the
'significant presentation' that I mean, the presentation through one's
intuitive self, seeing 'through one's eyes, not with them'; the 'visionary'.

This quote covers a lot of ground. For one thing, Weston's use of the word 'abstract'... For painters, to 'abstract' was to reduce reality into elemental components. But for Weston 'abstract' means something quite different, something indeed that prevented any sort of analyzing or breaking apart and that escaped 'psychological attributes' or any attributes. To Weston abstract meant meaningless, 'completely outside subject matter'. If this photograph 'take(s) one into an inner reality' it is an inner reality of something besides the green pepper, an inner reality of which the green pepper is a part, a collective inner reality. And the way it takes us into that 'inner reality' is through its--notably shiny--surface, by blocking us out of any inner reality in the green pepper.

In support of this argument I would like to point out that Weston often took photographs of objects that expressly lacked an inner reality, namely dead things--dead trees, dead animals, even, unless I am mistaken, a dead man. The most interesting of these is an oddly composed--it seems to resemble the letter W--carcass of a dead pelican. Perhaps Weston intended to invoke the symbolic meaning of the bird--in Medieval art a pelican was a Christ symbol. The wings are extended like nailed hands. But as part of Weston's photographic oeuvre the bird seems to have no symbolism but is just a dead bird, as inanimate as a shell, a piece of driftwood or green pepper--pure or 'absolute' form.

Another photograph that I think adds much to this array of surfaces is the well-known nude of Charis Wilson. If you compare this photo with the earlier nude of Tina Modotti, the two poses offer a revealing contrast. Modotti's pose is content, uninhibited, straightforward, showing every part of her body, including her face, to the extent of putting her hand behind her back so as to obstruct nothing. The Wilson photograph on the other hand is the epitome of concealment--legs crossed, head bowed, face, body, everything hidden. It seems defensive. I would go so far as to call it protesting.

However, in both photos it is still the indivisible surface qualities to which Weston is giving his attention. In the Modotti photo, the subject is Modotti's unself-conscious sensuousness, the totality of the body itself. In the Wilson photo, the subject is not precisely Wilson's body. I wouldn't say it was her intellectualism but something more complicated. The photograph is of her self-consciousness, her 'role' not only in relation to Weston but in relation to society, to artistic movements, perhaps to more and more pressing political issues. The photograph is of Wilson's studied presentation of herself, of what later artists have come to call 'public identity' or 'exteriority'. I would say that the contrast in poses has something to do with Weston's and Wilson's stature in an artistic community. Modotti may have struck the same pose in the circumstances of the later date. In my opinion, Wilson's pose also has something to do with the fact that Weston was previously married, a private awareness of personal complexities. Yet, in spite of all this, it remains a nude.

* * *

For Weston, existence isn't similar to thought. In my view, he wouldn't say of himself 'I am that very mind'. It's Weston's consistent finding of his subject matter in the surface of reality that is the overriding characteristic of his work. He might say, 'I am that very surface'. ('I am that very mindlessness'.) It is also this that makes him something of a quintessential photographer. I want to say that photography comes at meaning from the opposite end of the spectrum of writing and painting. Writing seeks reasons. It delves beneath surfaces to a calming center of insight, a revising and resolving. Photography is not interested in reasons. It seeks surfaces. It seeks what is visible. Parts. Pieces. Actions. It is not in this sense a medium that gets behind problems and resolves them. It presents problems. One might even go so far as to say it thrives on problems or is a problem. The surface of reality is reasonless, desolate and disconnected. It can be deceptive. A surface may be a whole, but it is not necessarily a final whole. Green peppers can be chopped up and photographed again as ingredients in a salad. A piece of driftwood can be photographed on a sand beach and then again on a table in a living room. Writing and painting create form from inside. Photography creates form from outside.

Weston called himself 'intuitive' and 'thoughtless'. In my opinion, to some degree this was disingenuous. One of Weston's later photographs is of an unidentified mysterious somewhat buxom nude woman seen through a window screen from a small junked-up yard. Another is of Weston's son Cole with daughter outside the wooden door of a house. In the end it seems Weston hearkened back to his family. What then do we say about all the rest? I would conclude nothing for Weston. I think it is safe to say that his life was to some degree a search, an adventure--as it is a search and adventure to some degree for everyone. Weston may have been thoughtless, but it was a thoughtful, a calculated thoughtlessness. It gives the impression of going against the grain. Rather than presenting the happy side of life, Weston stubbornly presents the unhappy side of life. The meaning his artworks presents is a troubling meaning. I think Weston might have defined 'life' as troubling or troubles.

Weston photographs disparateness, a separation of people from people and of a person from him- or herself. This is why I think his first marriage remained an underlying influence. He may have used this underlying influence to point farther--to the topic of individuality, to society as archetype, to the topic of why would God remain an invisible presence. In unquestionable strangeness, scraggly surfaces, gleaming monads, Weston shows things standing apart--not unity but division. Division is the basis of existence. To a writer division means consciousness. To Weston it seems to imply the visible--perhaps as opposed to the visual--to a Sartreian 'nothingness', a meaninglessness outside of thought. The outward aspects that he encountered and photographed alluded to what Weston called an 'inner reality'. But so geared was he to the outer that what Weston means by 'inner reality' is simply what others call spirituality, not an inner but a puzzling mystery of objective material 'outside subject matter', the answer for which he searched longingly, though at last to which he became resigned. I might even detect in the rascally ironic personae of Weston the notion that, though there is spirituality, there is no such thing as 'inner reality'. Life is just rocks. Unlike some others, it is in the inanimate surface of things that Weston finds spiritual fulfillment.