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A Natural Eye

by JEFFREY ST. CLAIR

On his 80th birthday, Brett Weston fed sixty years worth of his negatives into the large fireplace in his home on the Big Island of Hawai’i. Some of the negatives didn’t burn immediately. So Weston doused them with kerosene. Yes, he was something of a pyro. Over the course of that evening in 1991, flames consumed the raw material of one of the greatest photographic legacies in the history of the medium.

Unlike Franz Kafka, who ordered his writings destroyed, Weston hadn’t been struck by a sudden insecurity about the validity of his art. Quite the opposite. Weston simply didn’t trust anyone else to develop his prints.

“Printing is a very personal thing,” Weston said. “My negatives are a bitch to produce. I wouldn’t want to develop anyone else’s prints and wouldn’t want anyone else developing mine.”

There was another, more personal reason Weston burned his negatives. When his father Edward Weston died, he left his prints to Brett and his negatives to Brett’s younger brother Cole, a landscape photographer with considerably less talent than Brett. In the 1960s, Cole began rapidly pumping out Edward Weston prints and selling them for thousands of dollars apiece. He made a fortune, but Brett considered it an exploitation of his father’s work. He also griped that Cole’s prints didn’t live up to his father’s work.

In fact, Brett Weston did develop another artist’s prints: his father’s. Stricken by Parkinson’s disease in the 1950s, Edward Weston, who along with Edward Steiglitz had laid the theoretical foundations in the US for the acceptance of photography as an art form, was too ill to develop his own prints when an English patron offered to pay for a portfolio of his body of work. Weston selected 800 images and Brett, by then a seasoned and innovative photographer in his own right, developed the prints. The result is widely viewed as one of the century’s master works.

Brett Weston at work.

* * *

Edward Weston is credited with fathering the movement known as Western straight photography: no staging, no contrived lighting, no cropping, no enlargement, no touch ups. Weston began his career as a portrait photographer in Glendale, California, taking photos of starlets, families and bankers. His early creative work was in the lushly romantic “pictorialist” style popular at the turn of the century: soft-focus, sentimental settings, atmospheric lighting.

In 1923, Edward Weston left Glendale and his studio, running off to Mexico with Tina Modotti, the fiery Italian actress, who, under Weston’s tutelage, would become a photographer of the highest order. He abandoned Brett and his mother, Flora Chandler, who would soon divorce Weston.

In Mexico City, Weston’s art underwent a dramatic transformation. His series of nude photographs of Modotti, lounging on a rooftop or on a sand dune, are images of stunning clarity, essays in lines and tones of the human form: sensuous and realistic at the same time.

Meanwhile, back in LA Brett was acting out. He was a rebellious youth and he didn’t handle his father’s split from his mother very well. He became belligerent with his mother, skipped school, and ran with a tough crowd. When Weston returned from his first trip to Mexico in 1924, he said that he found Brett on the verge of a life of delinquency.

This seems to have been something of an exaggeration on Weston’s part. Brett may have been ditching algebra, but he was becoming an accomplished amateur naturalist. He spent much of his time collecting butterflies and meticulously preserving them and recording them by species and location, as he would later catalog his vast collection of prints and negatives. Not exactly Brando in the Wild Ones.

A few months later, Weston took Brett back to Mexico City with him. He enrolled Brett in a sixth grade class in an English language school. He lasted two weeks before quitting. It was the end of Brett Weston’s formal education.

The real learning took place in the Weston house over the course of that year in Mexico City. At the center of the household was Modotti, Weston’s lover and apprentice, his muse and political tutor. Then there was the trio of great Mexican painters who were regular guests at the Weston house: Diego Rivera, Jose Orozco and David Alfero Siquieros. D.H. Lawrence also came and went working on his great novel on life in Mexico, The Plumed Serpent. Over dinner and on outings to the coast and the mountains, intense debates erupted over politics and art, arguments fueled by the prodigious consumption of tequila.

Soon after Brett arrived in Mexico Edward Weston gave his son a Graflex camera, launching his life as a photographer. His first shots were of stems of lilies and an image of the tin roofs of houses that has the disjointed composition of a Cezanne painting. Brett’s first photos were unmistakably modern: crisp, unadorned, devoid of sentimentality. They show the influence of Rivera and Orozco as much as any other photographer.

Later, Weston confessed that painters, especially the Mexican muralists, exerted more of an influence on his work than did other photographers. He expressed little admiration for the photographs of Edward Steichen, Paul Strand and Steiglitz.

Soon the teenager was schooling his father. Brett’s most important early contribution to the advancement of Edward Weston’s work was to convince him to shift from platinum/palladium prints to the silver gelatin prints that marked the best work of both Westons. Brett also introduced his father on the erotic possibilities of vegetables, as seen in the remarkable 1930 photograph by Edward Weston titled “Pepper No. 30.” Brett later boasted of having devoured the subject.

By 1926 the Weston’s were back in Glendale and Brett began working in his father’s studio, learning the rudiments of photography by developing negatives and doing enlargements for Weston’s commercial and portrait work. He also pursued his own photography with an intensity that would never dissipate. He took dozens of photos every week of flowers, shells, cars, buildings, hands and feet, broken windows, the San Bernadino Mountains. His photos received their first public showing at an exhibition at UCLA in 1927, along with a series taken by his father. He was sixteen. Two years later, Brett’s photos were shown at the Film und Foto exhibition, sponsored by the Bauhaus group, in Stuttgart, Germany.

By 1930, the Westons had moved from Glendale to Carmel, where they would be at the center of a community of artists for the remainder of their lives. Edward Weston’s small studio attracted other photographers, such as Imogen Cunningham and Ansel Adams, as well as writers and musicians seeking to have Weston take their portrait: Robinson Jeffers, ee cummings and Stravinsky.

Brett lived frugally for most of his life, eking out a living as a photographer without resorting to portraits, commercial work or magazine commissions. “I didn’t mind whoring,” Weston said. “I just wasn’t very good at it.”

But he still found himself at the center of things. Broke in LA in the 1930s, he ended up house-sitting in a new Hollywood home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright (“stunning structure, but it leaked”). He tried his hand at working as a cinematographer on a movie set. The results weren’t satisfying for either the studio or Brett.

A few years later, Jose Clemente Orozco, who Brett had idolized from his days in Mexico City, showed up in southern California and hired Brett to assist the painter in his great Prometheus mural at Pomona College in Claremont.

Weston’s work from this time represents a robust Western expressionism, livelier than Ansel Adams’s austere work and more attuned to the parallel movements modernist movements in painting and sculpture. He photographed a delicate series of faceless nudes dominated by twisting legs and hands, close-ups of tide pools and shells, and an erotic barrel cactus that looks like it is sprouting dozens of spiky breasts.

He received his first solo exhibition in 1932 at the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco, which was soon followed by a joint showing with the members of the f/64 Group, including Adams, Cunningham, Willard Van Dyke and Sonia Noskowiak. Brett’s close-up a hand and ear was so admired by Russian director Sergei Eisenstein that he swiped it off the gallery wall.

But Weston didn’t consider himself part of this collective or a photographic movement per se. Indeed, he maintained a lifelong rivalry with Adams, who was one of the first West Coast photographers to make a fortune. Adams poured much of his money into building a palatial house and large darkroom made of redwood in Carmel near Weston’s small, self-made adobe. “You spent more on your darkroom than my father did on his entire house, Ansel, but you’re pictures aren’t nearly as good,” Brett told Adams. “You cut down an entire redwood forest to build your house and they still let you stay on the board of the Sierra Club?”

White Sands by Brett Weston.

Unlike his father who wrote compulsively, Brett was not a theoretician and perhaps that explains the reason he is less known despite being in many ways the superior artist. Edward was loquacious, a gifted self-promoter. Brett was a loner, reticent and uncomfortable speaking about his art.

“My father was driven and so am,” Weston said. “You’re ruthless. You brush off your friends and women. He was much kinder than me. I don’t verbalize well and I don’t socialize much. Too time consuming. And I’m not a good salesman of my work. I love people, but they can be a drain. Some are stimulating; some are leeches. So I seek people on my own terms. Most artists are loners. I guess they have to be.”

In 1935, Brett caught a break. He was hired as the supervisor of the photographic section of the Federal Arts Project. He trained and managed more than 20 photographers. This position, and a short-lived job as a sculptor for the Public Works Art Project, eased him through the depression.

He was drafted into the Army in 1942 and made to endure basic training twice. Later he was sent to the Signal Corps before finally being assigned to a position as an Army photographer, where he had to be retrained. For two years, he was stationed in Long Island under Lt. Arthur Rothstein, formerly the head of the photographic project for the Farm Security Administration, where he supervised the work of Walker Evans and Dorthea Lange. Rothstein assigned Weston to photograph New York City. The images Weston came back with, taken with an 11 x 14 camera loaned to him by the Frick Museum, are original and startling explorations of a cityscape, which seem closer to the paintings of the city by John Marin than the photos of Steichen or Margaret Burke-White.

In “Manhattan Courtyard”, a frail, leafless tree with a knot of thin branches stretches upward toward an unseen light in a canyon of buildings. The image is strikingly similar to a photo he would take 25 years later in the heart of Glen Canyon, where a cottonwood tree stands alone before the sheer wall of the canyon. In “Sutton Place”, Weston captures a dark, winter afternoon at an brick apartment complex encased in vines of ivy. His photo “47th Street” is a study of rooflines and staircases that is as disorienting as any work by M.C. Escher.

But Weston was primarily a photographer of the West and he relished his transfer from New York to El Paso in 1945. On his way down to El Paso from Albuquerque, Brett passed for the first time through Tularosa Basin and the great dunes of White Sands National Monument (and the missile testing range that engulfs it) and promptly went AWOL. He stopped his truck, got a room at local hotel, phoned the Army base to say that he had been felled by the flu and spent the next few days photographing the wind-sculpted dunes, cactus, yucca and the serrated peaks of the nearby Sierra Blanca mountains.

He would return to White Sands many times over the coming decades. Indeed, Weston tended to migrate in his Chevy truck with camper to the same landscapes year after year: Death Valley, White Sands, Oceano Dunes, Baja, southeast Alaska, coastal Oregon, the Owens Valley, the Big Island of Hawai’i and, of course, the tide pools, headlands and beaches of Pt. Lobos and Big Sur just down Highway 1 from his home in Carmel Highlands.

Weston’s photos from the 1950s and 60s, whether of shiny black strands of kelp or a close-up of the cracked ice of the Mendenhall Glacier, had a luminescent quality to them, which he later described as “glowacious.”

* * *

In 1969, Weston traveled to Eugene, Oregon to give a talk at photographic workshop at the university. There he met Art Wright, a grad student in photojournalism, who had long been an admirer of Weston’s art. At the time, Wright was kicking around ideas for his thesis project. On a whim, he asked Weston at a party if he would allow Wright to make a film documenting the photographer at work. Weston, an intensely private man, surprised Wright by enthusiastically agreeing to the project.

“I liked the pure simplicity of Brett’s vision,” says Wright. “There was nothing ostentatious about his life or his work. I was in awe of his photographs.”

At the time, Wright was living on a commune outside of Eugene, paying $30 a month rent and looking for a way to live outside the system, as Weston had done. “One of the things on my mind at the time was how to lead a creative and exciting life and not work for the Man,” says Wright. “Brett Weston lived a frugal life, but without compromise.”

A few days later Wright accompanied Weston to the Oregon Dunes National Seashore near Reedsport. It was a trial run to see if Brett could tolerate working while Wright filmed him with his buzzing 16-mm camera. The two men hit it off and remained friends for the next 20 years.

The sharp black-and-white footage Wright filmed of Weston setting up a shot inside the ruins of an old wigwam burner at an abandoned timber mill site and trudging across the dunes with his Rolloflex became the opening sequence of his extraordinary film, Brett Weston: Photographer.

Wright’s wife, Janet, a librarian and artist, located a grant program run by the National Endowment for the Humanities that was offering $1,500 for projects dealing with “the land.” Wright titled his film project “Brett Weston: Man of the Land” and got the grant. Of course, that paltry sum wasn’t nearly enough to finance the film. Wright had to max out his and Janet’s credit cards to purchase film stock and gas.

A few weeks after the Oregon outing, Wright joined Weston and two of his friends for a trip across California and Nevada. The film follows Weston as he explores some of his favorite photographic haunts: the Alabama Hills, Death Valley, Lake Isabella, a truck graveyard in Goldfield, Nevada, and the Owens Valley under the shadow of the Sierras.

Although this is all familiar terrain, the film captures several serendipitous moments, such as when Weston stops at a road cut and becomes entranced by the shapes and shadows of columnar basalt. “It’s an explosion of geometry,” exudes Weston.

Weston isn’t really a nature photographer. He isn’t interested in Ansel Adams-esque landscapes or in documenting threatened wild places like Eliot Porter. He was obsessed with capturing the intricacies and rhythms of form, light and shadow. Weston is as fascinated by close-ups of the exfoliating bark of a bristlecone pine or the spikes of a Joshua Tree as he is with the visual poetry of peeling paint on the side-panel of a rusted out truck.

“There are a million choices for shot,” Weston tells Wright. “At its simplest, photography is very complex. So I try to keep it simple and focus on things I can master.”

How do you know when you have something, Wright asks.

“I have an orgasm, Art,” Weston chuckles. “You just know it. There’s a flash of inspiration. Like with certain women. You feel marvelous and just take off.”

There were many women in Weston’s life and four wives. Even so, except for the stunning series of underwater nudes, shot in the black tile pool at his home in the Carmel Highlands, his body of work does not offer many images of women. But there many of his images are highly erotic, especially the sinuous lines of the dunes at Oceano or on the Oregon coast, the wet tangles of kelp in tide pool, the flesh of a barrel cactus, the thigh-like humps of sandstone in the Alabama Hills in the California desert.

He tells Wright that he has been photographing Point Lobos for going on forty years but still finds it fresh. “Point Lobos is always changing,” Weston says. “I’ve lived and photographed there nearly all my life, but even in the last few years I’ve done some of my best work there.”

Wright’s film is one of the most detailed and intimate document of a working photographer ever made. He follows Weston from scouting locations, to setting up shots and to the tedious work in his small darkroom in Carmel.

“The dark room was very small,” recalls Wright. “I had my back against the wall as I shot him developing his prints.”

Brett Weston got up each morning before dawn, whether he was in the field or working at home in the dark room. In his last decades he would awaken even earlier. It wasn’t unusual for him to be working in the darkroom by 2am. He would work for four or five hours straight, dipping the print paper into the toxic amidol developing chemical that turned the fingernails on his left hand black.

In Wright’s film, a weary Weston emerges from the dark room after five hours of developing prints. “I come up for air at 9 or 10 in the morning,” he tells Wright. “It’s a great drain on one’s vitality. You have to be disciplined. Without discipline there’s very little art. It’s hard work and sheer brutal, drudgery, like writing literature.”

According to Wright, Weston’s small, spartan house had a lot of bookshelves, but they weren’t stocked with volumes of Proust or Joyce. “He loved Louis Lamour,” Wright joked.

For Weston, the photographic process continued through the developing of the negatives to the trimming, matting and framing of the prints. Wright films the photographer preparing dozens of prints in preparation for the first comprehensive exhibition of his work at the Friends of Photography gallery in Carmel. Here the short film reaches its conclusion with dozens of people, hippies, working stiffs and art snobs, mulling through the exhibition of photos, many of which were taken during the trip with Wright.

“I enjoy the reaction of ordinary people who are not art patrons,” says Weston. “I like some guy or gal with an honest admiration for a photo, a carpenter or bricklayer, instead of some pseudosophisticated museum director from the art world who thinks he knows it all.”

Wright’s film on Weston came out in 1972 under the title, “Brett Weston: Man of the Land.” “It was a silly title, but we had to call it that to fulfill the grant,” Wright says.

But he kept editing the footage for the next year and a half and later released a tighter version called simply “Brett Weston: Photographer.” At the time, photography was just beginning to be viewed as a fine art in the university system. Weston was known and highly regarded inside photography world, but was still largely unknown to the general public. Wright rented out his film to schools and universities for the next 15 years, introducing Weston to a new generation of photographers and artists. Weston and Wright remained close for the next 20 years, until Brett’s death in Kona, Hawaii in 1993.

* * *

Wright wanted to make more documentaries on photographers. His next subject was meant to be W. Eugene Smith, who had just unveiled his remarkable and disturbing photographic study of the mercury poisoning of the fishing village of Minamata, Japan. “Smith was going blind at the time,” Wright recalls. “He struck me as the Beethoven of photography.”

In the end, though, Smith didn’t want to be filmed at the end of his career, when he needed his wife and his assistants to help him compose his shots and develop his prints.

Wright went on to teach photography at Idaho State University in Pocatello and moved back to Oregon in the mid-1980s when his wife Janet got a job as a librarian at Portland State University. Wright went to work as a cameraman at a local TV station. He retired a couple of years ago put himself to work transferring his film on Weston to DVD.

“I’d resisted transferring the film to VHS,” says Wright. “Video is a poor quality format. It would demean the work of a photographer for whom visual clarity was paramount. But the opportunity to digitalize the film seemed worthwhile. It also allowed me to fix the sound quality and add some extra features, including audio interviews with Weston’s friends and colleagues.”

Wright also got permission from the Weston archive to include 800 of Brett’s photos on the DVD. In its current format, Wright’s film is as close as we get to a biographical and critical study of Brett Weston’s career. He is perhaps the most important American artist who is yet to be the subject of a full-length biography. Shot in stark black-and-white, Wright’s film is, in its way, as beautiful to look at as a Weston print. And then there is Weston’s voice, gruff and serious as a rattlesnake on moment and impish and jesting the next.

Weston isn’t a nature photographer, but he is, perhaps, our best photographer of nature. His photographs, with the notable exception of the series on the doomed Glen Canyon, can’t be considered in any way overtly political.

But it’s clear where Weston’s allegiances are. As he drives across the Sierras and up the Owens Valley, he lashed out to Wright about the about the new interstate highways and rash of housing developments in Tahoe and Sacramento. He reveals himself to be a kind of western anarchist, not all that different than Edward Abbey.

“There’s no tremendous change in people,” laments Weston. “But the machines have changed. And that’s the monkeywrench for the whole goddamn mess.”

* * *

After Wright’s film came out, Weston’s career began to take off. In the mid-1970s, art photography became a chic form of investment. The prices for Weston’s prints soared from a couple hundred dollars to over a thousand. He came into money for the first time in his life.

In the 1970s, Art Wright bought one of Weston’s prints of his famous “Ear and Hand” photo for $75. The photo hangs in Wright’s house and on the canceled check to Weston is taped to the back of the frame. Today that same print sells for $30,000.

For a short time, Weston, who had always been a kind of one man band framing his prints and selling them himself, even hired a manager to sell his prints to rich patrons and corporations.

He built a house in on the big island of Hawaii, where he made some of his most astonishing photographs. Much of the money went into cars. His obsession with cars began early on, when he manned the wheel on his father’s expeditions. Edward never learned to drive. But by the 1980s, the old Chevy trucks had been replaced by new Corvettes. Two of them. According to Wilson, Weston’s first Corvette was a stick shift, which he had a hard time handling after a bite by a poisonous spider impaired his right arm. So he bought an identical Corvette with an automatic transmission. He refused to let anyone else drive him around or drive his cars.

In his last years, Brett was slowed by a bad heart. It was hard for him to lug around his camera up the slopes of Manna Keg. So increasingly he devoted himself to printing, churning out thousands of prints from his negatives. In a final editing of his oeuvre, Weston destroyed many of his prints. “An artist must eliminate, I’ve destroyed prints by the thousands,” Weston said.

Then there was the final inferno, a year before he died, when he pitched all of his negatives into the huge fireplace, one of the few on the big island.

When he died, he left 10,000 prints to the Brett Weston Trust. Brett believed that the prints would be sold off gradually for the financial benefit of his sole daughter, Erica.

Instead, an investment banker snatched up the entire lot for a few million dollars. The Weston photographic legacy, which he had fought so hard to preserve on his own terms, is now locked in a vault in the basement of a bank in Oklahoma City.

By incinerating his negatives, Brett Weston assured that the value of each remaining print would skyrocket to the lofty levels that they could only be owned by the rich elites and art snobs that he had despised all his life. Even Weston might have seen the irony in that final development.

The DVD of Brett Weston: Photographer may be purchased from Art Wright’s website.

Jeffrey St. Clair is the author of Born Under a Bad Sky and the co-editor with Joshua Frank of Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. Hopeless is now available in Kindle formatHe can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net.

 

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence (with JoAnn Wypijewski and Kevin Alexander Gray). He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net.

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