Saturday, December 12, 2009

Edward Weston: Philosophy of Photography

In reading Edward Weston's writings, I am often struck by his concision. He's articulate, but he doesn't write more than he needs to. His Daybooks were his journal, his daily morning writing, during the decades of his formation and key discoveries as a photographer. They record his thoughts and feelings during the process of becoming who we now think of as one of the great photographer of its founding years, greatly influential, and a founding member of the pro-realistic and anti-"painterly" collective of West Coast photographer known as Group ƒ64. (I wrote about the Group ƒ64 manifesto earlier, here). Weston was always an individualist, even a maverick, and this is a theme that recurs throughout the Daybooks, intertwined with all his comments on his love affairs, his family relationships, and friendships. The Daybooks were a diary, after all. Weston himself redacted the books himself, later in life, wanting to protect the privacy of many lovers and friends he had written about; unsuccessfully, in the long run, as it's not hard to fill in the blanks in many instances, as his writing is so vivid and detailed, and so expertly captures the person both with physical description and observations of their character.

the Weston family

Weston's writings about photography are usually terse. They are in fact compressed and gathered, usually, from previous fragments and jottings. He manages to write clearly, in just a few paragraphs, a complete statement of his philosophy about photography. In reading through Volume II of the Daybooks, which covers his California years after his return from Mexico, I find the years 1931 and 1932 to be particularly fertile for Weston gathering together his thoughts on photography. He copies into his diary several statements he wrote, as letters or other replies to critics, and statements written for exhibitions. This was when things began to turn for his career, as well: fewer daily worries about money, more freedom to do what he wanted rather than what paid the bills.

Edward Weston, Pepper No. 30, 1930

It intrigues me that Weston writes about sculpture, with regard to photography. In February if 1932, he copies into his Daybooks part of a letter he wrote to Ansel Adams, who had written an article about Weston's San Francisco show. What I find intriguing here is that I have recently been experimenting with making sculptures in wood, and had been thinking about Brancusci, Moore, and Noguchi. In part, Weston is defending his oft-misunderstood photos of peppers, and other vegetables, which were sculptural, abstract, and incredibly sensual—many viewers interpreted them overly sexually, since Freudian thinking was the vogue at the time. Weston writes:

No sculptor can be wholly abstract. We cannot imagine forms not already existing in nature,—we know nothing else. Take the extreme abstractions of Brancusi: they are all absed on natural forms, I have been accused of imitating his work,—and I do admire, and may have been "inspired" by it,—which means I have the same kind of (innner) eye, otherwise Rodin might have influenced me. Actually, I have proved through photography, that nature has all the abstract (simplified) forms, that Brancusi or any other artist could imagine. With my camera I go direct to Brancusi's source. I find ready to use,—select and isolate, what he has to "create." One might as well say that Brancusi imitates nature, as to accuse me of imitating Brancusi;—just because I found these forms firsthand in nature.

I have on occasion used the expression, "to make a pepper more than a pepper." I now realize it is a misleading phrase. I did not mean "different" from a pepper, but a pepper plus,—an intensification of its own important form and texture,—a revelation. . . .

An idea, just as abstract as could be conceived by a sculptor or painter, can be expressed through "objective" recording with the camera, because nature has everything that can possibly be imagined by the artist: and the camera, controlled by wisdom, goes beyond statistics.

—Edward Weston, Daybooks, II: California, pp. 239-240

I'm going to pause here to take a sideways turn into Brancusi's own photography. I have a book in my library from 1977, called Brancusi, photographer. It is a hundred or so photographs by Brancusi of his own sculptures, both in the studio, and in situ. Some of the more interesting photos show the sculptures installed in place, with the sky in the background, or sunlight falling directly on the work through a gallery window. Brancusi, I think, would have agreed with Weston. His photographs are very thought-out, very aware of what is being seen, and designed to reveal, to make things more intensely real. They are more than snapshots, they are more than documentation: his openly-stated intent was to see the sculptures anew, in the best possible light. He took up photography, helped initially by Man Ray, precisely because he was dissatisfied with the ways other photographers had been making images of his sculptures. What we get, with this book of his photos, is a very Weston-like fresh look at the familiar: things known and familiar, seen as though they had never been seen before.

To return to Weston's letter to Adams, a few paragraphs later:

Let the photographers who are taking new or different paths beware of the very theories through which they advance, lest they accept them as final. Let the eyes work from the inside out,—do not imitate "photographic painting" by limiting yourself to statistics in a worthy desire to be "photographic!" ("photographic painting" is being used by Rexroth in an article about me, showing the expression to be a misnomer).
—Weston, ibid., p. 240

Weston's contribution was to see what was there, the thing in itself, no matter what his subject matter was. Weston was often criticized for not sticking to one idea, or theory, or subject matter, but constantly evolving and changing. Weston's work, like Picasso's, has "periods," in which the subject matter and style of photographic dramatically change from period to period. The Daybooks were written in the period when Weston was discovering utter sharpness of focus within infinite depth of field: a reaction, with other West Coast photographers, against the "pictorialist" style of photography that had first become famous on the East Coast. Weston wanted to see what he was looking at, not create duplications of the themes and arrangements of classical salon painting. He associated himself with Modernist painters, especially in his years in Mexico, and although he was not political, he actually influenced the painters more than they influenced him; for example, the realist social-commentary style of Mexican painting, from Diego Rivera on, was influenced by Weston's presence.

Weston at work, photographed by Tina Modotti

Weston makes this explicit in a statement written for his show at the de Young Museum in San Francisco, also copied into the Daybooks at the time:

Photography is not for the escapist, the "mooning poet," the revivalist crying for dead cultures, nor the cynic,—a sophisticated weakling; it is for the man of action, who as a cognizant part of contemporary life, uses the means most suitable for a clear statement of his recognition. This recognition is not limited to the physical means or manifestations of our day,—such as machinery, skyscrapers, street scenes, but anything—flower, cloud or engine—is subject matter, if seen with the understanding of the rationale of a new medium, which has its own technique and approach, and has no concern with outworn forms of expression,—means nor ends.

Fortunately it is difficult to be dishonest, to become too personal with the very impersonal lens-eye. So the photographer is forced to approach nature in a spirit of inquiry, of communion, with desire to learn. Any expression is weakened in degree, by the injection of personality:—the warping of knowledge by petty inhibitions, life's exigencies.

I do not wish to impose my personality upon nature, (any of life's manifestations) but without prejudice or falsification to become identified with nature, to know things in their very essence, so that what I record is not an interpretation—my idea of what nature should be—but a revelation,—a piercing of the smoke screen artificially cast over life by irrelevant, humanly limited exigencies, into an absolute, impersonal recognition.

"Self expression," so called, is usually biased opinion, willful distortion, understatement. Discounting statistical recording, any divergence from nature must be toward a clearer understanding, an intentional emphasis of the essential qualities in things.

Though photography I would present the significance of facts, so they are transformed from things seen to things known. Wisdom controlling the means—the camera—makes manifest this knowledge, this revelation, in form communicable to the spectator.

—Edward Weston, The Daybooks, II: California, p. 241

There's an insistence on the hard fact of the thing itself, in a Weston photograph, that reminds me of Zen training. Zen is all about removing the filters and assumptions, and seeing what is actually there—instead of what we think is there. Meditation training is designed to do nothing less than remove the scales from our eyes. (During the process, as time ripens, we also discover that we are our own worst enemies—which I can say for myself, quite forcefully.) Part of Weston's appeal is this hardness, this resolute circling back to the thing itself, and away from interpretation or mythologizing. A Weston photograph becomes the archetype of a pepper precisely because it explores the individual pepper being photographed so thoroughly, that it evokes the universal from the particular. This is what great art always does: make us able to perceive the eternal within the ephemeral, the universal within the particular. That's you recognize an archetype: something eternal and numinous shines through.

Of course in many ways Weston was also a heroic individualist, a "man of action," someone always going against the grain of what was popular and acceptable at the time. This led to many misunderstandings of his work, which he often felt bad about, as recorded in the Daybooks. But it takes a strong, developed personality to be able to remove itself from "self-expression," to not wish to impose itself on the photo. The Zen aspect of seeing what's there, rather than trying to "express oneself" via the subject matter, is Weston to the core.

I completely agree with Weston's desire to not impose his taste and feeling onto what he is photographing. As an artist who draws to see the world more clearly, I use photography in part as a meditation practice: a way of bringing myself into the present moment, of letting everything drop away, to Be Here Now, and perceive what is happening. At the best of times, I move into what I can only describe as an exalted state, where everything is more vivid, more real, more alive—and sometimes I must put the camera down, because I know I can't capture what I'm seeing so clearly, as if never before. It is at those times that I often make my best photographs: when I know that the camera is only capturing a small part of what I'm experiencing. One can rail at the limitations of one's tools, which I sometimes do: but one must also be aware of how helpful they can be in getting us as close to that impersonal recording of revelation that it is possible to get. I see this in many of Weston's photos of the most ordinary objects, seen so clearly, as a revelation, that hey become more than what they were: as Weston says, peppers-plus.

At the same time I am aware that composition, the moment of releasing the shutter, that timing and being in the right place at the right time, are elements of making the photograph that derive from the self. The photographer is not an omnipresent eye seeing everything: there are still decisions the person makes, before the shutter is released, and after. So my individual personality is engaged in the creative process.

But it is when my personality is subordinate to the revelation, to the recognition, to the seeing/being that Weston speaks of, that all my technical skill and decision-making aspects of the creative process align to make my best photographs. At those times, I really feel like I am witnessing something very much greater than myself, that I am lucky to be able to capture even a small part of, if I release the shutter just right, just so. At those times, I feel myself to be part of a larger process, and can even lose my sense of self in the creative process. Who is making the photograph? —becomes an essential question, a question of beyond-self being part of the moment. It's hard to feel ownership, at those times, although paradoxically this is also when I feel most a part of the work, and it results in my most personal work.

Weston is, in the real sense, one of the few great creative artists of today. He has recreated the mother forms and forces of nature; he has made these forms eloquent of the fundamental unity of the world. His work illuminates man's journey towards perfection of the spirit.
—Ansel Adams

Weston's life and his work are . . . simple, effective, without ceremony. . . . He was one of those who taught photograph to be itself.
—Robinson Jeffers

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

I don’t know why but I’ve always been surprised when I’ve discovered a photographer like Weston or a composer like Schoenberg or a painter like Kandinsky who has gone to a great deal of trouble to write about their craft. It’s a little shallow I suppose but it comes from the same mindset that doesn’t like to see teachers outside the boundaries of the school yard.

What I like about a lot of his work is that he forces you to revaluate an object in exactly the same way that Duchamp does with Fountain (his urinal). In fact Weston took a photo of a toilet (Excusado) which treats the object in much the same way because let’s face it most photographs are ‘found’ objects even when there’s a little staging.

It is striking how powerful many of his black and white photos are. A real case for ‘less is more’.

5:15 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

I think a lot of artists, composers, etc., aren't very good writers with words. I do enjoy those who are. Some few composers and artists have a real gift for writing about their work, and it's good writing. Sometimes a composer's essays are a way of thinking out loud about their creative process; which obviously I've done myself, so maybe that's just my bias.

Weston is a bit of an exception among photographers, both in terms of how much he wrote, and how good it is. Ansel Adams was a good writer, too, actually: an all-around Renaissance man, who started out as a concert pianist, in fact.

At the very end of his life, Weston did a little color photography, with the new films. By then he was famous, but as was typical for him he couldn't resist going off to experiment in a new direction. What intrigues me is that his color work has the same vision, the same power, as his B&W work: so the artist's eye was the same eye even in the new medium.

10:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

For what its worth ;-)

After years of teaching aesthetics and conversing with 'fine' artists, e.g., in the visual arts, I have reached the tentative conclusion that it is not that they cannot write, or talk, about their work, rather they strongly resist doing so. I suspect that since there is more in a visual work than can be expressed in words they are afraid that attempting to communicate within the limits of language will repress (misdirect, destroy) the deep intuitions(?)upon which their 'creative' urge depends.

Robert D. Jewell

2:36 PM  

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