San Francisco

Edward Weston

Oakland Museum of California, Oakland

The fact that 100 photos by Edward Weston quietly tucked away at the Oakland City Museum are on loan from the Smithsonian Institute is very curious indeed. Is it because no local museum possesses a representa­tive selection of his work? Work, inci­dentally, which is the source, and often enough the sum of the photography done in this area. It has been decades since the serious treatment of photog­raphy was initiated at New York’s Mu­seum of Modern Art.

A show spanning middle, early and late Weston is particularly interesting because it clearly illustrates his growth as an artist. Unlike Stieglitz, Weston was a primitive. There are, in his work, no stylistic alterations or great leaps based on periods of intellectual examination. He was also a natural. Once having cleared away the underbrush and gar­bage of soft focus and commercial vision, he saw with the clarity and un­erring sense of classical form that mark his entire output.

His early period displays an infatua­tion with form; the translation of land­scapes, street scenes, bodies and heads into monochrome shapes in a photo­graph of set dimensions. This phase was ended by his discovery of, how to see a pepper, an event whose importance altered completely the emphasis of his work. Following the pepper series his photos seek to reveal the inherent char­acter, the force of an object. Previously the subject was treated as an exciting shape, but from this time on it becomes a presence. (This was the development that the Mexican artists who were for­merly his warm supporters objected to so strongly. Obviously, work based upon the perception of the inherent values of subjects could not be countenanced by party members, yet one of them was not very far from the mark when he criticized these photos as being phallic, if one considers the erect phallus as a charged form.)

Two qualities ever after remained the basis of Weston’s photography: an ex­tremely powerful formal structure, com­bined with an almost oriental insight into the nature of the subject. These tools he applies continuously. His rocks are stone, a dead bird is very dead––his subjects are immediate and important. His people are present, with their value implicit. Unlike, for example, Strand’s people, they are not providing scaffold­ing for a viewpoint.

Weston’s most unique achievement was his extended and intensive investi­gation of Point Lobos, a body of work which, incidentally, provided an entire vocabulary of subject matter for his smaller followers as well as an indica­tion of possibilities to his actual successors. His own late work is unparal­leled in the medium. In his last few photographs he exhibits that mastery which is a seeming distillation of a life­time of formal perception.

That the more unimportant aspects of Weston’s work should have become a cult among the minor, deadly serious photographers is not their fault. The equation of his subject matter and tech­nique with his importance, past the time when these have had any relevance, is a misunderstanding of which museums, magazines, galleries, and collectors are equally guilty. The West Coast eschews the excitement of fashions which con­vulse New York and Europe; in all three areas, however, the best photos con­tinue to be shown by photographers to their friends, other photographers.

Arthur Bardo