New York

Edward Weston

International Center of Photography Museum (ICP)

By focusing on Edward Weston’s work in two traditional photographic genres, the portrait and the nude, this exhibition offered an unusually complex view of the photographer’s work. Best known for his pioneering abstractions of natural forms—peppers, halved cabbages, seaweed, and the like—Weston produced a wide range of work in which subject and form assume equal importance. Throughout his career, Weston devoted special attention to nudes and portraits; the work assembled here, from his early pictorialist work to his late, ironic tableaux vivants, allows viewers to see the shifts in his vision as he pursued these classic artistic problems.

Most of the portraits presented here are culled not from Weston’s commercial work, but from the pictures of friends, lovers, and family that he produced throughout his life. In his portraits, Weston favored the same dramatically simple compositions he used in his formal studies. Rather than employing staging or photographic manipulation to express the persona of his sitter, in the manner of photographers such as Cecil Beaton or Arnold Newman, Weston pared his images down, emphasizing bodily gesture and facial expression. Not surprisingly, the elegant simplicity of line and powerful compositions that characterize Weston’s portraits also animate his nudes; in both, the specifics of the moment are frequently made subservient to formal values.

At the same time, it must be acknowledged that the two genres differ constitutionally. Nudes lend themselves readily to abstraction, while the essence of portraits depends on specificity—on the individuality of the subject. The sensuousness of Weston’s nudes is more a formal one having to do with a quality of line and tone than one of flesh, and the clearly delineated, dynamic forms of such images as Dancing Nude, 1927, or Nude, 1936, recall the reduced curves of Henri Matisse’s figures. Later Weston produced overtly, even crudely symbolic nudes that verge on the surreal. In one famous series, he posed Charis Wilson with her legs splayed, next to the dark opening of an adobe oven; in another, made in the early days of World War II, he photographed Wilson as an odalisque in a gas mask.

Ultimately this show demonstrated just how diverse Weston’s instincts as a photographer were. He never turned his back on the traditional tasks of photography, but instead redefined them, bringing to the work the new compositional tools of Modernism, along with the Modernist credo that would have us look at the world plain, in order to discover new forms of meaning in direct records of its appearance. At the same time, Weston’s work resists attempts to read it as a simple development based on a reduction of formal means. Instead, Weston changed artistic course repeatedly, shifting the balance in his work between form and description, exploring in a long career the many varieties of photographic meaning.

Charles Hagen