Edward Weston Photography: Rejecting the Status Quo 

Edward Weston Hero

A razor-sharp image, bringing into focus an empty dusty doorframe, a weather-worn sign indicating where you could once find hot coffee, textural tumble-down buildings, or the jagged remnants of dead trees with added drama created by exaggerated shadow. Or the page-like folds of artichoke leaves, the undulating pleats of a cabbage leaf, the almost muscular posturing of a capsicum. All these are famous images, and all bear the recognizable hallmarks of Edward Weston from different moments in the great American master’s career. 

Who Was Edward Weston?

Born in Illinois, the young Edward Weston was given a Kodak Bull’s Eye No. 2 camera at the age of 16. A year later, by age 17, Weston’s photographs were selected to be shown at the Art Institute of Chicago. He later shrugged off formal training when he successfully completed a year-long course at the Illinois College of Photography in a mere six months, before making a living working as a portrait photographer and retoucher.

Aged twenty, Weston moved from Illinois to California on the recommendation of his sister, who knew the Californian landscape would provide the creative nourishment and inspiration he needed. In California, Weston discovered the terrain that would become one of the primary subjects of his work. The photographer spent years traveling and living in different parts of the USA, but from this point on, he always returned to California.  

Rejecting the Status Quo

In the 1920’s, after a productive phase working in Pictorialism, the prevailing style of the day, Weston began a transition away from the movement. In Pictorialism, a photographer would use the medium of photography to demonstrate an art form akin to painting. One might manipulate a photograph during editing, a pre cursor to modern image post processing. Tell-tale signs include visible brush strokes, burning or dodging marks, or other such work on the surface. During this period, he travelled to New York, where he met many of the leading artists of the day including Alfred Stieglitz, who himself had been a champion of Pictorialism, as well as Georgia O’Keeffe and Paul Strand. As Stieglitz’ influences shifted towards the European Modernist movements he showcased in his magazine, Camera Work, he took many of his contemporaries, including Weston, with him. 

Edward Weston Nude Study Platinum Print

Nude Study, Edward Weston, Sotheby’s, NY, NY, est. $10,000 (October 17, 2003)

Edward Weston - Portrait of a Woman

Portrait of a Woman, Edward Weston, Phillips, NY, NY, est. $50,000 (April 4, 2012)

In 1932, Ansel Adams and Weston’s former assistant, Willard Van Dyke, established Group f/64. The group proclaimed themselves opposition to a ‘tide of oppressive Pictorialism’. As with many of the critical figures in the Modernist art movements, what the photographers of f/64 stood in opposition to was the status quo. Economic instability following the First World War and the Wall Street Crash led to political and social unrest, and the artists felt that work emphasizing aesthetic pleasure was no longer relevant. A general sense of excitement around new industrial technologies that could bring new opportunities and greater quality of life pervaded in society, and the f/64 artists were in search of a photography style that could reflect this. The group’s protagonists, in particular Ansel Adams, proved particularly popular for his photos of the American West which held the promise of the projects put in place for national recovery, such as the Hoover Dam. Weston became an active member of f/64, demonstrating the group’s Modernist ethos in his personal work. 

From his abandonment of Pictorialism, Weston never manipulated, cropped or blew up photographs in the editing process, relying instead on his command of the camera. 

The Influence of the South

By 1923, Weston moved to Mexico City, where he stayed for three years while setting up a studio with his then collaborator and lover, Tina Modotti. The open landscapes that Weston discovered in New Mexico would lay the groundwork for Weston’s work in the years to come. 

During this period, the artist created a body of work featuring almost disembodied heads that he called “heroic heads”. During his time in Mexico, he met and was lauded by Mexican artists including Diego Rivera, David Siqueiros and Jose Arrozco

Edward Weston - Nahui Olin - Silver Print

Nahui Olin by Edward Weston. This signed silver print sold for $3,750 via Swann Auction Galleries, New York, NY (October 25, 2016)

Edward Weston - Guadalupe Marin - 1923

Guadalupe Marin de Rivera by Edward Weston. Sold for an estimated $10,000 via Phillips in New York, NY (October 4, 2011)

Edward Weston - Tina Reciting, 1924

Tina Reciting by Edward Weston. Print sold by Black River Auction, Pennsville, NJ (October 4, 2020)

Edward Weston - Manuel Hernandez Galvan, 1924

Manuel Hernandez Galvan by Edward Weston via Black River Auction (October 4, 2020)

When Weston returned to California in 1925, his photographic style incorporated elements of Cubism, Dada and Mexican Social Realism. His work was now a far cry from the Pictorialism in which he had once dabbled; it was modern, clean, precise, often abstract, and employed strong shadows. 

Shells and Vegetables 

In 1927, after spending time with the Post-Impressionist painter Henrietta Shore, Weston began to photograph shells. He borrowed Shore’s chambered nautilus shells, which made for some of the most famous American inter-war photographs ever created.  

Following his work with shells, Weston moved on to studying vegetables. He produced his first series of photographs of peppers in 1927, shooting 43 negatives over three years (although Weston himself destroyed eleven of them). In 1930, he produced Pepper No.30, which became one of the most famous works of his career, selling 25 copies during his lifetime. His work bringing new life and unexpected perspectives to otherwise common household vegetables continued over the next few years, with Weston producing some of his internationally best-known work, such as Cabbage Leaf, 1931.

Edward Weston - Cabbage Leaf

Cabbage Leaf by Edward Weston, one of his most well-known works from the 1930s. This print sold for an estimated $2,000 via Swann Auction Galleries, New York, NY (April, 2002).

Edward Weston - Pepper 30

Pepper No. 30 by Edward Weston, sold for an estimated $5,000 via Bonham’s, New York, NY (October 2, 2017)

Edward Weston - Two Shells

Two Shells by Edward Weston. This signed and mounted photograph from the collection of Rockwell Kent realized an estimated $600,000 via Sotheby’s, New York, NY (April, 2013).

Edward Weston - Shell (Nautilus)

Shell (Nautilus) by Edward Weston, realized an estimated £500,000 via Christie’s, London, UK (March 6, 2019)

Dunes and Nudes 

During the 1930’s, Weston photographed the coastal sand dunes of Oceano, California. The dunes of Oceano served as a home to a group of creative and free spirits known as the ‘Dunites.’ At the behest of his sons, Weston made over 50 Oceano studies between 1934 and 1936, which are considered to be his finest landscape photography

Edward Weston - Nude on Sand

Nude on Sand by Edward Weston, one of the rarer images from his nude study of Charis Wilson. Sold for an estimated $200,000 via Sotheby’s New York (April 26, 2007).

Edward Weston - Dunes, Oceano

Dunes Oceano by Edward Weston, another one of the classic photographs from his Oceano dune study during the 1930s. Realized $18,750 via Sotheby’s New York (October 5, 2017).

Edward Weston - 'Dunes - Oceano'

Another classic image from the Dunes series. This signed and inscribed photograph sold for $300,000 via Sotheby’s New York (April 5, 2017).

1933 saw Weston purchase a 4×5 Graflex camera, with which he began a series of close-up, fragmented nude figures, using his then lover, Sonya Noskowiak, as his first model. He continued to work on his series of nudes through 1935, when demand for his work soared to the point where he introduced a subscription service for fans of his personal work. 

Artistic Freedom at Last

In the same year, Weston met Charis Wilson. Wilson would serve as Weston’s wife and assistant for ten years, and was key to his continued artistic practice. Wilson wrote text to accompany his work and helped him complete his applications for the Guggenheim fellowship, of which Weston was the first recipient in 1937 (the fellowship was extended for a second year in 1938).  

For the first time in the artist’s life, thanks to the Guggenheim fellowship, Weston found himself able to dedicate himself fully to his craft, without having to support himself with commercial portrait photography. This enabled Weston to travel and photograph as he went. He set about aspiring to capture “the real America”, making for one of his most popular bodies of work, including images such as Hot Coffee. He printed a master set of the work produced on his travels, resulting in 500 photographs housed at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California. A book of their travels, California and the West, featuring 96 of the Guggenheim Fellowship photographs along with text by Wilson was published in 1940. The first edition sold for $3.75. 

Edward Weston - Lake Tenaya

Lake Tenaya, Edward Weston, estimated $20,000 via Bonham’s New York (October 2, 2020).

Edward Weston - Hot Coffee, Mohave Desert

Hot Coffee, Mojave Desert, one of the most iconic photos of Weston’s “Real America” series, estimated $2,500 via Swann Auction Galleries (May, 2007). 

The War Years

The bombing of Pearl Harbor forced Weston and Wilson to complete a commission to illustrate Leaves of Grass, a book of Walt Whitman’s poetry, early. For the duration of the war, the couple were restricted to their home patch on Wildcat Hill in Carmel, CA, which became the focus of his work during the war. Meanwhile, the couple served as aircraft spotters. 

Edward Weston - Civilian Defense

Civilian Defense, Edward Weston, estimated $10,000 via Sotheby’s New York (April, 2010). 

Edward Weston My Little Gray Home in the West, 1943

My Little Gray Home in the West, Edward Weston, Christie’s New York (September, 2007).

Edward Weston - EXPOSITION OF DYNAMIC SYMMETRY

Exposition of Dynamic Symmetry, Edward Weston, Sotheby’s New York (April, 2010).

At the end of the war, Weston’s relationship with Wilson broke down and he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. His sons, in particular his youngest, Cole Weston, assisted the photographer in exposing his images. By 1948, Weston’s disease had progressed, and he was forced to stop photographing. His final image was “Rocks and Pebbles”.