Edward Weston, California, and What's Worth Photographing

September 22, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

The great photographer Edward Weston once remarked that "everything worth photographing is in California."  He was wrong, of course, and I believe he knew it when he said it.  Weston casts a long shadow across twentieth-century photographic history. He was a mentor to Ansel Adams and founding member of the F/64 Group of west coast photographers most famous for their rejection of the movement of pictorialism that had prevailed in photographic circles at the turn of the twentieth century.  Pictorialism sought to legitimate photography as an art form by imitating the aesthetic standards of painting. Held in suspicion for creating their images with a machine, pictorialist photographers sought to conceal the incriminating characteristics of a photograph by making it look like a painting.  They smeared substances on their lenses to impart a soft, dreamy quality to their photographs; they printed on textured papers and smudged and scratched elements of the image to suggest the brushstrokes or textures of the paintbrush; and they often chose "classical," highly idealized, posed subjects that were intended to call to mind by way of allegory the eternal ideas, timeless values, common tropes of western art and civilization.  All this was aimed at earning photography standing in the world of fine art.

Weston, Adams, and the members of the F/64 Group ultimately came to reject pictorialism because it was photography done with a bad conscience and because it sought to conceal the most powerful virtues of the photographic medium: its "straight" representation of the world as given to us rather than as idealized or modified by the human imagination. The camera rendered the world without artifice, and photography would have to stand on its own aesthetic merits.  Led by Weston, "straight photograhers" embraced glossy, smooth photographic papers most unlike the textured or tinted papers of painters. They set the apertures of their view cameras to F/64, the smallest available aperture, which ensured that everything in the image was in sharp focus. Initially, Weston minimized his manipulations in the darkroom and refused to produce enlargements, favoring only 8"x10" contact prints to preserve maximum fidelity in tone, texture, and detail in the subject photographed. And perhaps most importantly, he turned his attention to form -- to the power of lines, curves, and tonal gradations in ordinary subjects all around him.  His photographs were not to be allegories of otherworldly truths but celebrations of this-worldly beauty conveyed in the ordinary. They were a paeon to form, texture, and tonality sung in the voice of a new, "modern" aesthetic.

Weston refined his artistic sensibilities and techniques along the coast of California, with much of his work coming from Point Lobos not far from his home,  Wild Cat Hill, on the Monterey Penninsula.  As with Adams but to a lesser degree, California was a place of wildness and untamed beauty, and the rugged, unforgiving coastline was not subject to human artifice.  If Adams celebrated the beauty of the Sierra, Weston celebrated the beauty of the coastline.

When I look at my Tidal Flow, Morro Strand State Beach, No. 2, I realize how growing up in the Central San Joaquin Valley of California positioned me geographically and artistically between Adam's Sierra and Weston's coastline. The more I photograph, the more aware I am that no one creates in a vacuum.  We always create from within visual and aesthetic traditions whether we realize it or not.  With the straight photographers, I value the world as it presents itself. The camera must be accommodated to the givenness of the world. My preference for black and white images belies my fascination with form, texture, and lines.  I do not subscribe to the artist-as-genius fiction which assumes that artistic skill is an unlearned, native-born gift or burden that the artist is entitled to inflict upon the world. Photographs should not be about the inner life of the photographer; few things could be so boring.  Photographs point in fleeting, halting, and partial ways to the beauty of the world. They are in invitation into the real beauty "out there" (in California and well beyond!). Beauty is not in the eye of the beholder; it is the metaphysical substratum of all that is. The question is whether we will pause to experience it.


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