WASHINGTON -- If you've ever hung a camera around your neck and gone in search of interesting motifs in nature, you've followed in the footsteps of Edward Weston (1886-1958).
One of the great pioneering American art photographers of the second quarter of the 20th century, he created those sensuously sculptural close-ups of peppers, nautilus shells and nudes that have become paradigms of 20th-century photographic art. You may not have used a fancy view camera with large negatives, and probably didn't get such silky, sexy results, but you had the general idea.
A current exhibition at the Phillips Collection, Edward Weston: Photography and Modernism, is the first that considers Weston's achievement within the broader context of 20th-century art. A beautiful display of 140 ravishing vintage black-and-white prints, it was organized by the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, which owns the peerless collection donated by Saundra and William Lane, who in 1967 purchased more than 2,000 items from Weston's heirs.
Laid out chronologically, the show picks up Weston in 1920, when the 34-year-old Chicago native had hung up his shingle as a portrait photographer in California, where he would remain most of his life, and follows him as his work evolves into hard-edged constructivist architectural studies, curvilinear close-up still lifes and nudes, and surreal landscapes and genre scenes -- at each phase echoing the achievements of artists working in other media.
Ostensibly, the point of the exhibition is to underline inter-relationships with these other artists. But unlike its inaugural display in Boston, which juxtaposed the photographs with paintings and sculptures by some two dozen of Weston's modernist contemporaries, in Washington the focus is on the prints themselves, with just a handful of paintings and no sculpture interspersed. As a result, Weston's ties to other modernists are only cursorily examined in the galleries, though the superbly illustrated catalog fleshes out the influences and attitudes that shaped his vision.
Not an expressionist
For example, there are parallels with the botanical and biological imagery of painter Arthur Dove, another modernist interested in culling essences from nature, and affinities also with the reductive abstraction of Georgia O'Keeffe (though the lone example in the Phillips is not the best illustration).
Comparisons with abstract expressionists are visually less persuasive and conceptually less well-founded. For instance, Weston's tar-splattered rocks suggest the energetic brushwork of Willem de Kooning, his tuft of swamp grass vaguely resembles a starburst motif in a Franz Kline canvas, and his calligraphic studies of tangled seaweed seem similar to the linear drips of Jackson Pollock (like Brancusi, sorely missed in the Phillips show). But the relationships are really forced. Whereas the New York School painters sought to register their temperaments through the gestural handling of paint, Weston sought "to record the quintessence of the object ... rather than an interpretation." He was an empiricist, not an expressionist.
Besides, Weston was an exponent of "straight photography" -- the guiding doctrine of the "f64" group he founded in 1932 with Ansel Adams and Imogen Cunningham -- which held that a photographer should capture reality without manipulating the subject or altering the image in the darkroom. His abstraction was something discovered in nature rather than invented -- altogether different from abstract painting or sculpture that drew its imagery from the unconscious or the imagination.
Weston noted that a Brancusi sculpture was "curiously like one of my peppers," but explained: "With my camera I go directly to Brancusi's source [and] I find ready to use, select, and isolate what he has to 'create.' " Nevertheless, one can imagine the sculptor's appreciation of the photographer's smooth, undulating reductive nudes.
Weston's nudes imply an exquisite sensuality, but lack the emotional power and pictorial delicacy of Alfred Stieglitz's portraits of O'Keeffe. Evenly lit, often monumental in form, they record breasts, arms, hips, thighs or buttocks bursting with sexual potential, but seem less interested in eroticism than in the abstract potential of the body's geometric structure.
The perfect half globes of a woman's buttocks viewed from the side suggest a pair of fruits or eggs side by side. A seated nude's compact bundles of soft curves neatly rhyme with the muscularly contorted pepper images. In both cases, Weston addresses his subjects' smooth surfaces and voluptuous form with a mixture of literalness, sensuality and abstraction. And just as he found visual analogies in the human body, he also discovered allusions to the human body in vegetables and even rocks. The controversial Robert Mapplethorpe would later bring a similarly anthropomorphizing eye to flowers, in which he uncovered an almost pornographic sexuality.