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Edward Weston, 1886-1958: Influenced How Photography Was Seen


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I'm Mary Tillotson. And I'm Steve Ember with the VOA Special English program, PEOPLE IN AMERICA.  Today, we tell about the American photographer Edward Weston.

Edward Weston is one of the most recognized of all American photographers.  He is probably most responsible for helping people to see photography as an art form.

Today, art experts consider photographers who took pictures like Mr. Weston's to be part of the art movement called Modernism.  The kind of photographs Mr. Weston took are called "straight photography."  No unusual effects were used to change the image of the subject.  The photographs appear to show reality in a pure and clear way.

Yet, Mr. Weston did not always use his camera to take pictures that way.  At first, he took pictures influenced by the popular photographs of his time.  Photographers, then, made pictures that did not appear sharp and clear.  Instead, they appeared "soft."  They were similar to painted pictures that tried to be beautiful, not realistic.

Edward Weston was born in Highland Park, Illinois, in eighteen eighty-six.  When he was sixteen, his father gave him one of the early cameras made by the Kodak Company.  Edward soon showed some of his photographs at the Chicago Art Institute.

In nineteen-oh-six, Edward Weston decided to move west where he worked for a railroad company.  He briefly returned to Chicago to study at the Illinois College of Photography.  But, he soon returned to California.  He married Flora Chandler in nineteen-oh-nine.  They later had four sons.

Edward Weston owned a store in the area of Glendale, California.  He made and sold pictures of people.  He also had some of his writing on photography published.

Several important photographers he met in southern California influenced him.  Imogen Cunningham and Margrethe Mather were two of them.  Ms. Mather worked with Mr. Weston on several pictures.  Ms. Cunningham praised Mr. Weston's work.  She gave moral support that led Mr. Weston to seek out other photographic influences.

Edward Weston decided to travel to New York City in nineteen twenty-two.  He wanted to meet the most influential American photographers in the East.  He expected to be praised by members of the artistic community there.

Alfred Stieglitz was the most influential photographer in the United States at the time.  He was the reason for Mr. Weston's trip to New York City.  He was responsible for a magazine called Camera Works.  Mr. Stieglitz helped many of the photographers whose work he liked, including Paul Strand and Ansel Adams.

Alfred Stieglitz met with Edward Weston two times.  He did not say that he liked Mr. Weston's work.  Mr. Stieglitz would point to some parts of the pictures he liked. Then he would point to something he did not like.

Edward Weston discovered an art community in New York that he had never imagined before.  He met many people who, today, are recognized as important American photographers and artists.  One of them was Georgia O'Keeffe.

Ms. O'Keeffe became one of America's most famous woman painters.  Mr. Weston saw some of her work in New York.  He wrote that he would remember it for many years to come.

Edward Weston felt good about his visit to New York, although he was criticized there.  He wrote to a friend saying that his artistic sense was changing.  He said Alfred Stieglitz had not changed him—only intensified him.

The photographer Ansel Adams said that in the early nineteen twenties Mr. Weston had a growing business taking pictures of people.  Yet, he gave up his business and left his family to travel to a foreign land.  In February of nineteen twenty-three, Mr. Weston wrote, "I leave for Mexico City in late March to start life anew."

Mr. Weston traveled to Mexico with Tina Modotti.  The two had developed a relationship in Los Angeles.  Both were active in the artistic community of southern California.  They spent most of three years in Mexico.  At the time, many artists and writers were gathering in the Latin American country.

Mr. Weston depended on Ms. Modotti a great deal.  With her help, Mr. Weston was able to experience a cultural life that was completely foreign to him.  He could not speak Spanish, so she helped him communicate.

For a time, the two had both a working and personal relationship.  Mr. Weston agreed to teach Ms. Modotti photography.  In return, she ran his photography business and helped organize shows.

Soon, Ms. Modotti became a well-known photographer on her own.  The two photographers met many famous Mexican artists during their stay.  Painters Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo were among them.  Ms. Modotti photographed many of Mr. Rivera's wall paintings.  Mr. Weston made one of his best-known pictures by capturing the intense expression of another Mexican painter, Jose Clemente Orozco.

In Mexico, Edward Weston started to sharpen the straight photography way of taking pictures that he had begun to develop before his trip to New York.  He took pictures of people he met and of objects and buildings.  His pictures appeared to represent the true nature of his subjects.  He also took many photographs of cultural objects called folk art.  At that time, many artists were reconsidering the importance of folk art.  They began to realize that traditional forms of art are as important to culture as the art that normally is shown in museums.

Mr. Weston's experience in Mexico changed his ideas about photography.  He returned to California permanently in nineteen twenty-six to continue his own work.  Ms. Modotti became involved in political activism.  She traveled to Europe to photograph the rise of Fascism there before she died mysteriously in nineteen forty-two.

After Edward Weston returned from Mexico he began producing fully developed work.  He now made simple photographs that were sharp representations of their subjects.

A sea shell and a vegetable called a green pepper were the subjects of two of his most famous photographs.  The idea he presented was that simple objects are, in fact, beautiful forms.  He would often take pictures of rocks, coastlines, vegetable life and even the unclothed human body.  Mr. Weston's goal was to celebrate the beauty of shapes.

Edward Weston's life began to change.  His marriage to Flora Chandler ended and he married Charis Wilson.  They moved to Carmel, California. Mr. Weston spent a lot of time at a nearby place on the coast called Point Lobos.  Many of his best-known pictures show the beauty of the rocky coastline of northern California.  His pictures often were of unusual rock formations.  His new wife, Charis, was his most important model during this time.

In nineteen thirty-seven, Mr. Weston received the highest honor of his lifetime.  He was given the first Guggenheim Fellowship ever presented to a photographer.  The award signaled that photographers were now considered "serious artists."

Edward Weston continued to work through the nineteen thirties and forties.  Yet, he never earned much money.  He lived in a small house that his sons built for him in Carmel, California.  In nineteen forty-five, his second wife, Charis, left him.

Mr. Weston had to stop work three years later.  The effects of Parkinson's disease ended his ability to take photographs and process them.  His sons took care of him until he died ten years later in nineteen fifty-eight.

Experts say that Edward Weston helped change the way Americans understood photography.  Photography had been thought of mainly as a way to record information.  Edward Weston showed that photographers worked to capture the same forms that other artists did in their search for beauty.

This Special English program was written by Mario Ritter.  It was produced by Caty Weaver.  I'm Mary Tillotson. And I'm Steve Ember.  Join us again next week for another PEOPLE IN AMERICA program on the Voice of America.

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Correction: An earlier version of this page included a photograph that was misidentified as an image of Edward Weston.


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