As one of the giants of photography in the first half of the 20th century, viewers will mostly likely approach the work of Edward Weston with preconceived notions. And truthfully, the conventional wisdom, shaped by years and years of critical study and analysis, is pretty accurate. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t revelations to be had in viewing his prints in person. The Akron Art Museum has the good fortune to be showing a collection of more than 100 black-and-white prints assembled by New York-based collectors Michael Mattis and Judith Hochberg spanning 40 years — from Weston’s early, imitative efforts to the final picture he made, “The Dody Stones,” which summed up his visual concerns and his technical mastery. The show, Edward Weston: Life Work, is split into seven sections: early work, output from his 1920s Mexican sojourn, portraits from his entire career, nudes, still lifes, early landscapes and late landscapes.
Weston, born in 1886, launched his professional career a few years after the turn of the century and shot his last picture in 1948, 10 years before he died of Parkinson's disease. Opening a portrait studio in 1911, he spent much of the next decade producing the type of sentimental, soft-focus "pictorial" work then in vogue. A number of these images are on display, including the technically lush if overwrought and contrived "Listening to the Fairies," a platinum-print portrait of his oldest son. Yet even the early work contains hints of the Weston whose later obsession with crisply delineated pure form would leave an indelible mark on photography: A 1915 portrait of George Hopkins shows the subject in profile, the arc of his head intersecting with the white circular background, a deft balancing of light and dark shapes.
Much of the work Weston did in Mexico is strong yet lacks a distinctive stamp: street scenes, landscapes, portraits. But the work he would soon embark upon is presaged in two prints of subjects most people wouldn't focus on when confronted with exotic foreign surroundings: "Invalid's Utensil (Bedpan)" and "Excusado (Toilet)." The elegance he found in their lines and curves suggests the near abstractions of his famous future nudes and still lifes of vegetables and shells. Weston, who wrote copiously of his life and work in his well-known Daybooks, described the "stately, aloof dignity" of the bedpan and the "extraordinary beauty" of the toilet, which he said had "every sensuous curve of the 'human form divine' but minus imperfections."
Soon, Weston became absorbed in the two very imperfect subjects from which he drew uncanny beauty. The still lifes he called "quintessences" include his legendary 1930 "Pepper No. 30," considered by some to be his finest image; his clitoral "Nautilus Shell" of 1927; the sweeping, skirt-like folds of "Cabbage Leaf" (1931). His masterful handling of light and his detailed prints give their forms three-dimensionality. The still lifes and nudes seem to split the difference between pure form and sensuality: The former ooze a sort of warm, animated human grace, while the latter are cool, detached and anonymous. While "Pepper No. 30" — its robust, sinuous form outlined in delicate shimmers of light — clearly resembles a feminine torso (no matter how much its creator denied that intent), his nudes reduced backs to pear shapes, buttocks to half-moons and figure studies to tangles of winding, headless limbs. Though his models were mostly the many women he was romantically involved with, his photographer's eye saw them as formal studies, disassembled forms.
Not surprisingly, Weston's portraits mostly focus more on formal concerns than on expressiveness, his handling of the visual elements becoming its own expressiveness. And while his landscapes displayed a gradual opening of his vision, incorporating panoramic subjects — skies full of clouds, fields, dunes and lakes — he abstracted them in a way that miniaturized them. "Dunes, Oceano" (1936) echoes "Cabbage Leaf" in its rhythmic aggregation of repeated vertical ridges.
The gelatin silver prints, taken with an 8 x 10 view camera and contact printed, show off Weston's command of tonal range, and his innate sense of shadow and highlight and their interplay with form. This particular approach is decidedly untrendy in this era of oversized razzle-dazzle color photography. Yet the power of their delicacy can't be denied.