Edward Weston’s color photographs

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For me Edward Weston (1886-1958) was the photographer most responsible for photography coming to be considered a fine art (rather than a craft). He was one of the founders of the f64 group, championing ultra-sharp images rather than the soft-focus impressionism of some earlier art photographers (f64 was the smallest aperture on the bulky cameras he and Ansel Adams and others used, circa 1932).

Weston’s most famous images are quasi-abstract peppers and artichokes, female nudes (often body parts rather than the whole body); shells, pebbles, and rocks on the northern California coast (Point Lobos, in particular). That he wrote interestingly (I read his Daybooks at an impressionable age) and spent several years (1923-26) among the post-revolutionary Mexican avant-garde increased his appeal for me. He was a theorist about composition and photographic art (who definitely practiced what he preached).

The bulk of Weston’s work—and all of that included in his selection of his legacy, 800 images known as “the project”—were in black-and-white. I knew that he took some color photographs during the late-1940s, having seen some in an exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art of his Carmel-area photographs. The Center for Creative Photography (at an alma mater of mine, the University of Arizona) houses a Weston archive and put on a show of his photographs in color in 1996.

Color Photography is the catalog from that show, also including an essay “Color as Form” that Weston wrote, comments by Nancy Newhall from 1953 on Weston’s color photography, and a substantial introduction by Terence Pitts that includes reproductions of the ads Kodak ran using Weston color photos to publicize Kodachrome (aka, ektachrome) in 1947-48.

Dr. George L. Waters, Jr., of the Kodak advertising department invited Weston, Paul Strand, Charles Sheeler, and Ansel Adams to try the new color film stock and offered the then lordly sum of $250 per image (from transparencies) for resulting photos, Weston, who was very depressed about divorce and the onset of Parkinson’s disease, surprised himself by taking to what he considered the new medium and to thinking in color.

In 1947 fellow f64-founder Willard van Dyke made a documentary about Weston, and Weston decided to return to photograph places in the Big Sur area, Death Valley, and Lake Tenaya that he had made black-and-white photographs before—so as not to repeat himself.

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The results, particularly the pastel buildings of Cannery Row in Monterey (doubled by reflection) met with some skepticism from purists. It and a chambered nautilus on pebbles (the cover photo) are the only ones that seem to me to have vivid color. By artificial light, I didn’t immediately see the color(s) in some of the others (the book includes face-to-face color/black-and-white images)—particularly a cypress root close-up. Some of those with skies look too cobalt-blue to me and others emphasize black shadows on light rock (I can see some brown in the shot of Death Valley #14, but it still seems a black-and-white photo too.) Color is not desaturated in some other Death Valley photos, and the severity and control of compositions of those that use more of the color palette are consonant with the severity and control of Weston’s black-and-white photos. (This extends to the photographs with people, including his son Cole against an automobile body.)

By 1948, Weston’s Parkinson’s disease had advanced so much that he did not take any more photographs—color or black-and-white. Had he been able to, it seems likely he would have experimented more, though no one can know in what directions he might have taken color photography.

One of my favorites (#35) is a photo across some hills above the Big Sur coast with the Pacific Ocean reflecting light in the top half of the image. The image was used in a Kodak ad—reversed and printed in warmer (yellower) color with increased brightness. I didn’t realize they were the same image at first, though am not surprised that his print was more austere.

Although Weston’s brief exploration of color film has not been as influential as his earlier black-and-white work, he made some striking images. The book puts them in biographical and commercial context, including his own articulate reflections on the difference between black-and-white and color art photography. I like the subject matter as well as the technique and am pleased to have the book (the dimensions of which are 10.2″ x 9.5″).

 

©2007, 2016, Stephen O. Murray

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