Charis Wilson dies; wife of photographer Edward Weston

Charis Wilson was the subject of many photographs taken by her husband, Edward Weston, who was known for a
Charis Wilson was the subject of many photographs taken by her husband, Edward Weston, who was known for a "hard-edged" style. (Museum Of Fine Arts)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Charis Wilson, the model for some of the most haunting and intimate images created by her husband, groundbreaking photographer Edward Weston, died Nov. 20 in Santa Cruz, Calif., at age 95. The cause of death was not reported.

Ms. Wilson was two weeks shy of her 20th birthday when she met the 48-year-old Weston at a concert in Carmel, Calif., in 1934. He was struck at once by her lissome beauty: "I saw this tall, beautiful girl, with finely proportioned body, intelligent face, well-freckled, blue eyes, golden brown hair to shoulders -- and had to meet," he wrote in his diary.

Within weeks, she was posing for Weston, who was well known for his striking photographs of landscapes, nudes and luxuriantly detailed vegetables. He was considered the leading practitioner of "straight" or "hard-edged" photography, which is known for its sharp, vivid focus, stark lighting contrasts and minimal distortion.

Many of Weston's photographs of Ms. Wilson showed her in the nude, lying amid sand dunes, floating in a pool of water or curled into near-abstract shapes. He seldom asked her to adopt a particular pose, preferring to capture her natural movements. The erotically charged pictures were recognized as something new and remarkable in photography.

"There are pictures that he took of her that burn themselves into your mind," Sarah Greenough, senior curator of photographs at the National Gallery of Art, said Tuesday.

Describing an image of Ms. Wilson facedown in a California sand dune, artist Charles Sheeler wrote in 1936, "If there is a more beautiful photograph of the human figure anywhere, I haven't seen it."

Despite her youth, Ms. Wilson had few inhibitions when she met Weston.

"Back then we thought a sun bath was the healthiest thing you could do," she said in 1990. "I'd whip off my clothes whenever possible."

Weston, who was married with four sons, had a long history of romantic attachments to his models.

"He was magnetic," Ms. Wilson said. "If there had been groupies in those days, he would have had them. . . . It's amusing, though, that he gets credit for leading a scandalous life, right up to being a sex maniac. Fact is, it took me a lot of work to seduce him."

While continuing to pose for Weston's camera, Ms. Wilson moved in with Weston and helped with his studio. She wrote much of the application that won Weston a Guggenheim fellowship in 1937, the first awarded to a photographer. With the $2,000 fellowship, they bought a car and traveled throughout the West, with Ms. Wilson behind the wheel. They married in 1939.

In the early 1940s, she wrote many of the essays that bore Weston's name and came to be regarded as seminal descriptions of his work. They separated in 1945 and were divorced in 1946 -- the same year Weston had his first major retrospective at New York's Museum of Modern Art. He died of Parkinson's disease in 1958.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company