Which is not at all to say that Weston viewed himself only as a mute conduit through which the everyday and the mundane created images on his camera's groundglass. Far from it, as the current Phillips Collection show, Edward Weston: Photography and Modernism (through August 18), tellingly demonstrates.
Edward Weston (1886-1958) spent much of his career on the West coast, opening a studio in San Francisco, but ultimately gravitating to Carmel and the Point Lobos nature preserve that also would play a siren song for Ansel Adams and so many others. Largely self-taught, Weston achieved early fame for his portraiture and other work in the soft-focus, romantic school of the Pictorialists. But it was his later, harder-edged, photography of nudes, nature and industry that fixed his reputation as one of this country's greatest artists.
Though Weston did come under the influence of Alfred Stieglitz, and his seminal magazine Camera Work, the artistic influences on Weston were surprisingly non-photographic. [Perhaps not so surprising once you take into account the fact that fine art photography in the 1920s really was in its infancy. Though photography was popular as a hobby or pastime, there just weren't all that many people back then who pursued the new medium fulltime and with passion and intensity.]
So Weston's circle of living friends and long-dead influences included artists of all stripes. Sculptors like Brancusi, composers like Bach. Painters like Georgia O'Keeffe, Arthur Dove and Diego Rivera. The wonderful cross-fertilization that took place in this artistic hothouse is one of the main reasons to see the Phillips show. It is not All Weston All the Time. The artful juxtaposition of Weston's photography with painting and drawing by his contemporaries says more than any liner notes, scholarly thesis or photography column about how artists influence one another, either in person or indirectly. I should add that this type of show is one that the Phillips seems routinely to handle with grace and style. Months ago, two of our closest friends husband and wife painters who now live in Frederick, Md. came into DC specifically to join my wife Judy and me for the Phillips' impressionist painting show. That show included marvelous work, sometimes by different painters depicting the same subject or still life, and spoke visual volumes about multiple influences and differing interpretation all in the Phillips' intimate, elegant surroundings.
And so it is with Edward Weston and his contemporaries
In Weston's case, one is hard-put not to feel the zeal of a convert. Where once he adhered to the gauzy vision of the Pictorialists, now he was a clear-eyed realist one who brooked no compromise or, so it seems, discussion.
"For what end is the camera best used?" Weston wrote on March 10, 1924. "The answer comes always more clearly after seeing a great work of the sculptor or painter...that the camera should be used for the recording of life,, for rendering the very substance and quintessence of the thing itself, whether polished steel or palpitating flesh."
"To see the Thing Itself is essential," Weston elaborated the following month. "The quintessence revealed direct without the fog of impressionism the casual noting of a superficial phase or a transitory mood."
"This then: to photograph a rock, have it look like a rock, but be more than a rock. Significant presentation not interpretation."
OK, I have to admit: I have a problem with some of this. "Fog of impressionism?" "More than a rock?" In sounding as doctrinaire as he does, Weston might be viewed by someone who never saw his work as a person who was satisfied merely to stick a camera lens in front of, say, a green pepper, release the shutter and say, "There, I've just created the essence of a green pepper. More than a green pepper, for it is unadorned, unsullied by a superficial phase or transitory mood. It is the grandmother of green peppers the Thing Itself."
In fact, Weston pays homage to the mundane as superbly as he does precisely because of what he brings to the table, or in this case, the camera. His own sensitivity and perceptive eye for light help transform mere record photography into fine art. He goes on at fascinating length about this in his Daybooks when he describes his now-famous pepper picture. Over and over he photographed the thing, racing against time and the vegetable's inevitable withering. Finally he placed the pepper in a tin funnel and made a six-minute time exposure. The funnel helped reflect back light into the pepper and created precisely the mood and effect Weston desired. "I have a great negative," Weston exulted afterward, "by far the best."
"It is classic, completely satisfying a pepper but more than a pepper: abstract, in that it is completely outside subject matter." Weston chose not to call this process Impressionism, or to give it any other high-sounding name beyond photography. But the artistic skill Weston brings to bear on most of his photography is what separates his green pepper from anyone else's green pepper.
But what if Weston were alive and working today? Would he still be working with his rickety wooden field cameras and their leaky bellows? Or would he make the plunge into digital with abandon and verve? And, more important, would he be able to create the kind of images he loved, but with a filmless camera?
That's the intriguing question that Washington area photographer and curator Jerry Smith tried to answer recently when he twinned with the Phillips Collection for a wonderful and free Sunday workshop on digital photography in an Edward Weston world. [When he is not promoting Washington photography or organizing shows, or doing his own work, Jerry is selling camera gear at Penn Camera downtown.]
"Suzanne Wright, director of education at the Phillips Collection, contacted me and asked if Penn Camera would be interested in doing something related to the Weston exhibition, which was coming in June," Jerry told me. "Since Weston was one of my mentor photographers, this seemed like a fun idea. We did not have a clear idea on what was needed, so Suzanne and several of her staff met with me and we discussed options.
"The Phillip's wanted something to entertain the visitor's on their Family Free Days, which would also be educational. They gave me a new word -'edutainment.'
"I focused on the Form Follows Function rule of Weston's and started to think of how it would have evolved using digital. I then started to get a germ of an idea to re-create some of Weston's still life using high-end digital cameras and having a real time all day demonstration using different cameras, photographers, and Photoshop people to make the prints. Chris Butcher, who is Penn Camera's digital Guru, said he would come and give technical support. He was also instrumental in getting the various high end cameras we used from Phase One, Kodak and Mamiya."
So there it was: in the Phillips' elegant wood-paneled music room a high-tech photo studio, with light stands, tripods, gobos, lights and, of course, a fortune in computer and digital camera gear.
"I selected various photographers with different criteria for each" Jerry noted.
"Some because they, like me, were big Weston fans. Others for their technical expertise in lighting, large format, and Photoshop. The one main criterion was that they could speak intelligently on what they were trying to accomplish."
That certainly was the case with commercial and fine art photographer Reinhardt Liebig. A member of the highly-regarded Photogroup studio in Silver Spring, Md., Liebig is used to working in the studio and on location with elaborate technical setups. But in this case, he chose to pay homage to Weston by doing his own creative take on a pepper (in this case a yellow one) with as little elaborate lighting as possible.
"I chose the light pepper because of its beautiful curves," Reinhardt said. "I decided to use only one raw light, no reflectors or box to diffuse the light, because I like using a point light source like the sun there is only one sun in this universe..."
The photographer noted that he could modify the light (in this case a 1000-watt Elinchrome flicker-free continuous flood light) "by adding gobos at different distances between the light and subject, which then shape and mold the hard light by casting shadows of different sizes and densities onto the subject. I also can catch stray light and redirect it into the live area with silver reflectors."
In essence, Liebig said, "this lets me compose with light. This is not possible with only one light source, if it is a soft light source, without adding another light."
Reinhardt made his gorgeous image of a pepper with one of the best bxw digital cameras around, a Kodak 760 Monochromatic digital camera (in a Nikon F5 body), with Nikon's legendary 105mm Micro lens. [The monochromatic nature of the camera means it does not have to deal with multiple digital color layers and as a result can produce bxw images of stunning clarity.]
Is Reinhardt's picture as good as Weston's? Is Weston's pic as good as Reinhardt's? Not for me to say. All I know is I had a hell of a time enjoying the show on the walls upstairs, then watching a contemporary photographer use modern tools to work the same side of the street as one of photography's giants.
[In August, Jerry Smith will lecture at the Phillips about how Weston made his images and also will have a digital video setup "so people can watch me make a still life." In addition, there will be a raffle of a high-end digital print made during the workshop described above. For more info and specific date and time, go to www.PhillipsCollection.org or contact Jerry Smith at Penn Camera: 202-347-5777.]
Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Talking Photography (Allworth Press), a collection of his Washington Post columns and other photography writing over the past decade. He can be reached through his website www.GVRphoto.com.