SAN FRANCISCO, DEC. 16 -- For years, renowned photographer Brett Weston vowed to destroy all his negatives when he turned 80. When the day came today, he didn't flinch a bit, consigning a lifetime of work to the flames.
"Nobody can print it the way I do, it wouldn't be my work," he said.
Weston is part of a group of well-known West Coast photographers that included his father, Edward Weston, and Ansel Adams. Brett Weston is known for his studies of abstract patterns in urban and natural settings.
The years of work were rapidly consumed as Weston, surrounded by dozens of friends and family, threw the black strips of film into a brightly burning fire in his living room fireplace at his home in Carmel, Calif., 130 miles south of San Francisco.
The execution of Weston's 20-year-old promise brought consternation in photographic circles.
"Art historians hate this kind of thing," said Andy Grundberg, director of programs for the Friends of Photography in San Francisco, a group co-founded by Brett Weston.
"The negative always has the function of being sort of the original documentation of a scene," said Grundberg.
Weston may be best known for landscapes in an abstract vein, Grundberg said, but he took pictures of a variety of subjects, including underwater nudes.
Burning up all that work is "sort of like painters who burn their early paintings when they decide they aren't any good," Grundberg said. "I don't think this is a very good idea."
But Weston said he was simply protecting his work.
"The prints are posterity, not the negatives," he said from his home today. "This is not photojournalism. It's not commercial portraiture."
Weston said he didn't know why he picked his 80th birthday above any other. He also said he didn't feel any twinges of regret.
"Make that clear. It's my personal work. Nobody can print it," he said. "I don't want students and teachers to print my work."
Terence Pitts, director of the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, Ariz., said he sent an envoy to Weston's home to try to talk him out of the burning. The center holds the world's largest collection of photographers' archives, including the works of Edward Weston, Pitts said.
"The biggest loss is to history," Pitts said. "For those who like to know how artists work and how they get to the stage of making great works, that's gone. We'll just never know what the choices were that he made."
Weston's brother, Neil, said the negative burning was "a rotten idea," but his arguments were in vain.
"He's a very individual guy," Neil Weston said.
Life magazine charter photographer Peter Stackpole, who lost his own negatives when the Oakland firestorm destroyed his home Oct. 20, said he was shocked when he first heard of Weston's pledge.
"It horrifies many of us, but the more I think about it, since Brett was so meticulous about the way he wanted it printed ... knowing Brett, he probably has piles of prints already made of each negative he wants to destroy."
Still, Stackpole, best known for his photographs of the construction of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and '30s and '40s Hollywood, said he couldn't imagine willingly destroying his work.
"My having lost them involuntarily like that -- I'm just beginning to discover which ones are gone," he said.
Meanwhile Weston, who described himself as "frail but active," said he'll continue taking photographs. From now on, though, he'll be tossing the negatives as they're printed.
"New work, that's the important thing -- not the old work," he said.