Edward Weston shares a place in American photography with a very select group of artists: Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, Paul Strand, Imogene Cunningham, Charles Sheeler. These are the people who took photography out of the realm of imitation and, working within a very pure view of the capabilities of the medium itself, created what we still think of as the “good photograph” in the still-dominant mode of American Modernism.
“[P]hotography has certain inherent qualities which are only possible with photography – one being the deliniation [sic] of detail – so why not take advantage of this attribute? Why limit yourself to what your eyes see. . .?” This quote is from the page of Weston’s journal reprinted as a frontispiece in volume I of the Daybooks, which covers Weston’s time in Mexico from 1923 to 1926. Volume II is concerned largely with his life in California from 1927 to 1934. Nancy Newhall, the eminent historian of photography (who, along with her husband Beaumont Newhall, created the field of “history of photography”), notes in her introduction that Weston had originally kept the journals without thought of publication, although short excerpts had been published. Weston was also prone to reviewing and editing his journals, as he did his negatives, so that the Daybooks as published in this edition have been thoroughly reviewed by Weston; very little additional editing has been done. (Newhall notes that “When publication threatened, he went through the surviving eleven years of it with a razor and a very thick black pencil.”)
The Daybooks of Edward Weston are unique in the annals of modern photography: it is our one chance to see into the mind of one of the great artists of the twentieth century, to follow along with his developing ideas of what his art is about and what it should be about. That they are illustrated with examples of his works from the period – many of which had never been published before this book – only adds to the excitement.
Weston’s relationship with Mexico was problematic – he enjoyed the vitality of the people, the richness of the folk art and pre-Columbian artifacts, and the intellectual ferment of the Mexican Renaissance (among his circle in Mexico City were Rivera, Orozco, Siqueiros, Kahlo, and of course, Tina Modotti, with whom he had come to Mexico). What is amazing about Weston’s work and his thinking from these years is how much he was in tune not only with currents in Mexico, but trends in Europe and America – Otto Dix and the Neue Sachlichkeit in Germany, the work of Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler in New York, Brancusi, Arp, Matisse, Atget, Renger-Patsch, and Manuel Alvarez Bravo, who influenced not only Weston but Henri Cartier-Bresson. In part, however, it was the very character of Mexico – the earthy unreality of daily life – and his own dichotomy of aims – objective realism and abstraction – that contributed to the conflicts Weston felt at this period. We see the beginnings of Weston’s resolution of these conflicts, although sometimes not explicitly laid out in his journal entries: among the illustrations are some of his great, classic images, such as his portraits of Tina Modotti and Manuel Hernández Galván, the exquisitely realized and fundamentally revolutionary “Excusado” of 1925, and the “Palma Santa” of 1926, these two the forerunners of his great abstract studies of peppers and cabbage leaves of the later 1920s and 1930s. His return to California and the final resolution of these aesthetic and philosophical quandaries led to what many consider the greatest period in his career, the beginnings of which are covered in Volume 2.
The plates included do a great deal to illustrate first, the dichotomy – the images bring home the strong urge to abstraction that always underlay Weston’s vision – and then its resolution. Many are legendary images – in addition to the notorious “Excusado,” we are presented with the stark, high-key “Maguey” of 1926, the sensuously rendered nude of Tina Modotti from the same period, the astonishing abstract pictures of peppers, cabbages, and nautilus shells from the late 1920s and 1930. Others are still relatively unknown – a subtle and evocatively rendered nude torso of his son Neil from 1925, a “from the roof” view of his neighborhood in Mexico from 1924 in which one can see the seeds of his breathtaking landscapes of the 1930s – those that look so familiar to us because of Weston’s enormous impact on his successors – and the later landscapes of the 1940s with their incredible subtlety.
There is enough gossip left after Weston’s editing to keep the Daybooks lively enough, but the real meat of these documents is his thought. We’ve seldom had such an opportunity to see the “artist at work” (until of course, the days of the instant and automatic “fifteen minutes of fame”), and, given the stature of the artist, this is a real treat. That these journals also contain a personal history of the creation of a major school of modern art is a bonus. Weston said it best: “My work has vitality because I have helped, done my part in revealing to others the living world about them.”