Edward Weston made this print in 1927 on velvety matte-surface paper, mounted it on a large buff-colored card, signed and dated it in pencil in the lower right corner of the mount as was his preferred method at that time. On the reverse of the mount he wrote: ‘To Clay and Margaret from Edward-’ It was a gift to Henry Clay Seaman, Jr. and his wife Margaret. Clay was the brother of Weston’s dear sister Mary’s husband, John Seaman. The print has remained in the family to the present. Having spent decades tucked away in a drawer it has never before been exhibited to the public.
The spring of 1927 was one of the most important periods in Edward Weston’s developing modernist vision. He began to turn away from the superficial effects of pictorialism at the beginning of the decade. After visiting the ‘International Salon of Photography’ in the spring of 1927 he wrote in his daybooks, ‘Unable to definitely use Form these pictorialists resort to artistic printing: unable to feel Life, except with the surface emotions of a pugilist or an old maid teacher, they produce only fogs and ‘light effects.’ Pretty stories poorly told! —moods—instead of the Thing itself.’ ‘The Thing itself,’ that was what Weston was after and the ‘Things’ that he concentrated on that spring were bananas, the nude dancer Bertha Wardell and shells. Each presented him with a separate challenge. It was difficult for him to seize the motion of the dancer, the bananas ripened and decomposed quickly, often not before one of his sons had eaten them, much to Weston’s frustration. Even his shell arrangements were frequently disturbed by the rambunctious boys, his cats or even the vibration of passing trucks.
Weston first began to photograph shells after meeting the painter, Henrietta Shore in early 1927. She made paintings somewhat similar to those of Georgia O’Keeffe working with flowers and shells as subject matter. While sitting for a portrait painting by Shore they had long conversations about their work. He made his first shell photographs in her studio in March and later borrowed some to continue the pursuit in his own studio. By May he recorded in his daybooks, ‘I was awakened to shells by the painting of Henry [Henrietta Shore]. I never saw a Chambered Nautilus before. If I had, my response would have been immediate! If I merely copy Henry’s expression, my work will not live. If I am stimulated and work with real ecstasy it will live. Henry’s influence, or stimulation, I see not just in shell subject matter, it is in all my late work,— in the bananas and the nudes. I feel it not as an extraneous garnish but as a freshened tide swelling from within myself.’
After a couple of months, he became obsessed with photographing the shells. In early May he wrote, ‘I worked all Sunday with the shells,—literally all day. Only three negatives made and two of them were done as records of movement to repeat again when I can find suitable backgrounds. I wore myself out trying every conceivable texture and tone for grounds: Glass, tin, cardboard,—wool, velvet, even my rubber rain coat!’
Weston sent prints of some of his shell photographs to Tina Modotti in Mexico City. She wrote to him with her comments and those of their friends such as the artists Diego Rivera and José Orozco. Rivera asked, ‘Is Weston sick at present? These photographs are biological, beside the aesthetic emotion they disturb me physically,—see my forehead is sweating.’ Modotti continued that one of the photographs, ‘made everybody, including myself, think of the sexual act.’ Weston realized that he had achieved something that went beyond ‘The Thing Itself’ when he wrote the following about these responses to his shell photographs, ‘Why were all these persons so profoundly affected on the physical side? For I can say with absolute honesty that not once while working with the shells did I have any physical reaction to them: nor did I try to record erotic symbolism. I am not sick and I was never free from sexual suppression,— which if I had, might easily enter into my work, as it does in Henry’s painting. I am not blind to the sensuous quality in shells, with which they combine the deepest spiritual significance: indeed it is this very combination of the physical and spiritual in a shell like the Chambered Nautilus, which makes it such an important abstract of life. No! I had no physical thoughts,—never have. I worked with clearer vision of sheer aesthetic form. I knew that I was recording from within, my feeling for life as I never had before. Or better, when the negatives were actually developed, I realized what I felt,—for when I worked, I was never more conscious of what I was doing. No! The Shells are too much a sublimation of all my work and life to be pigeon-holed. Others must get from them what they bring to them: evidently they do!’
Edward Weston’s negative log in his archive at the Center for Creative Photography records that sixteen numbered prints were made from this negative (identifed as 2S). Those would have been printed later than 1927 on semi-gloss paper and numbered. Amy Conger’s authoritative catalogue of Weston prints in his archive at the CCP notes fve prints in other public collections and none at CCP. In addition, we have located two other later prints in private collections. As of this writing the only other early print on matte-surface paper to be located is the print that Weston gave to his sister, Mary Weston Seaman, currently in the collection of the Dayton Art Institute in Ohio.
All quotes are from, Newhall, ed., The Daybooks of Edward Weston: California, vol. II, Horizon Press, 1966, pp. 8, 21, 31-32.