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 the spiritual in a shell like the Chambered Nautilus, which makes it such an important abstract of life.
Situated at the pinnacle of 20th Century photography, Edward Weston’s Shell from 1927 perfectly embodies the principles of Modernism. Following a brief if productive Pictorialist phase, Weston began building on the foundations set by Alfred Stieglitz and his New York circle during his three-year stay in Mexico. By the time Weston returned to California at the end of 1926, his style, inspired and informed by Cubism, Dada and Mexican Social Realism, was emphatically modern, displaying a fondness for crispness in line, abstraction in form and wide-ranging tonality.
In March of 1927 Weston began photographing shells. His inspiration was likely derived from a variety of sources. Noted Weston biographer Amy Conger notes that toward the end of his stay in Mexico (1923-1936) the artist is likely to have seen oversized granite nautilus shell sculptures by the Aztecs. Another probable source was Canadian-born artist Henrietta Shore, who, by 1927 has achieved critical acclaim with an exhibition at the San Diego Art Museum. Weston knew Shore, and took his first shell photographs in Shore’s studio in March on 1927. Within a few months Weston wrote in his Daybook, ‘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.'
Fourteen images of shells were created in 1927. Of those, nine were included in his October 1927 exhibition at the Los Angeles Museum. And of those, Weston chose two to send back to his collaborator and muse, Tina Modotti, back in Mexico. The image offered in the current lot is likely to have been one of them, following Modotti’s description of a frontal, upright shell. 'There is something so pure and the same time so perverse about them,' Modotti wrote to Weston. 'They contain both the innocence of natural things and the morbidity of a sophisticated, distorted mind. They make me think of lilies and embryos. They are mystical and erotic.' Weston took great pride in this early body of work, stating on March 20th of that year, 'The shells I photographed were so marvelous one could not do other than something of interest.' The strength in Weston’s Shell lies in its fine straddling of formalist exploration and anthropomorphic seduction. Indeed, as an early print by Weston, the Shell offered in this current lot has a profound dimensionality and an ethereal glow that far transcend the physicality of the object.
The image was instantly popular and Weston sold four prints within a year, a record pace for him. In 1929 Weston began to number his prints of Shell. The intended edition was fifty, and by 1935, the year in which the numbering ended, Weston had made twenty-eight prints in the edition—more than any other image, attesting to its popularity. Around 1930, upon joining the f/64 photography group whose members included Ansel Adams and Imogen Cunningham, Weston began printing his images on semi-gloss paper like his contemporaries. The print offered in the current print was therefore printed around that time.
Other prints of this image can be found at the Museum of Modern Art, New York; George Eastman House, New York; the Center for Creative Photography, Arizona, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.