Edward Weston’s Nude, depicting Miriam Lerner—a member of the Young Socialists League from Edendale, Los Angeles—is a masterful accomplishment in Modernist photography. This image exemplifies Weston’s ability to skillfully overlook subject matter in search of ideal forms, transforming his subject’s body into an elegant, streamlined landscape of flesh and skin (Edward Weston: One Hundred Photographs, From the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and the Hallmark Photographic Collection, p. 13).
Weston first met Lerner four years prior in Los Angeles. Despite her intellectual acumen and physical appeal, Weston did not immediately propose a portrait session in his studio, which had been his common practice. Rather, it was not until 1925, the year Weston returned from his three-year stay in Mexico, when the two reunited for a session and a brief affair. 'I have that kindly feeling towards him,' Lerner confessed in a letter ahead of Weston’s arrival, 'so that to hear of his good fortune was a pleasure' (Beth Gates Warren, Artful Lives, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, 2011, p. 263). Weston was likewise enchanted by Lerner, commenting in a letter on 'the full bloom of Miriam’s body—responsive and ever-stimulating' (12 November, 1925, Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley). The series of images produced during their collaboration still stands as one of Weston’s most successful, partially for being among the first bodies of work Weston produced upon his return from Mexico. Indeed, Mexico had a deep impact on Weston, enriching his knowledge of the arts, culture and politics, especially through the socialist prism of his fellow artists and poets living in Mexico at the time, from Frida Kahlo to Jean Charlot. Upon his return to California, Weston proceeded to destroy his pre-Mexico journals and ceded that he was at the beginning of 'a new period in my approach and attitude towards photography'.
The images of Lerner are all notable for their high degree of cropping, focusing on the hands and torso of his subject. While Weston had previously photographed close-ups of his subjects, perhaps most notably Tina Modotti, those were largely aestheticized with flowing robes or contextualized with surrounding architectural motifs. Moreover, the subjects were mostly upright and the resulting images vertical. In that regard, the format followed the traditional norms in photography, whereby the subject and photographer faced one another, aware of the other’s presence. In the current print, however, Weston broke with convention and captured his subject in a far more radical format: supine and with no discernible horizon line or any surrounding architectural motifs to orient the viewers’ attention. The close cropping thrusts the viewers into intimate proximity with the subject and the strategic lighting yields a sculptural quality to the figure. The twisting of the torso adds a rush of movement and vitality to the composition.
That Weston chose to print this image in palladium is noteworthy. According to Constance McCabe, Weston’s ‘early exhibition photographs, like those of his more seasoned East Coast peers, were made on platinum and palladium papers; he continued to work in platinum until 1924 and in palladium until 1926’ (Noble Metals for the Early Modern Era: Platinum, Silver-Platinum, and Palladium Prints, online component of studies of the Thomas Walther Collection at The Museum of Modern art, p. 6). As a metal, palladium yields a lustrous surface, and allows for a greater range of mid-tone grays that cannot be accomplished with silver. This resulting print of Weston’s Nude, therefore, is imbued with a painterly quality that lends a soft, delicate glow to the image.
Weston made a small series of nude studies of Lerner; while Conger notates five images, a print of an additional sixth image emerged from Lerner’s estate in 2007. Gelatin silver prints of this particular image reside in the collections of The J. Paul Getty Museum and The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, as well as the Special Collections at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
The present photograph was purchased by John M. Bransten from Jacob Zeitlin, of Zeitlin & Ver Brugge Booksellers in Los Angeles, in 1971. Zeitlin was involved with LA’s bohemian community during the 1920s and 1930s, had known Weston, and had exhibited the photographer's work during his lifetime. Bearing a full signature, date and the location 'Edendale' (where Lerner lived at the time), on the verso, this exceptional, un-mounted palladium print is believed to be the only example in private hands and is among the most remarkable Weston photographs to come up for auction. At the time of this writing, no other palladium print of this image has ever before come up for public sale.