'Authentic photography needs no defense: it stands alone, fresh and vital – has made the whole world see light through different eyes…' –Edward Weston
Edward Weston remains a celebrated figure in 20th century American photography, most readily associated with his visual mastery of the great California landscape. Of all of Weston’s photographs from the late thirties, the images of sand dunes made along the California coast represent some of his most renowned work from a prolific period often associated with the height of his career, with the present lot being a superlative example.
In the early 1930s, Weston began physically distancing himself from his photographic subjects, focusing instead on more monumental abstractions. The Oceano Dunes Natural Preserve along the coast of Southern California, provided a fitting setting for his newly awakened sensibility. Weston’s first documented photographs of the Oceano dunes were taken in 1934 during a visit with fellow artist Willard Van Dyke. Only a handful of images are recorded from that particular trip, and the photographic potential of the dunes clearly made a lasting impression.
1934 was the same year that Weston met Charis Wilson who would become, arguably, the love of his life and his most significant muse and supporter. Charis’ presence and influence was integral to his work from the mid-late 1930s onward. Early in the relationship Edward noted in his Daybooks, ‘Perhaps C. will be remembered as the great love of my life. Already I have achieved certain heights reached with no other love... I must have peace to enjoy, fulfill this beauty’ (Conger, p. 26). Shortly thereafter, Weston and Charis moved from Carmel to start life afresh in Santa Monica.
In 1936 the couple moved to Oceano, which, at the time, was inhabited by a bohemian community, members of whom were referred to as the ‘Dunites’. It was a utopian respite to many artists, including John Cage, John Steinbeck, Upton Sinclair, and Ansel Adams. While there Weston and Charis stayed in an abandoned cabin. The varying, shifting landscape provided Weston endless inspiration and subject matter; he worked throughout the day, utilizing the shifting sunlight and deep shadows to achieve dramatic diversity of mood.
The effects, both visually and emotionally, are strikingly different, and all made within walking distance of their cabin. Weston would often rise before dawn to utilize a low-angled sun in the morning stillness. At this hour, the undulating sand dunes were dappled with dramatic shadows and highlights that lent themselves perfectly to Weston’s credence of sublimation. Weston often obscured the horizon line, creating disorienting and abstract compositions that compel viewers to focus on a sense of aesthetic balance and movement within the dunes’ elemental forms. Indeed, Weston often expressed his conviction that ‘the most “abstract” art is derived from forms in nature’ (Ben Maddow, Edward Weston: Fifty Years, Aperture, New York, 1973, p. 120). The scene depicted in the present lot is a superlative example of these dynamic visual effects.
As of this writing, another print of this image holds the world auction record for a photograph by the artist from his Oceano series, selling in 2007 for $373,000. The present lot was originally in the collection of Pennsylvanian oil magnate and art patron, Thomas Edward Hanley (1893–1969). Weston met Hanley in 1939 and the two developed a relationship that evolved from patronage into friendship. They exchanged letters for fifteen years, during which time Hanley commissioned and acquired prints for his collection. Five years after Hanley’s death, his widow Tullah gifted a selection of their Weston prints to Allegheny College. This print was a part of that group, as evidenced by Tullah’s handwritten inscription on the reverse of the mount. This intimate dedication contributes to the work’s rarity and importance.