'Come back to me lovely attic girl – I am longing for you, your love and your companionship – for another unforgettable episode among flying shadows and dancing music – I cannot come to storm your castle yet – may I not hope to see you here? Write soon and tell me yes!' –Edward Weston in a letter to Betty Katz, 1920
In 1920, Edward Weston had been living in the Los Angeles area for roughly a dozen years, and had cemented his reputation as a businessman and skilled portraitist, fluent in a Pictorialist style. He was living in Glendale in a deteriorating marriage with Flora, his first wife, and their four sons. At the age of thirty-four, and having built for himself and his family the idyllic life he imagined, Weston found himself in a critical moment of restlessness and both personal and professional apathy. What he ultimately came to recognize as a state of untenable complacency, Weston soon embraced a bohemian lifestyle with fellow artists in Glendale and the broader Los Angeles area. In doing so, he was exposed to influences that would significantly impact his evolution from Pictorialism into a more modernist approach, the basic principles of which are woven throughout the remainder of his career.
A key group of images emerged from these transformative years of 1920-1921, which Weston termed the ‘Attic’ series. The four most significant of these works were Ramiel in His Attic, 1920, The Ascent on Attic Angles, 1921, Sunny Corner in an Attic, 1921, and the present lot, Betty in Her Attic, 1920. Ramiel McGehee, a dancer and designer, and Weston were dear friends (and would be for the next forty years) and the two spent social time together exploring the bars and nightclubs of Los Angeles. During one of these evenings Weston met Betty Katz (later Brandner), a friend of Margrethe Mather’s, who briefly resided in Los Angeles in the fall of 1920. The two had a passionate two-week affair; these ‘hours of ecstasy’ transpired in the attic of the Hancock Banning House near Long Beach, Los Angeles, where Katz was staying.
Weston channeled his passion for Katz into photographs of her posed on the attic balcony and against sharp interior angles. The results were revolutionary, with the most exceptional among the group undoubtedly the breathtaking composition of the present lot, Betty in Her Attic. Even at the time, Weston sensed that these were some of his most significant images to date:
Neither by spoken nor written word will I be able to tell you how beautiful these weeks have been to me—but when you look at the attic pictures they will tell you—for in them I poured all of my affection for you and used all the stimulus your association has given to me—At least one of them will always live among the few “best things” I have ever done... (Letter from Edward Weston to Betty Brandner, 1920. Edward Weston Miscellaneous Acquisitions Collection, University of Arizona, Center for Creative Photography)
Katz and Weston maintained a lifelong friendship though their romance was relatively brief. It was not unusual for Weston to maintain intimate friendships with former lovers, which Dody Weston Thompson attributed to his ‘general magnetism’ and unfailing kindness (The Malahat Review, April 1970, no. 14, p. 40). Katz’s deep affection is evident in a letter to Weston written in 1955, thirty years after the attic interlude and three years before the artist’s death. At that time it was difficult for Weston to write and Katz nearly begged him not to respond: ‘Whether you write or not, you are always near to me... Just let me write to you and know, my dear, that all that is good in me is ever about you as long as I shall live’ (Letter from Betty Brandner to Edward Weston, 1955. Edward Weston Miscellaneous Acquisitions Collection, University of Arizona, Center for Creative Photography).
When Weston focused his energy on exploring a particular artistic ideology, he consistently created superlative examples of the principle in question. Dody Weston Thompson described this innate proficiency as follows: ‘throughout his life he retained the remarkable flexibility and openness that marked his receptivity to the restless iconoclasm of that decade, to the new esthetics everywhere in the air’ (The Malahat Review, p. 56).
In Betty in Her Attic, the attic’s architectural elements prove equally as important as Katz herself. The composition is grounded by strong angles and shapes formed by the dormer window. These angles and their linear balance activate the image; incoming sunlight highlights them further, as does Katz who peers toward them directly and encourages viewers to do the same. Nestled within the dormer angles which outline her tilted body, her elbow is extended outward, mirroring the radiating shadows and angles above. Katz is an intrinsic part of the compositional balance and provides an element of softness among hard lines. While the overall visual effect has a lingering romantic softness from Weston’s Pictorialist past, Betty in Her Attic perfectly illustrates his early incorporation of modernist forms.
Weston’s use of palladium paper is noteworthy, by virtue of the physical tactility of the print itself. He relied on palladium paper for the period of time between the beginning of World War I and 1923 when he started using a glossy gelatin silver paper while in Mexico. Palladium prints have a rich, lustrous surface, and allow for a greater range of mid-tone grays than can be accomplished with silver. The resulting print is further imbued with a sense of warmth, tactility and presence.
The present work is on its original paper mount and is signed, titled and dated by the artist. This particular handling and display of the print was typical for Weston’s works of that period. As none of the attic images exist in any quantity, the print offered here is extremely rare. At the time of this writing, only two other palladium prints of this image are known to exist, both in public collections at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles and the Center for Creative Photography, Tucson.