Situated at the pinnacle of 20th Century photography, Edward Weston’s famous Shell (Nautilus) of 1927 is a perfect embodiment of the principles of Modernism. The present lot was printed incredibly early, before December 1928, as evidenced by the artist’s inscription on the reverse of the mount: ‘Lester and Jean Roy–with many happy memories from Edward–Dec. 1928.’
Both this lot and lot 105 possess rare and noteworthy provenance, coming directly from the family of Mr. and Mrs. Lester and Jean Roy Carter of San Francisco. The Carters were dear friends to Edward Weston and are mentioned throughout the artist’s published Daybooks. The Carter family have in their possession several fondly written letters from Weston to Jean Roy and Lester that are telling of their close friendship. Likewise, this print has remained with the family ever since it was acquired from Weston in 1928.
Recounts of intimate, blithesome evenings of dancing and lively debate with Jean Roy and Lester, and even of playdates with Weston’s and their children, are found throughout the artist’s diaries. In a letter to Modotti in 1925, Weston wrote, ‘Neil goes to play every day at the Carter’s with their little girl, four; when he starts to leave she threatens with tears,’ (Edward Weston, The Daybooks of Edward Weston, Vol. I Mexico, Aperture, Millerton, 1973, p. 118). Later, on November 14, 1928, he wrote in his diary, ‘We danced!—tangos & danzóns...Jean Roy furnished a bottle of wine, “to help along a good cause” (Weston, The Daybooks of Edward Weston, Vol. II California, Aperture, Millerton, 1973, p. 91).
Perhaps most telling of how truly loving their friendship was, is a letter written by Weston to Jean Roy on June 16, 1925 (fig 1), just after his departure from San Francisco, as he headed back for Mexico via Los Angeles. His letter to Jean Roy reads as follows:
Lovely-lovely Jean Roy—a thousand years from now I will remember our parting at the train—it was an exquisite— perfect gesture from you—I saw there on the platform all the way to Monterey—looking out upon the changing landscape— which I hardly saw—for my eyes were dimmed—This sounds like a love letter! And in truth it is! For I do love you and Lester and little Collier with deep tenderness—If I say that my leaving Mexico has been compensated for by finding you—please believe me—all your thoughtfulness towards me—and the fine times I have had with you shall be cherished memories no matter where I go.
During his sojourn in Mexico with Tina Modotti, Weston built on the foundations set by Stieglitz and his New York circle. Stieglitz’s mission was for fine art photography to depart from its previously dominant aesthetic of painterly Pictorialism, in favor of new modernist modalities for the medium. By the time Weston returned to California permanently at the end of 1926, his style, inspired and informed by Cubism, Dada and Mexican Social Realism, was emphatically modern, displaying a fondness for crisp lines, abstract forms and wide-ranging tonality.
Weston had begun photographing shells in March, 1927. His inspiration for the shell images was likely derived from a variety of sources. Weston biographer Amy Conger notes that toward the end of his stay in Mexico, 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, had 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 of 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. (Weston, The Daybooks of Edward Weston, Vol. II California, Aperture, Millerton, 1973, p. 21).
Among the fourteen images of shells created by Weston in 1927, the image offered in the present lot would become the most celebrated. Nine of Weston’s shell images were included in his exhibition at the Los Angeles Museum in October of 1927. Of those, Weston chose two to send back to Tina Modotti, still in Mexico. The image offered in the present lot is likely to have been one of them, based on 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, The Daybooks of Edward Weston, Vol. II California, Aperture, Millerton, 1973, p. 31).
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.'
Weston’s Shell was continually selected for major exhibitions, beginning very soon after its production. In 1929, just a few years after the Los Angeles Museum exhibition, a print of the image was selected for the highly influential exhibition in Stuttgart, Film und Foto where Weston’s photographs were well-received by German and Austrian curators and scholars. Thereafter, in 1930, it was shown at the Delphic Studio gallery during Weston’s first one-person show in New York. The Museum of Modern Art, New York included a print of the image in the important retrospective of the photographer’s work in 1946. And since the artist’s death, the image has continued to be exhibited and featured in many crucial studies of Modern photography of the twentieth century, always serving as a capital example within the category.
The print in the present lot is on matte paper and unnumbered, as is consistent with Weston’s prints of the image made immediately after the 1927 negative date. It was in 1930, when Weston joined the f/64 photography group with Ansel Adams and Imogen Cunningham, that he began printing his images on a semi-gloss paper like his contemporaries; he also began numbering prints of this image for a projected edition of fifty. Thus, early prints of Shell that are signed and on matte-surface paper are extremely rare; the artist’s dated inscription on the reverse of this print makes it even more so.