Celebrated for making the ordinary look extraordinary — whether a pepper, a seashell or a sand dune — the California-based photographer created some of the most iconic images of the 20th century
1. He was given his first camera on his 16th birthday
Edward Weston was born in Highland Park, Illinois, in 1886. His father, an obstetrician, bought him his first camera (a Kodak Bulls-Eye No. 2) for his 16th birthday. The gift came with a note that included the helpful advice: ‘Don’t be too far from the object you wish to take, or it’ll be very small’. Weston dropped out of high school soon afterwards, before taking his only formal training in the medium to which he would devote his life: a six-month programme at the Illinois College of Photography in Effingham.
2. He fell in love with California
Weston’s elder sister Mary had moved from the Midwest to the Los Angeles suburb of Tropico (present-day Glendale). On a visit to see her, he fell in love with California’s wide-open terrain, and when he was 20 he decided to move to Tropico himself. Unlike the other great pioneers of American photography — notably Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen, who lived and worked in New York — Weston preferred to stay on the West Coast for the rest of his life, and would shoot many of his most famous photographs there.
3. John Singer Sargent was an early influence
Weston opened a photography studio in Tropico in 1911, producing soft-focus portraits of well-to-do customers modelled on paintings by John Singer Sargent. These were images in the so-called ‘pictorialist’ style associated with artists like Stieglitz, which, taking a cue from Victorian portraiture, rejected photography’s raw, documentary roots in favour of a more sumptuous aesthetic. Satisfying the demands of his clientele was something Weston came to loathe.
4. Cubism offered escape from an artistic dead end
Portraiture allowed Weston to financially support his wife Flora and their four sons, but he found it an artistic dead end. In his early thirties, largely inspired by Cubism, he began to experiment with geometric compositions featuring angular shafts of darkness and light. In Betty in her Attic, his disparately-lit female subject is tucked into a network of intersecting planes formed by the floor, walls, rafters and an unseen dormer window.
5. A trip to Mexico, with his lover Tina Modotti, changed everything
In the wake of its revolution, 1920s Mexico was an exciting place to be for an artist. Leaving his wife behind (but taking his son Chandler with him), Weston relocated there with his lover and fellow photographer Tina Modotti, and ended up staying for three years.
In Mexico he encountered a country of strong light, hard edges and harsh contrasts. Influenced by the simplicity of Mexican art, he came to revel in the pure form of things. Two of his most famous images from this period were Palma Cuernavaca (of a monumental palm tree); and Excusado, a low-angle close-up of a toilet whose curved parts and marmoreal gleam recalled Classical sculpture.
6. He ate the subject of his most famous shot
Upon returning to California, Weston began to take the still-life shots of seashells and vegetables for which he became famous. Pepper No. 30, 1930, a tightly cropped image of a single bell pepper whose undulating form suggests a female nude, would become one of the best-known photographs of the 20th century (what’s less well-known is that he ate his subject in a salad after shooting it). Weston suddenly started to see similarities of form everywhere. ‘Life is a coherent whole,’ he said. ‘Rocks, clouds, trees, shells, torsos, smokestacks and peppers are interrelated, interdependent parts of that whole.’
Weston’s famous Shell of 1927 perfectly embodies the principles of Modernism. Other prints of this image are in the collection of 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.
7. He spearheaded a seminal San Francisco photography collective called Group f/64
In 1932 Weston and a small cohort of California-based photographers, including Ansel Adams and Imogen Cunningham, founded a collective called Group f/64. Sounding a death knell for Pictorialism, they championed the kind of sharply-detailed imagery now referred to as ‘straight photography’.
As Weston explained in the collective’s manifesto: ‘The camera should be used for a recording of life, for rendering the very substance and quintessence of the thing itself.’ The group disbanded in 1935, but its ideas influenced photographers including Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, who documented the effects of the Great Depression across the United States.
8. He was the first photographer ever to receive a Guggenheim Fellowship
Weston loved to travel. In 1937 he won a $2,000 Guggenheim Fellowship grant, which allowed him to criss-cross the state of California. He’d cover 17,000 miles in 200 days, and produce 1,260 negatives. The resulting prints from these trips include an exceptional series of sand dunes in Death Valley.
Weston’s most celebrated images of dunes, however, were captured in Oceano, which he visited in 1936. Such is the near-black Weston achieved in some parts through shadow, and the near-white he achieved in others through brilliant light, that these images verge on abstraction. Weston ‘has a reputation for making the ordinary look extraordinary,’ says Anne Bracegirdle, Christie’s Associate Vice President of Photography. ‘Nowhere was this more true than in his sand dunes.’
9. A collaboration on Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass infuriated him
In 1941, Weston was asked to shoot some ‘real American faces’ and ‘real American places’ to accompany a deluxe edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. For the project, Weston visited 24 states, and developed hundreds of photographs (49 of which were ultimately published). Many of these images, such as White Sands, New Mexico, are now highly regarded. But the publisher’s decision to tint the pages green and print the photographs alongside lines of Whitman’s text infuriated Weston, who deemed the project a ‘failure’.
10. In his final years he starred at MoMA, and became fascinated by the Pacific shoreline
In 1946, to mark his 60th birthday, Weston was granted the first of his two major retrospectives at New York's Museum of Modern Art (the other coming, posthumously, in 1975). Featuring 260 photographs from across his career, it was organised by Nancy Newhall — part of a formidable curatorial double-act together with her husband, Beaumont Newhall, both of whom served at different times as MoMA’s Curator of Photography. In her catalogue essay, Nancy hailed an oeuvre ‘astounding in its range and power’, which stood ‘as a challenge and inspiration to all younger photographers’.
By this time, Weston owned a hilltop house in Carmel, near Point Lobos, a vast stretch of Pacific shoreline that he photographed over and over. Here he shot cliffs pounded by the sea, lonely cypress trees, rock pools, dead birds washed ashore, and fog over brooding ocean swells. His work now seemed to take on an emotional dimension — something unprecedented in Weston’s oeuvre.
This has been interpreted by some as a reflection of his heightened feelings at the time, as all four of his sons left for military service in the Second World War, his second marriage (to his former model, Charis Wilson) broke down, and he began to feel the effects of Parkinson’s Disease, which would render him unable to take another photograph after 1948.
Weston’s work was widely admired by this stage in his life and despite his debilitating condition, he maintained a positive outlook, buoyed by an appreciation for beauty, which he felt could never be properly explored with words alone. He was adored by his friends and remained in close contact with previous lovers right up until his death on 1 January 1958, aged 71.