25
Jun
16

Exhibition: ‘Brett Weston: Significant Details’ at Pasadena Museum of California Art

Exhibition dates: 17th April – 11th September 2016

Curator: Erin Aitali, PMCA Director of Exhibitions and Registrar

 

 

If your subject is essentially unrecognizable – a defining characteristic of many of Weston’s photographs – devoid of sentimentality, featuring an explosion of geometry as a form of Western expressionism, able to extract the microcosm from the macrocosm through an absence of human presence and apparent narrative – then your previsualisation must be spot on otherwise you loose clear focus as to just what it is you are trying to communicate. It’s all very well being obsessed with capturing the intricacies and rhythms of form, light and shadow, visual poetry in photography, but if that obsession has no ‘feeling’ outcome then you are doomed to failure.

Imagine (if you can) that master of documentary realism Eugène Atget placing his camera in just the wrong position for one of his photographs. The tripod just a little too low, the position a metre to the left of where it should have been. The resulting image would not feel like an Atget, the angles would not feel right, the mixture of objective and subjective would not be present, the magic of his photographs – recognisably his photographs – would be missing. What Atget does so convincingly is to combine the aesthetic with the documentary or representational. As G.H. Saxon Mills observes in his essay ‘Modern photography’ ‘”modern” photography means photography whose aim is partly or wholly aesthetic, as opposed to photography which is merely documentary or representational.’ Atget proves that both were possible within the same frame.

This is not the case with the photographs by Brett Weston in this posting. Although I have commented elsewhere on this website that, “Brett Weston’s pictures are ageing well – the decorative aesthetic seems to have more currency today than previously when the values of his father were predominant,” and admired the reductive minimalism of his photographs … this is not the case with these ‘significant details’. In this instance they are just representation, poor relations to the photographs of Minor White and Aaron Siskind. I think that the best of his work is very fine – a sort of celebration of all that had gone before with a layer of super-fineness added. However he made many images that were a bit like a preacher rather than an artist. In some of his portfolios the choice of images is just plain weird, catering to the market rather than takng the chance to make a powerful statement. And photography aficionados remain unconvinced by his work, shying away from collecting it. Perhaps they know, or feel a lack of something, some spirit or other, or a seeming unevenness in the quality of his artistic production.

Perhaps it is his printing, which is a bit “Kodak meets EW” in the darkroom (even as his father entrusted him with printing some of his negatives). Weston achieved his good results because he was a careful craftsman, not an experimenter. Someone, I forget who, said that you never looked at his work when desperate for sustenance – and I think a lot of “connoisseurs” think that – and in a Brett Weston you can too often argue yourself out of the celebration. There is a certain dourness that is hard to overcome. I challenge you, now, to say one meaningful good thing about any of the images presented here. They take you nowhere. They are either too tightly cropped (that lack of true previsualisation / placing the camera in the wrong position / lack of context) or rely on pattern and representation, and only that, to do the heavy lifting.

My feeling about his work is that he saw and felt many great things that he used in his work – but at the final hurdle, his implementation was always handled a little directly, or not a well as might have been… or is sometimes absent. Perhaps it’s just his viewpoint which seems to be too limited in a psychological sense. If Atget had photographed the city without those magnificent tripod positions and understanding of space, then they would have been dead. That’s how BW’s work sometimes feels. Instead of the space feeling larger than the camera can contain, on occasions his photographs feel enclosed and stilted.

Weston said, “There are a million choices for shot. At its simplest, photography is very complex. So I try to keep it simple and focus on things I can master.”

Sometimes, keeping things simple does not result in preternatural outcomes.

Dr Marcus Bunyan

.
Many thankx to the Pasadena Museum of California Art for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

 

“My father was driven and so am I. You’re ruthless. You brush off your friends and women. He was much kinder than me. I don’t verbalize well and I don’t socialize much. Too time consuming. And I’m not a good salesman of my work. I love people, but they can be a drain. Some are stimulating; some are leeches. So I seek people on my own terms. Most artists are loners. I guess they have to be.”

.
Brett Weston

 

“Weston isn’t really a nature photographer… He was obsessed with capturing the intricacies and rhythms of form, light and shadow. Weston is as fascinated by close-ups of the exfoliating bark of a bristlecone pine or the spikes of a Joshua Tree as he is with the visual poetry of peeling paint on the side-panel of a rusted out truck.”

.
Jeffrey St. Clair

 

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Brett Weston: Significant Details' at the Pasadena Museum of California Art

Installation view of the exhibition 'Brett Weston: Significant Details' at the Pasadena Museum of California Art

Installation view of the exhibition 'Brett Weston: Significant Details' at the Pasadena Museum of California Art

 

Installation photographs of the exhibition Brett Weston: Significant Details at the Pasadena Museum of California Art
Photos: © 2016 Don Milici

 

 

“Although Brett Weston (1911-1993) is best known for his striking scenic photographs, the majority of his work ranges from middle-distance scenes to close-up abstractions. These concentrated images share the high-contrast and graphic qualities of Weston’s panoramas while emphasizing his affinity for “significant details” and the unprecedented attention to form, texture, shadow, and light that he explored throughout his nearly-seventy-year career.

Weston took up photography at the age of fourteen. Although he received basic technical instruction from his father, renowned photographer Edward Weston, Brett’s early efforts owed much to his intuition and innate eye. His elemental talent coupled with an unflagging commitment to his photographic vision – often at the expense of personal relationships and fiscal well-being – carried him from early critical acclaim, through difficult periods, to eventual financial success within his own lifetime.

By the age of twenty-five, Weston’s photographs were included in significant exhibitions both nationally and internationally, but despite early recognitition he served as a WPA photographer during the Great Depression and as a Signal Corps photographer during World War II. By neccessity, he also worked intermittently in the first half of his career as an industrial and portrait photographer. However, when he achieved prosperity beginning in the 1970s, he devoted himself exclusively to the photography and intercontinental expeditions that fulfilled him. His initial interest in abstracted details continually revealed itself, especially once he began using a new, smaller camera after health problems in the late 1960s forced him to abandon the bulky equipment he had used for over thirty years.

Early and continuing critical success notwithstanding, following Brett’s death, the comparison to his famed father left the younger Weston on the wrong side of a narrowing modern canon of photography. Reaffirming Weston’s legacy and his exceptional contributions to modernist photography, these uncharted, close-up images – more than half of which are on view for the first time – demonstrate the major themes present in Weston’s work: a focus on natural and urban landscapes and the objects therein, the absence of human presence and apparent narrative, and an extraordinary ability to extract the microcosm from the macrocosm.”

Introduction text from the exhibition

 

Brett Weston. 'Untitled (Worm Wood, California)' c. 1937 (printed c. 1970)

 

Brett Weston (1911 – 1993)
Worm Wood, California
c. 1937 (printed c. 1970)
Silver gelatin print
10 1/2 x 13 3/4 inches
The Brett Weston Archive
Courtesy Christian Keesee Collection, 2016

 

 

Although Weston’s wife Cicely provided the couple with a steady income, she became pregnant with the pair’s first (and only) child in 1937, providing Weston impetus to generate additional means of support. Hoping to replicate the financial success of Ansel Adams’s portfolio of limited edition original photographs, Weston produced one of his own. His first portfolio San Francisco (1937) consisted of twelve 8 x 10 original prints. Unlike the photograph Staircase, San Francisco (1928) included in this exhibition, the portfolio photos were panoramic vistas. However, without the robust support of a collector like Albert Bender, who both promoted and purchased enough of Adams’s portfolios to assure commercial success, Weston didn’t profit from his portfolio. He lacked not only the promotional skills and collector base but also refused gallery sales owing to his deep distrust and outrage at their commissions.

 

Brett Weston. 'Wood' 1972

 

Brett Weston (1911 – 1993)
Wood
1972
Silver gelatin print
7 1/2 x 8 5/8 inches
The Brett Weston Archive
Courtesy Christian Keesee Collection, 2016

 

 

“One of the most celebrated and prolific photographers of the twentieth century, Brett Weston (1911-1993) is best known for his striking scenic images, yet the bulk of his work ranges from middle-distance scenes to closeup abstractions. The Pasadena Museum of California Art (PMCA) is proud to present Brett Weston: Significant Details, the first museum exhibition to focus on Weston’s close-up photography. The works – over half of which are on view for the first time – share the high-contrast and graphic qualities of Weston’s panoramic photographs while emphasizing the “significant details,” the tendency toward abstraction and extremes in tonality that Weston explored through his nearly 60-year career. The exhibition further contextualizes Weston within the pivotal Group f/64 and highlights how intuition and a dedication to photography in its purest form guided his practice.

Although the teaching of his father, famed modernist photographer Edward Weston, was invaluable and his influence undeniable, Weston’s practice was largely shaped by instinct and informal training. He took up photography at the age of 14 when, on an extended trip to Mexico with his father, he started photographing the crew of the SS Oaxaca with the elder Weston’s Graflex camera. This trip also coincided with the end of his formal education; he was enrolled at an English-speaking school, but dropped out within two weeks. While in Mexico, Weston became part of the modernist mileu, socializing with and viewing the work of some of the greatest artists of the time, including David Siqueiros, Diego Rivera, and José Clemente Orozco.

Weston’s professional entry into the world of photography occurred during a shift from the East Coast Pictorialists and their accentuation of romantic effects to the West Coast photographic movement, which coalesced with Group f/64 and their sharp images that captured daily life. Like the members of Group f/64, which included Edward Weston and Ansel Adams, Brett Weston focused primarily on two types of images: close-ups and the scenic view. However, Weston’s approach was distinct, tending toward highly graphic images, with intense areas of dark and highlights, rather than midgray tones used by many, including his father.

By the age of 25, Weston’s work had been included in the landmark international photography exhibition Film und Foto and in a solo exhibition at the M. H. de Young Museum in San Francisco. Though he received critical acclaim and  his reputation grew, Weston remained dedicated to art for art’s sake and to creating pure, elemental photographs. He was a simple man and used the same equipment for most of his career. However, when health problems forced him to switch to a smaller camera – the Rollei – in 1968, he further experimented with close-up photographs, and his work became even more intent on exploring specific details and abstract qualities. In Torn Leaf, Hawaii (1978, below), for example, the brittle, curling leaf appears monumental on a black ground. It exists as a singular object, not fully contained within the composition, and the size is indeterminable without context.

The uncharted, close-up images that are the focus of Significant Details demonstrate the major themes present in Weston’s work: a play on scale, the absence of the human presence, and a refrain from imposed order. This exhibition features approximately 40 works taken over a period of 55 years, ranging from 1929 to 1984, and brings to the forefront the unprecedented attention to form, texture, shadow, and light that was the distinctive characteristic of Weston’s oeuvre.”

Press release from the Pasadena Museum of California Art

 

Brett Weston. 'Wall, Europe' 1971

 

Brett Weston (1911 – 1993)
Wall, Europe
1971
Silver gelatin print
8 x 10 inches
The Brett Weston Archive
Courtesy Christian Keesee Collection, 2016

 

 

In 1971 Brett returned to Europe for the third time. While there, he captured both abstract images, like this one, and panoramas. Notably, this trip resulted in the photograph of Holland Canal, which Weston grew to hate, despite its commercial success or perhaps because of it, “I’m so sick of the thing but people love it. I could retire on sales of this print alone. I’d hate to tell you how many of these I’ve printed.” Although this scenic print wasn’t the legacy Weston desired for himself, it led to an overall increased attention from collectors interested in his work, including his abstractions.

 

Brett Weston. 'Untitled (Cracked Mud, High Sierra, California)' 1960

 

Brett Weston (1911 – 1993)
Cracked Mud, High Sierra, California
1960
Silver gelatin print
8 x 10 inches
The Brett Weston Archive
Courtesy Christian Keesee Collection, 2016

 

Direct evidence of human presence was rare in Weston’s photos. But here, two playful sets of handprints on the mud provide scale, which would otherwise be indeterminable in the image.

 

Brett Weston. 'Electrical Towers, Metal' c. 1975

 

Brett Weston (1911 – 1993)
Electrical Towers, Metal
c. 1975
Silver gelatin print
8 x 10 inches
The Brett Weston Archive
Courtesy Christian Keesee Collection, 2016

 

 

Brett Weston: Significant Details

Brett Weston, born in 1911 in Tropico, CA (now Glendale), took up photography at the age of fourteen while on an extended trip to Mexico with his father, famed photographer Edward Weston. In Mexico for just over a year, his time there was pivotal in many ways, not only marking the start of his photography career, but also the end of his formal education. His father allowed him to drop out of the international school after two short weeks and provided the younger Weston with basic instructions in photography. Still, Brett relied heavily on his innate sensibilities toward form and tonality, evident in Tin Roof, Mexico, an early photograph from 1926 featuring a cropped view of a jagged roofline with dramatic dark shadows splitting the image. Weston also benefited from a social education of sorts. Through connections of his father’s mistress, photographer Tina Modotti, Weston became a part of the Mexican modernist milieu, socializing with and viewing the work of some of the greatest artists of the time, including Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros.

During his nearly-seventy-year career, Weston’s talent and unique vision developed into two related types of works, panoramic landscapes and abstracted close-ups. The image most associated with Weston was and probably still is Holland Canal from 1971. The photograph of a tree-lined canal with still water reflecting a flawless image of the surrounding landscape is sensual and magnificently balanced. However, the photographer bemoaned his connection to this particular work and its extreme popularity saying, “I’m so sick of the thing, but people love it.” Although this print and other panoramic images, such as Mendenhall Glacier, Alaska (1973), came to typify his work in the public’s mind, the bulk of Weston’s photographs range from middle-distance scenes to close-ups, which became increasingly abstract beginning in the 1950s. Brett Weston: Significant Details focuses on the close-up works that epitomize his unique and unwavering vision. These images share the high-contrast and graphic qualities of Weston’s well-known scenic photographs while emphasizing what the photography historian Beaumont Newhall characterized as his affinity for “significant details.” Weston applied this penchant for details to natural and urban environments alike. Another early image, Stairway, Grandview Park, San Francisco from 1928, offers a fragmented view of a San Francisco stairwell. Without context, the unpopulated image’s narrative possibilities are limited; instead, the emphasis is on the orderly, graphic form of the staircase.

From the beginning of his career, Weston’s work was celebrated by institutions and peers. The year following Stairway, Weston’s work was included in the landmark 1929 German photography exhibition Film und Foto, and the early 1930s saw his association with Group f/64, a distinctly West Coast movement of “straight” photographers (as opposed to the East Coast Pictorialist tradition, which was waning at this time) that comprised Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham, Edward Weston, and others. Brett’s work appeared in their 1932 inaugural exhibition at the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco. The following year, both San Francisco Stairway and Tin Roofs (presumably the same works discussed in this essay) were included with forty-three other photographs in a solo exhibition at the de Young.

Although Weston saw early success with his work included in major exhibitions, this did not translate into a steady income. Like most artists during the Great Depression, the Federal Art Project – a branch of the Works Progress Administration – employed Weston, first as a sculptor and then later as a photographer. He quit the FAP in December of 1936 after about two and half years because he had no passion for the documentary nature of the work and it impinged upon time for his personal projects, something that he could not bear for long. Throughout the thirties and forties, he worked intermittently – and discontentedly – as a portrait and industrial photographer to stave off poverty and support his daughter who was born in 1938. In complete contrast to the realistic, documentary style of his FAP and commissioned works, an untitled photograph from 1937 is an extreme close-up of paint that is almost organic in appearance, with leaf-like veins in the upper portion of the image. The subject is essentially unrecognizable, which is a defining characteristic of many of Weston’s photographs.

The slim Depression years segued into the tumultuousness of World War II, during which Weston served in the US Army before a much-requested transfer to the US Signal Corps stationed him to work as a photographer in New York. At the end of the war, when Brett returned to Carmel, CA, where the Weston family had made their long-time home, he found his father beginning to show marked symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, which would increasingly debilitate the elder Weston in the last decade of his life. Before Edward’s death in 1958, he enlisted his sons Brett and Cole and a small group of trusted assistants to secure his lasting legacy by making thousands of prints under his supervision. In addition to printing work for his father, during this time, Brett also worked on his Guggenheim fellowship project and his second and third portfolios, White Sands (1949) and New York (1954).

Besides photographing the beaches of Carmel, one of which was dubbed “Weston Beach,” Brett also traveled up and down the California coast countless times over the decades. He repeatedly returned to capture the dunes of Oceano, and these images range from sweeping vistas to striking abstractions. An image from 1952, Dune, Oceano, although not technically a detail, falls into the latter category. The dunes appear wave-like and swirling, and a dark, somewhat-menacing shadow at the centre – similar to the roofline image taken in Mexico – provides graphic force. Jellyfish, California, another beach image, taken in 1967, is a close-up of one of the bulbous marine animals washed ashore. In contrast to the ethereal and weightless appearance jellyfish take underwater, it looks monumental and grotesquely beautiful. The curving form expands beyond the picture’s boundaries and in place of luminescence is a gradation of pure white reflections to jet-black striated patterns on the bell.

Although the tendency to work close-up had always been present in Weston’s work, it became much more pronounced and obvious after health issues necessitated a change in camera equipment. For over thirty years, Weston worked with a large format 8 x 10 camera and preferred contact prints (versus enlarging from smaller negatives). However, a heart attack  in 1967 and an ongoing battle with angina forced Weston to switch to a smaller camera because he could no longer manage the bulky equipment. In 1968, he began using the Rollei SL-66 almost exclusively. The camera used roll film that produced small, square negatives and allowed the artist to work close-up with ease. As a result, his work became even more intent on exploring specific elements and abstract qualities. Sand and Kelp from around 1970 is a lyrical example of this. Individual grains of sand are visible and marked by traces of implied movement, both in the dancing shadows of the kelp and the trailing patterns lightly indented into the surface.

While Weston had traveled steadily and as often as he could afford to in his younger years – expeditions that included Europe, Japan, the Pacific Northwest, Baja California, and Mexico – his later years were spent primarily in Hawaii. The tropical climate was beneficial for his health, and the varied terrain provided limitless visual appeal. In 1979, the photographer purchased land there on the slopes of a volcanic mountain. He became especially engrossed with the lava formations and the verdant and spectacular plant life, which he photographed until his death in 1993.

Weston achieved, within his lifetime, the recognition and financial comforts of a highly esteemed photographer. Even so, following his death, Brett’s reputation was eclipsed in favor of his father, due in part to the notion that there wasn’t room for two Westons in the canon of modernist photography. The 2008 exhibition Out of the Shadow (Oklahoma City Museum of Art and The Phillips Collection) and his biography A Restless Eye (2011) have begun to remedy this situation. Significant Details furthers that work by centering on the uncharted, closeup images that characterize Weston’s innate and distinctive eye. These photographs reveal the major themes present in his oeuvre: a focus on natural and urban landscapes and the objects therein, the absence of human presence and apparent narrative, and an extraordinary ability to extract the microcosm from the macrocosm.

Erin Aitali, Director of Exhibitions and Registrar

 

Brett Weston. 'Broken Glass, California' 1954

 

Brett Weston (1911 – 1993)
Broken Glass, California
1954
Silver gelatin print
8 x 10 inches
The Brett Weston Archive
Courtesy Christian Keesee Collection, 2016

 

Brett Weston. 'Torn Leaf, Hawaii' 1978

 

Brett Weston (1911 – 1993)
Torn Leaf, Hawaii
1978
Silver gelatin print
10 3/4 x 12 inches
The Brett Weston Archive
Courtesy Christian Keesee Collection, 2016

 

Brett Weston. 'Jellyfish, California' 1967

 

Brett Weston (1911 – 1993)
Jellyfish, California
1967
Silver gelatin print
7 5/8 x 9 5/8 inches
The Brett Weston Archive
Courtesy Christian Keesee Collection, 2016

 

Brett Weston. 'Cracked Paint' 1937 (printed later)

 

Brett Weston (1911 – 1993)
Cracked Paint
1937 (printed later)
Silver gelatin print
12 1/2 x 10 1/8 inches
The Brett Weston Archive
Courtesy Christian Keesee Collection, 2016

 

 

Like Broken Glass, California (1954, above), this image of cracked paint is an extreme close-up to the point that the subject is indistinguishable. Instead pure form becomes the focus. This intense focus also characterizes Weston’s approach to life; he prioritized his photography above all else, often at the expense of both financial stability and personal relationships (he was married four times and had countless lovers).

In 1937 Weston was living with his first wife, Cicely, in San Francisco who was employed as a violinist in the WPA symphony. Weston had recently quit the WPA because, as he explained in a letter to his father in December 1936, “It has been a good thing in many ways but after 2 1/2 years I feel that I have had enough experience of this kind. I feared it was beginning to tell on me as well as my work. I would rather divorce, starve, anything, than have this happen. The actual work I’ve been doing for the work program has been child’s play but the sacrifice of one’s priceless days… has become too much.”

 

Brett Weston. 'Snow' 1954

 

Brett Weston (1911 – 1993)
Snow
1954
Silver gelatin print
9 1/2 x 7 5/8 inches
The Brett Weston Archive
Courtesy Christian Keesee Collection, 2016

 

 

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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes the Art Blart blog which reviews exhibitions in Melbourne, Australia and posts exhibitions from around the world. He has a Dr of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne and is currently studying a Master of Art Curatorship at The University of Melbourne.

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