The Model Wife

Excerpt from the book The Model Wife, by Arthur Ollman, Director of the Museum of Photographic Art



Edward Weston (1888-1958)

The romantic image of the artist ruled jointly by his passions and his discipline, struggling to survive economically and spiritually in a philistine world, is not solely a modernist invention. But it is alive and thriving today. Edward Weston is one of photography's best exemplars of the type. He stubbornly resisted compromising his art to commercial exigencies. He railed against those who did. After an early pictorialist period, he had a strict and unyielding belief in the use of simple, unalloyed tools and materials. He lived in poverty, he pursued many women, and he was pursued by many others. He described much of his thinking and perhaps too much of his experience, in his Daybooks. He left many friends, lovers, students, and four sons to carry his legend. And, of course, he left scores of brilliant photographs.

Weston's reputation rests on his elegant, reductive clarity, and the purity of his natural forms. Weston strove to reduce his statement to essences; to line, shadow, shape, and balance, while distilling its emotional intensity to an elixir of expressive power. The result is often an elegant, and economic package-sensual, spare, and generous at once. Sensuous forms, light and texture, along with his own proclamations have encouraged sexual readings of much of his art. (left: Edward Weston, Nude, 1934, gelatin silver print, collection: Center for Creative Photography, The University of Arizona)

For Weston, sexual seductivity and the chase were central motivating forces. His involvement with women has dominated his reputation. Weston met Charis Wilson in January of 1934. When Charis saw him, she was attracted by his intensity. He was "twice as alive as anyone else in the room, and whose eyes most likely saw twice as much as anyone else's did." Weston invited her to see his prints soon. When she did visit, Charis was amazed by what she saw and felt transformed by the experience. She first posed for him in early March of 1934. Of the session Charis said, "I knew I really didn't look that good, and that Edward had glorified me, but it was a very pleasant thing to be glorified and I couldn't wait to go back for more." The first session featured fragmented nude body parts. The second session produced a different view. Weston stepped back to appreciate Charis the person, her body, her face, her identity.

Weston from the late teens through the late thirties, made hundreds of nudes. These pictures were most often of fragments seen close up. While they speak of intimacy, and every follicle is defined, the inspection is often of the dissecting table variety. Identities were hidden. Heads, and particularly faces, on these nudes were rare indeed. Few of his nude models seem to interest him beyond their flesh. The primary exceptions are women who related to him in greater depth like Tina Modotti and Sonya Noskowiak and Charis Wilson.

By August of 1935, Charis was living with Edward and there were more portraits, including some unclothed. She was the perfect model, lively, beautiful, uninhibited, playfully experimental, and always at hand. He was inspired and fully receptive. In the late 1930s he often photographed her outdoors, in the stunning sand dune nudes (1936), with an adobe oven on Willard Nash's patio (1937), or the haunting 1939 nude floating in a pool. In Charis, he found his last and best model.

Charis became integral to his life and work. She did the driving as they surveyed California and the West, working on his Guggenheim project (1937-38), and later (in 1941), a twenty-four-state, eight-month tour to create the photographic accompaniment to a new edition of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. In fact, Charis wrote his Guggenheim application that resulted in the first ever awarded in photography. She also wrote many of the articles he published in photography magazines and provided much of his eloquence in text and discussion. Writing was a frustrating chore for him and a pleasure for her.

Charis identified the period of 1941, just prior to the onset of World War II, as the time when their marriage began to deteriorate. The images of Charis after 1941 have greater emotional distance.

In late 1944, Edward was visited by symptoms of Parkinson's disease, including bouts of depression. Weston was a controlling person, and a lifelong devotee of exercise and diet. His deterioration was a catastrophic turn of events. Charis left him in 1945.

With his sexual passion intact he could make of a shell, a pepper, a smokestack or a writhing sea cove, a sensuous metaphor of pulsating life forces. Minus those passions, his subjects could claim to be little beyond their mundane identities. As his life ended, he was still surrounded by acolytes, other artists, old friends, and his sons, but without Charis, his passion for women -- loving them, photographing them, pursuing them, came to an end. There is something about Weston's romantic relationship with women that suggests that he pursued them to affirm that he existed and that the world was a more vital place, as a child might make up songs against the dark night. When the pursuit was finally ended for him, something seemed to collapse and resign within him, and the night began to descend.

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This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 4/27/11

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