Lessons from Edward Weston

I finally made it, on the very last day, to the exhibition and sale of Edward Weston prints at the Chris Beetles Gallery in London.  I’ve admired Weston’s work, especially his landscapes and still lifes, for a long time.  I used to admire Ansel Adams’ landscapes even more than Weston’s but, whereas I now see  AA’s work as a little sentimental, pastoral and clichéd, I have retained my admiration for some, though not all of Weston’s. Like most people, I am familiar with their work from books.  Although I have seen some originals by Adams I don’t think I’ve ever seen originals of Weston’s; the prints in this exhibition are from the original EW negatives but printed by his son Cole, which means they are pretty close to EW’s vision and good enough for me!

LESSON 1: books and original prints are different. Printing technology has improved tremendously in the last 20 years and the quality achieved in the best books is superb but there is still something about the quality of the blacks in a fine silver gelatin print that isn’t quite achieved in any book. But that’s getting picky: for me the real difference is in looking, really looking, at a print in isolation that brings out layers of detail and meaning that I don’t see when looking at a book. Perhaps it is the shear number of pictures I am presented with in a book that dilutes the impact, or maybe I’m like a kid in a sweet shop, turning the pages too quickly. Note to self – take longer to look!

LESSON 2: Edward Weston’s photographs can be improved. In his day, EW was an artist pushing the boundaries of his cultural environment and doggedly pursuing his personal vision. He was of the opinion that the camera’s strength was in its ability to record of reality while acknowledging the abstraction of the 2-dimensional black & white print. This reflects my own view and is probably why I still like his photographs, that and the lack of sentimentality. But if I were taking the same landscapes I would probably aim for a more abstract effect. Here’s an example of what I mean: the first image is as EW interpreted Oceano in 1936

Edward Weston, Oceano 1936

but I think that masking the top improves the photo

masked version of E> Weston, Oceano 1936

My own opinion is that removing the horizon strengthens the image and makes it more abstract, which I prefer. But then it’s no longer an Edward Weston photograph.

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