Issue #142  3/25/2008
Review: Weston Book of Nudes

By Matt Damsker


Edited by Brett Abbott. Based on the original unpublished book compiled by Nancy Newhall and Edward Weston. 2007, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, CA in association with the Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ. Hardbound; 39 black-and-white plates; ISBN No. 978-0-89236-903-4. Getty Publications, 1200 Getty Center Drive, Suite 500, Los Angeles, CA 90049-1682; information: http://www.getty.edu .

In this wide-open age, it's hard to believe that American publishers of the not-so-distant 1950s were unwilling to publish a monograph of Edward Weston's nude figure studies--especially since Weston was already regarded as a photographic master by 1953, when he was in decline due to Parkinson's disease, needed cash and could not work very much. That year, with curator and critic Nancy Newhall, Weston put together a mock-up for his book of nudes, but the project only languished, trapped in the amber of Eisenhower-era morality. The mock-up eventually became part of the Getty Museum's deep Weston holdings.

Now, thanks to Getty assistant curator Brett Abbott, along with the Center for Creative Photography (custodian of the Weston Archive and the Beaumont and Nancy Newhall Collection), Weston's Book of Nudes has finally seen daylight, in a version that fulfills the intent of the mock-up. If anything, the superb quality of these reproduced gelatin silver prints--made by direct digital capture from the CCP's archives--means that the images seem more richly alive to us now than they could have been in their day, given the limitations of mid-1950s photography-book technique. Thus, the obsidian blacks of Weston's desert shadows or the creamy wash of his skin tones convey the sort of electric charge in this version that only a viewing of the original prints can otherwise deliver.

That said, the images are by now very familiar--classics of figuration and formal abstraction that echo Weston's groundbreaking portrait of a lustrous green chili pepper, as he began to develop his graceful and wholly original depictions of the female nude, often cropped and enfolded to achieve paragons of organic form. Whether he was working in experimental close-up--a breast, an arched torso, long limbs--or exploring the fullness of the body sprawled against a monochrome field of sand or snow, Weston's vision was both rigorous and sensual, implying the emotional and sexual connection he had with his key models, yet never veering into mere prurience.

Apart from these stunning reproductions, the great treasure of this long-delayed resurrection is Nancy Newhall's original essay, which was pasted in typescript form in the 1953 mock-up (which is itself reproduced, in small format, at the back of the book). Newhall knew Weston and she knew the photographic tradition, and so she chronicles his artistic journey with deft strokes: "He began as most of us do, with the Nude as Sentiment, which at that is a notch or two above the cold-boiled pinup. Mist and light veiled everything: his young wife Flora in a misty meadow, his baby sons wandering in misty gardens, his friends sitting in misty spotlights in his studio. He was grasping only shimmer, never substance…"

Newhall notes that Weston, as recipient of the first Guggenheim Fellowship ever awarded to a photographer, had two years--1937 and 1938--free to wander the West, photograph and print. When he turned to the nude in 1939, he was finally ready to capture form "as a power moving in space and light," she writes. The resulting images were captured in available light, with not so much as a reflector to artificialize the moment. More than a curio, this long-sheltered book provides a fresh contextualization for Weston; it reveals anew the profound simplicity of his approach, and the enduring resonance of his contribution.

Matt Damsker is an author and critic, who has written about photography and the arts for the Los Angeles Times, Hartford Courant, Philadelphia Bulletin, Rolling Stone magazine and other publications. His book, "Rock Voices", was published in 1981 by St. Martin's Press. His essay in the book, "Marcus Doyle: Night Vision" was published in the fall of 2005. He currently reviews books for U.S.A. Today.

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