The photography of Brett Weston

I looked at the information about the new Brett Weston exhibit at the art museum. (Full disclosure: I knew nothing about Brett Weston before I went to the exhibit.) The information showed a black and white photo of a rocky beach. Huh. Like a photo I would take in northern California.

As I walked into the exhibit, two photos greeted me. I looked closely at the captions and squealed silently with delight. (Yes, squealed silently. You can do that. Kind of like when I mentally jump from foot to foot with excitement.)

One photo was the photo on the museum website. It was at Carmel Beach. I knew it! Northern California. He did photography in my old stomping grounds. The type of photo that I would take too.

The other photo was of trees in the mist. Knowing full well what they were, I double-checked the caption. Monterey. Yup. Monterey cypresses.

I sighed as I looked at his other photos. He shot at Point Lobos too. One of my favorite places.

Weston (1911-1993) used a medium format camera and created gelatin silver photographs. He was a modernist. I blinked at this word. Modernist. (I am used to thinking of modernist as a label when discussing design, not photography.) In the words of an informational plaque, “Weston understood that all black and white images are inherently an abstraction of reality.” OK. Modernist. Got it. He focused on shapes and textures, which black and white photography is well suited for. As a modernist, he explored abstraction.

Weston himself inherited a photographic legacy. His father, Edward (1886-1958), was considered the father of straight photography. And what is straight photography you might ask? (I didn’t know either.) Per the exhibit information: “This style [straight photography] relies on a simplified technique and dedication to sharp focus, rich tones, high details, and Modernism’s interest in underlying shapes.” Of course, black and white photography is the perfect medium for rich tones and high details.

Alas, the exhibit is small—perhaps 30 photos. Only a handful are Brett Weston’s. The others in the exhibit are from contemporaries of his, many of whom I didn’t know: Harry Callahan, Aaron Siskind, Charles E. Barnes, Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Minor White, and Berenice Abbott.

No photography exhibit of black and white photographs would be complete without Ansel Adams. The exhibit includes two Adams photographs: Half Dome and Jeffrey Pine Sentinel. (Side note: The Jeffrey Pine Sentinel is no longer quite so photogenic. I hiked to it about a dozen years ago. It had clearly aged a bit since Adams’ day and is now more of a gnarled, weatherworn tree trunk than a tree.)

Weston didn’t just photograph California trees or beaches. He was into abstract forms, whether a natural formation or an architectural edifice. I was excited to learn about him but a bit put out about his lack of environmental concern. Unlike Adams, Weston didn’t engage in broader, environmental issues. My new idol had clay feet.

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