Monday, June 16, 2008
Striking Silver Out West
Brett Weston: Out of the Shadow
Brett Weston: Out of the Shadow – Stunning retrospective new on view at the Phillips Collection in DC June 21-Sept. 7.
In 1929, 18-year-old Brett Weston notated on a photographic print “Point Lobos Rock form – done before E.W. worked on Weston Beach.” Pride, defensiveness, simple desire to document a detail – whatever the inspiration for his inscription, young Weston made his own mark beyond being a legacy of a legend.
Edward Weston was one of the world’s most highly regarded early photographers. Fortunately, Edward also nurtured his offspring’s talent and recognized him as a prodigy (and in this case, the parent was right). Clearly, silver runs in the Weston family DNA.
The son gets to shine in a new Phillips Collection exhibition of 75 black and white photographs taken from the 1920s through the 1980s.
Born 1911 in Glendale, Cal., Brett left school at age 13 to accompany dad to Mexico. Within a year, precocious sharp-shooting made his life’s calling obvious. Father-son photographic journeys would continue, with each growing as separate but equal artists.
The younger Weston took natural forms and imbued them with abstract lyricism. Crackled mud flats, strands of kelp rising from the sand. The rhythm of broken glass echoes the tidal pool waves on an adjacent wall. Filigreed foam, fringed fronds, lava flow and unmoored glacier ice beckon like micro-worlds. Supple skin punctuated with coarse spiked whiskers is revealed to be a curvaceous cactus. Driftwood morphed into a mutated sea mammal, eyes searching for an escape route.
Brett reframed the complex, rescaled the expansive as graceful, accessible, alternate form, often creating hypnotic effects of which most digit photographers can only dream. Just one example: In “Yucca, White Sands [National Monument” (1947), desert flora resemble two Native Americans in full regalia, facing off as the sun crosses the sky.
Weston the elder made dune shots famous, but Brett was the first to photograph them.
And the clouds – so exotic, surreal. Tendrils and curling fingers hover ominously above Owens Valley. Backdrops to a far less developed, eerily silent San Francisco, rolling hills still exposed. These are marvelous shots.
Glacier ice formations Alaska. Dunes in Oceano. Cactus Santa Barbara. Pines in Fog Monterey. Weston’s singular POVs of natural elements are curiously complemented by uncanny perspectives of material manmade, such as metal rooftops, window reflections, and cracked paint. With absolutely no manipulation, electronic or otherwise. Weston knew intuitively how to zoom in on clutter to crystallize detail, distilling beauty from chaos. Each image invites the viewer to identify and interpret the subject.
Few of Brett’s images feature the human form; that was the province of the father, whose cunning compositions suggest a sharp wit and keen eye for the seductive.
Later in life, Brett decided he did not want any negatives printed after this death. So it’s said that he celebrated his 80th birthday party in 1991 by tossing most of said negatives into a fireplace. The few that survived were permanently scored to prevent reprinting. He died in two years later.
Brett’s self-portrait depicts a young man sufficiently handsome to have made a career on the other side of the lens. And in fact, he did score a small bit in “Captain Blood,” a 1935 Errol Flynn flick, and his playboy exploits gave rise to the male lead of “Love Affair” and “An Affair to Remember.” The Phillips exhibition makes us give thanks for his unflinching focus on land, sky and city.
Father and son continued to influence one another as the decades rolled on. Edward Weston enjoyed greater fame; Brett made more money. Perhaps Edward came out ahead in the pleasure category, seeing his progeny make his own mark, shadow be damned.
Also worth considering:
* Lecture by Stephen Bennett Phillips, curator of Brett Weston: Out of the Shadow. July 10 at 6:30 pm.
* Artful Evening Gallery Talk “On Location – Following Weston and His Camera”. July 31 at 6 pm and 7 pm.
* To share the photographs and father-son story, pick up the companion volume – giftably priced at just $25.
The Phillips Collection
1600 21st St., NW
Tuesday through Saturday, 10 to 5
Thursday Artful Evenings 5 to 8:30
Sunday from 11 to 6
The Phillips Collection
1600 21st Street, NW
Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Thursday Artful Evenings until 8:30 p.m.
Sunday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Cactus, Santa Barbara, 1931 and Mendenhall Glacier, Alaska, 1973
By Brett Weston (1911–1993)
Gelatin silver prints, © The Brett Weston Archive