Photographer Study #3 | Edward Weston and the Universality of Basic Forms

Edward Weston was one of the most influential and pioneering figures in the field of photography in the 20th century. Along with his peers like Ansel Adams, Weston was at the forefront of the Modernist photography movement in the 1930s. Modernist (or “Straight”) photography was characterised by the use of a large format camera to create richly detailed and sharply focused black and white photographs. During his 40 year career, Weston tackled a wide range of subjects —landscapes, still life, portraits, nudes— with a sole focus on presenting objective texture, rhythm and form in nature.

Uprooted Cypress, Point Lobos
Uprooted Cypress, Point Lobos

/ The camera sees more than the eye, so why not make use of it?

When he was 16 years old, Edward Weston was gifted a camera by his father. He took to it almost immediately and decided to pursue a career in photography. Armed with formal training from Illinois College of Photography, Weston made his foray into the field by setting up his own studio. In the initial years, he was known for making portraits in the then fashionable Pictorialist style — in which photographs tried to emulate paintings by using techniques like soft focus and darkroom manipulation.

Nautilus(left) and Nude(right)

/ “I see no reason for recording the obvious.”

A decade into his career, Weston’s photography took a dramatic turn. The Pictorialist style was replaced by a precise, highly detailed, Modernist aesthetic which came to define his career. In his own words, this was a time when he started to revel in the pure form of everyday things (both natural and man-made). During this period Weston made a series of monumental close-ups of seashells, peppers, and cabbages, bringing out the rich textures of their sculpture-like forms. Over the next few years, he brought this aesthetic to other subjects as well, most notably landscapes and nudes.

Cabbage Leaf

/ This then: to photograph a rock, have it look like a rock, but be more than a rock.

Edward Weston was a master of making the simple look profound. His most famous images take simple everyday objects and imbue them with a heightened presence.

In his journals he wrote that his aim was to render “the very substance and quintessence of the thing itself whether it be polished steel or palpitating flesh.” In other words, to depict his subjects in their truest form.

For example, while creating one of his most famous pictures, Pepper No. 30, Weston agonised for days about how to light it, opting in the end for a dramatic lighting that accentuated its sensuous, curvaceous form.

Fun fact: After creating what would become one of the definitive images of the 20th century, Weston proceeded to make a salad with the subject (a pepper) and eat it.

Pepper No. 30
Pepper No. 30

/ My work-purpose, my theme, can most nearly be stated as the recognition, recording and presentation of the interdependence, the relativity, of all things – the universality of basic form.

Part of Edward Weston’s legacy is as a founder of the F-64 club along with other photographers like Ansel Adams and Imogen Cunningham. This group pioneered a type of unmanipulated, sharp focused photography. The collective was named after the maximum aperture in the large format camera they used, which ensured sharpness in both foreground and background. 

Weston was also a prolific writer and maintained detailed notes throughout his career in what he called “Daybooks”. They provide a fascinating account of his evolution as an artist and offer insights into his approach to the art form. To learn more about the life and philosophy of this pioneer of photography, check out the links below.