We all like to think of history as a neat progression—time goes forward, things get better and easier, the future builds on the past. In the Oklahoma City Museum of Art’s new exhibition Brett Weston: Out of the Shadow, they turn the idea of generation influencing generation on its head. Not only does Brett Weston re-emerge as an important figure in the history of photography in his own right, but we see how Brett influenced the work of his father, Edward Weston, in so many ways. As the Directors’ Forward to the catalogue puts it, this exhibition is “a study of progressions—photography’s ascent from trade to fine art, a son’s emergence from his father’s footsteps to transcendent legacy, and an artist’s evolution from youthful prodigy to foremost American modernist photographer.” While both Brett and Edward ventured out to the deserts, they returned with greatly different results, as seen in Brett’s Cactus, Santa Barbara (above) which brings a far greater sense of abstraction to the subject than similar works by his father, reflecting not only a difference in their two approaches but a shift in the development of photography itself.
When Edward’s marriage to Brett’s mother began to fall apart, Brett left school in 1925 and joined his father in Mexico. Working with his father on photography became Brett’s primary education. With access to Edward’s professional equipment, Brett soon schooled himself in the early technology of photography and began creating images himself. As Scott Hale points out in his essay in the catalogue, “In His Own Light,” Brett’s early work in glossy silver prints inspired Edward to give up the matte platinum paper he had been using. When Brett learned to drive, something Edward never learned, Brett sought out new subjects. After showing those works to Edward, the father would often ask the son to drive him out to shoot the same scenes, such as Dune, Oceano (above). “I note Brett’s interest in photography,” Edward wrote of Brett’s early work. “He is doing better work at fourteen than I did at thirty. To have someone close to me, working so excellently, with an assured future, is a happiness hardly expected.” Brett’s prodigious talent surprised Edward initially, but he soon came to see him as a collaborator in addition to a son. Brett and Edward exhibited their work side by side as early as 1927, when Brett was only fifteen. Edward also trusted Brett like no other to print his photographs. “In printing his father’s work,” Hale writes, “Brett exercised the ultimate influence on Edward’s art.” Edward taught Brett the ground rules, but very quickly the student caught up to, if not surpassed, the teacher. A solo exhibit in 1928 and inclusion in the landmark 1929 Film und Foto exhibition in Stuttgart, Germany, alongside the likes of his father, Paul Strand, Man Ray, and others, announced to the world that Brett had arrived as an artist separate from the shadow of his father.
Part of that separation from Edward required a departure in approach to the subject itself. As much as he could look for different subjects, there would always be a comparison until he made a distinct break. Edward came from the old school of photography, beholden to the conventions of painting. Although he emulated some of the trends of modern art, such as Surrealism, Edward remained a painterly photographer for the most part until his death in 1958. Brett, on the other hand, took photography to a new abstract level, abandoning the painterly concentration on the subject for pure pleasure in the possibility of photography, helping establish the independence of his medium simultaneously with his own freedom. “Edward’s photographs grant the immediate recognition of the subject, giving way to form and abstraction, something he called ‘intellectual jugglery,’” Hale writes in drawing distinctions between father and son. “But Brett’s nonobjective photographs reverse the object/subject dichotomy: form denies the subject, requiring a reevaluation of the object and its understanding.” Garrapata Beach (above), at first glance, seems an abstract arrangement of darks and lights and varied textures. Not until you see the footprints trailing off into the distance and recognize the tiny curve of surf peeking in from stage left are you sure this is a beachscape. Brett, who was colorblind, worked exclusively in black and white, amplifying those two extremes to render the natural abstract, whereas Edward excelled in the middle tones, documenting before composing possible aesthetic form. While Edward’s nudes stand as some of the most beautiful and intriguing in the history of American photography for their celebration of the human form, Brett’s few nudes are shot underwater, allowing the play of light through the water to dance on the subject’s skin, painting abstract patterns and making even that most recognizable subject initially indiscernible.
Brett Weston (American, 1911-1993). Kelp and Sand, c. 1970. Silver gelatin photograph; 11 x 14 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Gift of the Brett Weston Archive from the Christian K. Keesee Collection, 2006
Brett “seems to have had a sunny disposition and natural optimism, and his work displays none of the gloomy irony that can come across as contrived in his father’s work,” Johanna Halford-MacLeod and Stephen Bennett Phillips write in their catalogue essay that gives the exhibition its title. Movie-star handsome, as can be seen in the youthful self-portrait that begins the catalogue, Brett comes across as a straightforward man of action in contrast to the complex thoughtfulness of his father. Brett actually played an extra in the film Captain Blood and reportedly inspired the playboy character at the center of the film Love Affair and it’s remake, An Affair to Remember. “My work is perhaps more graphic, but at the same time it is more sensual,” Brett said in comparing his photos with his father’s. “The difference is enormous… He would say that I had influenced him.” Edward may have been more thoughtful, but Brett’s sensuality doesn’t come thoughtlessly, as seen in Kelp and Sand (above). The arrangement of the kelp on the sand in thick ropes that almost seem alive attracts the eye, but the complexity of the image engages the mind as well. The catalogue essays downplay the influence of modern painting on Brett, calling it “generalized,” mainly to widen the gap between him and Edward, but I see echoes of Abstract Expressionism, itself a sensual genre with a brainy side, in images such as Kelp and Sand.
As much as I enjoyed the essays, which help resurrect Brett’s reputation, which has faded somewhat since his death in 1993, the catalogue truly excels in allowing the pictures to speak for themselves. With almost 140 beautifully reproduced plates, you get a full sense of the versatility as well as the consistency of vision of Brett Weston’s work from the 1920s up until the 1980s. Whether it was sand dunes in the 1930s or modern office windows in the 1970s (above), Brett Weston found abstract beauty in the reality at hand. I found myself wondering at the bottomless chasms of blackness in so many of his works, which make the surrounding highlights surge with life. I’ve always been a fan of Edward Weston’s work and now appreciate it even more in contrast to and in symbiosis with Brett’s. Both as a dichotomy and as a team, Brett and Edward Weston helped shape the course of modern photography. Brett Weston: Out of the Shadow does, indeed, pull the son into the light, but it also manages to keep his paternity intact—a feat of “intellectual jugglery” that both would have appreciated.
[Many thanks to the Oklahoma City Museum of Art for providing me with a review copy of the catalogue to Brett Weston: Out of the Shadow and for the images from the exhibition.]