Charis Wilson: Model and writer who became muse and collaborator for the photographer Edward Weston

"A new and important chapter in my life opened on Sunday afternoon, April 22, 1934." So began the entry in the diary of Edward Weston, then 48, who had just completed a photoshoot with the 20-year-old Charis Wilson. He was right. She soon became his principle model, muse, amanuensis and lover, in a relationship which was to last for more than a decade.

Remembering that same session many years later, in an interview for the book The Model Wife (1999), Wilson remarked with modesty that, "I knew I really didn't look that good, and that Edward had glorified me, but it was a very pleasant thing to be glorified and I couldn't wait to go back for more."

Helen Charis Wilson was born in 1914 in San Francisco to a creative, middle-class family. Her father, Henry L. Wilson, was a well-known novelist and her mother Helen Cook Wilson an amateur actress. From the age of 12, and following her parents' divorce, she was brought up by her grandmother and aunt, who were also involved with the San Francisco literary world. Her passion for the visual arts was inspired by visits to a family friend, the art critic and patron Walter Conrad Arensberg, who had built up an extensive collection of works by avant-garde artists, including Marcel Duchamp.

Wilson first met Weston in January 1934 at a concert in Carmel, California. From April of the same year she was modelling for him, clothed and nude, creating photos of the whole body and of abstracted body sections, one of Weston's specialities at the time. By December the couple had collaborated on 31 photographic prints and Weston had noted in his diary: "After eight months we are closer together than ever. Perhaps C. will be remembered as the great love of my life. Already I have reached certain heights reached with no other love."

During 1936 Weston and Wilson created a series of iconic photographs taken on the Oceano Sand Dunes near Los Angeles. This had originally been planned as a clothed shoot. However, while Weston was setting up his camera, Wilson spontaneously stripped off and rolled down from the top of the dune. The resulting monochrome nudes show eloquently the bond between photographer and model, through their collaboration in the creative process.

The following year saw Weston receive the Guggenheim Fellowship for photography, the first time the medium had been recognised by the award. This success, which was repeated the following year, owed as much to Wilson's writing of the application proposal as it did to the quality of Weston's images. Similarly, it has since been recognised that when Weston signed off articles for photography journals during this period and later it was, in fact, Wilson who had ghost-written the great majority of the pieces.

Over the next two years the couple travelled widely across America, capturing images which would be used in the books Seeing California with Edward Weston (1939) and California and the West (1940), for which Wilson wrote the text and Weston provided the photography.

In 1941 Weston was commissioned by the Limited Editions Club to produce a photo-illustrated edition of the poet Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. Once again the pair embarked on their travels, on a journey which would take in 24 states and cover 20,000 miles. The resulting book, published in 1942 in an edition of just 1,500 copies, has since become a sought-after collector's item.

The couple separated in November 1945 but remained friends until Weston's death in 1958 from complications of Parkinson's disease. Wilson subsequently married the union organiser Noel Harris in 1946, the day after becoming officially divorced from her former husband. On divorcing Harris in 1967, she moved to Santa Cruz and over the next 20 years worked as a teacher of creative writing and as a union secretary.

In 1977 Wilson provided the introduction to the book Edward Weston: Nudes, designed by Peter Bradford. An updated version of her memoir, Through Another Lens: My Years with Edward Weston (1999), co-written with Wendy Madar, will be published later this year.

The documentary biopic Eloquent Nude: The Love and Legacy of Edward Weston and Charis Wilson (2007) had its public premiere at the Santa Cruz Film Festival. Ian McCluskey, who directed the film, recalls Wilson's first private viewing of the film as she looked back "on her coming of age, reflecting on the complexity of art and love and loss, and recognising that love is layered like that – that it is torn up and beautiful. That sometimes the loss is the beauty."

Wilson will be forever remembered as the beguiling figure in those eponymously-titled photographs of 1934.

Marcus Williamson

Helen Charis Wilson, model and writer: born San Francisco 5 May 1914; married 1939 Edward Weston (divorced 1946), 1946 Noel Harris (divorced 1967; two daughters, one deceased); died Santa Cruz, California 20 November 2009.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)
tvOur review of the Doctor Who Christmas Special
News
peopleIt seems you can't silence Katie Hopkins, even on Christmas Day...
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: Stanley Tucci, Sophie Grabol and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tvSo Sky Atlantic arrived in Iceland to film their new and supposedly snow-bound series 'Fortitude'...
Arts and Entertainment
Kellie Bright as Linda Carter and Danny Dyer as Mick Carter

EastEnders Christmas specials are known for their shouty, over-the-top soap drama but tonight the show has done itself proud thanks to Danny Dyer.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy
tvCall the Midwife Christmas Special
Sport
Laura Trott and Jason Kenny are preparing for the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow
sport
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Bruce Forsyth with Tess Daly in the BBC's Strictly Come Dancing Christmas Special
tvLouis Smith wins with 'Jingle Bells' quickstep on Strictly Come Dancing's Christmas Special
News
news
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

£24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Residential Conveyancer

Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Senior Conveyancer - South West We are see...

Austen Lloyd: Residential / Commercial Property Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: DORSET MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

Day In a Page

Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there