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.

Comments