'A WUNDERKIND of photography,' wrote a New York curator of the photographer Brett Weston in 1973. Back then, when American photography thought of itself as 'family', the photohistorian Nancy Newhall enthused about Weston as 'blue-eyed, blond- maned, full of gusto and vitality, he moves about his living and working like a benign and unexpectedly gentle lion.'
Fashionable critics of the time invested Weston with a mystic craftsmanship, as the custodian of a majestic landscape, unforgiving of romanticism or ambivalence. 'Nature is a great artist,' Weston boomed to an interviewer during the Seventies, 'the greatest. I've seen rocks and forms that put Matisse and Picasso and Brancusi to shame. You can't beat Mother Nature.'
Some sons reject their fathers, others become disciples. Brett was the favourite son of the legendary landscapist Edward Weston; from his teenage years, he was completely immersed not only in his father's photography but in the aesthetic machismo which went with it. At 13, Brett travelled with his father from Los Angeles to Mexico in search of a photographic nirvana, found form and innocence, a paradisaical and naive elegance, and made it into art through manly intervention. Like pioneers or cowboys they glimpsed vistas of a sublimely tameable wilderness.
For Edward, Brett was a wonderful heir. In the winter of 1926, he wrote in his daybook: 'With the greatest satisfaction I note Brett's interest in photography. He is doing better work at 14 than I did at 30. To have someone close to me, working so excellently, with an assured future, is a happiness hardly expected.'
And Brett's progress was spectacular. In 1929, he exhibited with Edward at the highly influential Film und Foto exhibition in Stuttgart, and during the late Twenties and early Thirties father and son shared studios in San Francisco, Carmel and Santa Monica. Living and working on the West Coast intensified Brett's self-image of an ascetic, uncompromising portrayer of epic natural events. For those young curators and critics who were searching for a native photography which renounced a European aesthetic, Brett Weston's vision came ready- made. Writing in 1966, Nancy Newhall enthused over 'Ice, mud cracks, foam; the towering rock walls of Glen Canyon before it was submerged behind a dam, raindrops on metal, dark crags against the shining Pacific - the common underfoot and within hand's reach, the unusual and the overpowering. Brett transforms them all, unaltered, into forms both bold and subtle.' The historiography of the new American photography needed Brett Weston just as the literate needed Hemingway and Hollywood had to have John Wayne.
But for Brett Weston, real life overtook mythology by the end of the Thirties. The Westons were not wealthy, no one wanted to buy their fine prints and Edward worried constantly about money. When the US plunged into Depression, Brett moved away from his father to make his way as a portrait photographer. Edward gave him parting gifts of 'the car, dollars 50 and a camera' and, 'barely eking out a living', Brett drifted, became a government photographer, a movie cameraman, drove a truck, and joined the Signal Corps in the Second World War.
But photography remained an obsession. When he arrived in New York City in the mid-Forties Weston discovered and photographed forms and structures every bit as inspiring as the natural phenomena of the West Coast. Awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1947, he toured the United States in a customised truck, 'fitted like a ship's cabin, with folding bunks, lockers for food and clothes, racks for pipes and shoes, a brassbound keg for water, and insulated case for films, a primus stove, and spaces for cameras and tripods'. As the United States moved into cultural and social confusion, artists like Weston, uncompromisingly masculine, untouched by politics, by issues of gender, by the increasing distress of the world around them, spoke reassuringly of some earlier and more authentic age. Weston's photography became a charismatic symbol of nationhood, its values simple and plain-hewn.
From the Sixties to the Eighties, Weston's work was published, exhibited and collected throughout the US and in Europe. For photographers who wanted to expose the United States' ills, he felt real dislike - he discounted Imogen Cunningham as 'a parlour pink' and he railed against what he saw as 'ash-can-type pictures of bleeding hearts and Negroes'. Though in many ways they were the making of him, Brett claimed disregard for intellectuals, historians and critics. Towards the end of his life, he attracted substantial publicity by his decision to burn many of his negatives; opinion remained divided as to whether this was a grand iconoclastic gesture or merely a clever way of destroying the evidence of every artist's fallibility.
In the late Eighties, the young British photographer Fi McGhee made a portrait of Weston. In military gear, his tripod held like a gun, posed against a craggy rock, Weston emerged as an enigma of modernism. A man who stood alone, pure and unsullied, inspired by the magnificence of nature? Or one who lived vicariously, costumed against the real world? Critics, who Weston always disdained, are still making up their minds.
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