"To see the Thing Itself is essential: the quintessence revealed direct without the fog of impression―the casual noting of a superficial phase, or transitory mood. This then: to photograph a rock, have it look like a rock, but be more than a rock."

Edward Weston, from "The Daybooks of Edward Weston"



1939 was a year in a period of artistic maturity and prolific photographic creation for  Edward Weston. His 1937 Guggenheim fellowship gave him for the first time the opportunity to get away from his commercial portrait business. By that time his photographic vision had evolved and become more complex: his formalist preoccupation with "the quintessence revealed direct" and its concurrent large-format, wide-tonal-scale technical treatment  were retained, yet the photographs in general have a subtler and more dynamic structure. Death and decay coexist with forms of pristine beauty. The images are more complex, and it is more difficult to pin them down aesthetically.

In "Willie, New Orleans, 1941", the photograph consists of two rectangular flat surfaces, each of which could have made a separate photograph. The bottom one is like a reprise from the sensuous rock surfaces of Point Lobos, the top one is a flat perspective "still-life" of a vase against a marble slate. Yet this is, in fact, a close-up of a tombstone found and photographed as weather and wind had scarred it.



In "Nude On Dunes, 1939" the flat lighting washes out the feeling of three-dimensionality of the space. The spike-like protrusions of the sticks in the foreground almost pierce the nude body in the upper left corner of the photograph. The faint vulgarity of the pose of the model adds to the overall disquieting effect.



I took a look at those two photographs because I believe they introduce some of the concerns and formal elements of Edward Weston's mature vision, which are evident in the focus of these notes: "Nude Floating, 1939".

There are those moments in an artist's life when, talent, luck and hard work permitting, one's dearest technical, thematic and formal preoccupations merge and result in a piece so complete that it appears to be aside and beyond the artist's efforts. In those rare moments the work in a strange way "creates itself". The artist is like a witness who also happens to be involved in the goings-on. I see the image in question in this light, and below I will try to explain why.

Weston's prolific and varied treatment of the nude female form is probably the single strongest thematic current in his entire career. He had numerous love affairs, and almost invariably made nudes of the women in his life. In his diaries Weston remarks on the fact that treating his models' bodies as pure form untainted by sexuality comes easy to him when photographing. Whether natural and unconscious or more rational and self-imposed—I tend the favor the latter—this discipline yielded images that avoid eroticism. The sensuosness present is that of line and light, not of desire. Or at least so the photographer wanted it to be, with the result that his celebrated studies of peppers look more erotic than many of his nudes.

This approach, with a difference, is also evident in "Nude Floating, 1939". One would have a hard time trying to describe the woman in the pool: a precocious young girl or a goddess of the water, a nymphet lost in her daydream or one's cousin taking a swim? Ambiguity is the most prominent aspect of the image, yet only a starting point for its power. The way I see it, even the girl's face changes expression depending on how the photograph is viewed: in its intended horizontal position it has the transcendent poise of a Buddha; if the image is rotated vertically, something disquieting, stilted and uneasy is evident in the expression. Furthermore, through compositional treatment and the grey scale of the print, the sensuality of the nude female form is downplayed, yet not obliterated. It is interesting to note how the dapple-shade water ripples caress the body inviting it to a  splash in the sun, yet the woman's pose is as stiff as that of a corpse...

Compositionally the sense of mystery and ambiguity in the photograph is enhanced through the interplay between the rock-solid placement of elements and lines on the one hand and the ephemeral water ripples and play of light on the other. The nude figure is caught midway between solid darkness on the left and the dappled grey of the shallow on the right. The body is a moving bridge between the two, and the lightness of the torso echoes the tonality of the pool parapet which encloses and somehow protects the intensity of the scene. There is also a kind of a split between the feeling of weightlessness of the torso over the darker water on the left and the legs resting on the concrete on the right.

Yet why eventually all this? Why did Weston choose or mold all these elements in this particular way? There is most certainly no "quintessence revealed direct" here, much less so a sense of purpose or message. Charis Wilson, Edward Weston's lover at the time the photograph was made, points in a possible direction:

"During the last years he was able to photograph, he was particularly taken with situations where an interface separated life and death as in the great dead pelican floating on a tide pool, where small live creatures scurried about beneath, or in the nude floating in the swimming pool at my father's home."

The quote provides us with a thematic interest of Weston, yet cannot provide an answer to the bigger question: Why, all variables in their place, does this photograph succeed as art, and others with similar subject matter, even by the same artist do not? 

In "Nude Floating, 1939" Edward Weston uses photography's deceptive transparency between signifying and signified in a most sophisticated way. The image as print (photographic object) with the controls, techniques and conventions (e.g. posing a model) of premeditated art contained and implicit in it is placed in a plausible balance with the believability of the external reality it describes. After all, it is only a picture of a girl in a pool! The words I used groping to describe the relation between the two - "plausible balance" do not imply, however, predictability, or a lack of tension. It is precisely this ineffable tension which leads me to continue staring at the photograph while I write, after having already seen it a hundred times, for a nagging feeling insists that there is still something in it, which is yet to be noticed... Rationally I know, of course, that even if I spent my whole life with this photograph there is no single way of "understanding" it. The doubts will persist: a lover, a nymph, a victim or an apparition of desire? Just a single moment or a whole hour? Sometimes I would like to wonder if the body floats into the water or the water floats into the body. Paradoxically, I do not want to know the answers of all these questions. The knowledge whether or not it is Charis Wilson herself in the picture will only probably diminish this tension between suspected reality and reality as marked in the photograph, and with it the intensity of art may disappear, or at least diminish.

If I refer to the photograph discussed as one of those cases in an artist's career when the work practically "creates itself" and transcends the immediate efforts of its author, I do so not only because of its inherent qualities but also in reference to its longevity. Photographs, unlike film, do age gracefully, yet often acquire a blandness that neither offends nor excites anybody. (Hasn't everybody laughed at fin-de-siecle pornographic imagery?) The photographs that escape this trap do deserve attenton and admiration, and I believe "Nude Floating" to be one of those lucky images. In addition to being, at least to my eyes, as fresh and exciting as if it were made yesterday, I detect in it the seeds of a whole way of seeing and creating in black-and-white photography that was to follow historically in the fine-art practice of the medium. (Most of Ralph Gibson's work is one example.)

All this warrants, I hope, this much attention given to a single picture of a girl in a swimming pool...

©Rafaelo Kazakov, NYC, 1994

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