Childhood & Early Life
Weston was born in Highland Park, Illinois, to Edward Burbank Weston who was an obstetrician. His mother, Alice Jeanette Brett, a Shakespearean actress, died when he was just five.
His sister Mary, older to him by nine years brought him up. Their father remarried, but the siblings did not share a very warm relationship with their new stepmother and stepbrother.
On his 16th birthday, his father presented him his first camera, a Kodak Bull's-Eye. He started taking photos all around in Chicago parks and also at his aunt’s farm and developed his own film and prints.
His started sending his works to the magazine, ‘Camera and Darkroom’ for publishing and in 1906 the magazine published his picture ‘Spring, Chicago’.
In 1907, he enrolled at the ‘Illinois School of Photography’. He finished the 9-month course in just 6 months. But he did not get the certificate as he refused to pay the full course fee.
Continue Reading Below
For some time, he was associated with George Steckel’s photography studio in Los Angeles. Later, he joined Louis Mojonier’s studio where he got acquainted with all the aspects of operating a studio.
In 1911, he opened, ‘The Little Studio’, in Tropico. For the next three years, he made portraits and wrote articles for the magazines ‘Photo-Era’ and ‘American Photography’, championing the pictorial style.
In 1913, Los Angeles photographer, Margrethe Mather visited his studio. They developed an intense relationship. He found Mather's uninhibited lifestyle irresistible and her photographic vision intriguing and asked her to be his studio assistant.
In 1915, he started keeping a detailed journal which he called his ‘Daybooks’. For the next two decades, he recorded his thoughts about his work, observations about photography and his interactions with friends, lovers and family.
In 1920, he met Roubaix de l'Abrie Richey and Tina Modotti. They were a part of the growing LA cultural scene. The latter became his lover and apprentice.
In 1922, the photographer visited the ARMCO Steel Plant in Middletown, Ohio, which was a turning point in his career. Quite contrary to his Pictorialist style, the industrial photographs were unpretentious and true to reality images.
In 1923, he moved to Mexico City with Tina Modotti and created many important portraits, nudes and still lifes, including the series of monumental heads, the portraits of Modotti reciting poetry and the ‘Excusado’.
Weston was one of the founding members of the Group f/64 in 1932 that sought to promote a new Modernist aesthetic based on precisely exposed images of natural forms.
In 1934, he met Charis Wilson and entered into an intense relationship. He moved to Santa Monica Canyon, California, due to financial difficulties and she joined as his assistant and quasi-agent
Continue Reading Below
He began taking a new series of nudes with Wilson as the model. One of the first photographs he took of her, on the balcony of their home, became one of his most published images.
At Oceano Dunes, near Santa Monica, he captured Wilson in completely uninhibited poses in the sand dunes but exhibited only a couple of them. The rest he thought were ‘too erotic’ for public viewing.
In 1937, he was awarded the first Guggenheim Fellowship ever presented to a photographer.
He signed a contract with Phil Townsend Hanna, editor of ‘AAA Westway Magazine’ to produce 8-10 photos per month during his Guggenheim travels. His trip covered 16,697 miles in 197 days and produced 1260 negatives.
In 1941, he was invited to illustrate a new edition of Walt Whitman's ‘Leaves of Grass’. He and Wilson undertook the trip covering 20,000 miles through 24 states.
In 1946, his major retrospective opened at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. 250 photographs were displayed along with 11 negatives. He sold 97 prints from the exhibit at $25 per print.
In 1948, he took his last photographs ‘Rocks and Pebbles’, at Point Lobos. Diminished in his capacity, he worked with his sons to catalog his images and oversaw the publication of his work.
Nautilus’, a black-and-white photograph taken by Weston in 1927 of a single nautilus shell standing on its end against a dark background, has been called ‘one of the most famous photographs ever made’.
His 1930 photograph, ‘Pepper No. 30’, depicts a green pepper in rich black-and-white tones. By placing the pepper in a funnel opening, he could light it in a way that portrays the pepper three-dimensionally.
Personal Life & Legacy
A philanderer, Weston had intense relationships with many women— Margrethe Mather, Tina Modotti, Miriam Lerner, and Sonya Noskowiak. He got married twice, first to Flora May Chandler in 1909 and then to Charis Wilson.
From his marriage to Flora May Chandler he had four sons. The marriage ended after 28 years, mostly spent separately. Charis left him, after he was diagnosed with Parkinson’ Disease in 1945.