THE POWER OF THE MUSE WHO GIVES BACK
Eloquent Nude: The Love and Legacy of Edmund Weston and Charis Wilson, a one-hour documentary directed by Ian McClusky, is an aptly titled study that isn’t interested in Weston or his photography as much as it is interested in the power of the muse, and in the case of Charis Wilson, the muse who collaborates. Wilson, we learn, not only inspired Weston, but often posed without direction. As a writer she also helped market and chronicle his work. In short, for a few magical years, when love reigned, they were a team.
Made in 2007, the film is greatly enhanced by a 92-year old Wilson – (she died two years later) — whose poignant recollections are nicely complemented with sometimes scholarly and sometimes poetic commentary by Arthur Ollman, Jonathan Spaulding, and Jennifer Watts. And while I’m generally not a fan of recreations, those appearing in this film are so realistic one might think they were commissioned at the time.
As noted by Weston in his diary near the end of 1933, when he first saw “this tall, beautiful girl, with fine proportioned body, intelligent face, well-freckled, blue eyes, golden brown hair to shoulders,” he knew he had to meet her. The muse was equally smitten. States Wilson:
“For anyone interested in statistics – I wasn’t – he was 48 years old and I had just turned 20. What was important to me was the sight of someone who quite evidently was twice as alive as anyone else in the room, and whose eyes most likely saw twice as much as anyone else’s did.”
It didn’t take long for Weston to invite Wilson to his studio, nor did it take long for the liberated Wilson to shed her clothing for the camera. States Weston in his diary:
“I have not opened this book for eight months, and for good reason, I’ve been too busy … busy living. The first nudes of C were easily among the finest I’ve done. Perhaps the finest. I was definitely interested now and knew that she knew I was. I felt a response. But I am slow, even when I feel sure, especially when I’m deeply moved. I made some 18 negatives, delaying, always delaying, until at last she lay there below me waiting, holding my eyes with hers, and I was lost, and have been ever since. A new and important chapter in my life opened Sunday afternoon, April 22d, 1934.”
Nor was it simply a physical attraction. As noted by Ollman, “he was a famous artist, and she was not a famous writer, but he was extraordinarily impressed with her ability to express herself with words.” Indeed, it was Wilson who helped pen an application that won Weston a Guggenheim grant that allowed the couple to travel almost 20,000 miles through California, Nevada, Arizona and several other states — with camera and typewriter in hand – during 1937 and 1938.
Free to photograph anything he wanted, Weston made the most of these travels, as did Wilson, who produced a 300-page journal of their adventures. At one point, the couple caught up with Weston’s younger contemporary, Ansel Adams; and together with Rondal Partridge, Adams’ assistant, the group went on a photographic camping trip. Typical of the stories sprinkled throughout this documentary, curator Jennifer Watts observes:
“One of the things I love about that trip is that before they go, they contact Ansel and say, ‘Where can we buy dehydrated vegetables and things to bring on our trip?’ And Ansel says, ‘Dehydrated vegetables. Why would you want those? The only thing you need for a camping trip are salt, bacon, flour, whisky and jelly beans, and that’ll get you through.’ And I think that’s such a wonderful contrast because that really goes to show the difference between Edward Weston and Ansel Adams.”
Looking back at the trip now, Rondal Partridge makes it clear that Wilson well held her own in such great company:
“First I thought this is sorta funny, I mean, Edward was what, 45, 50 and she was 21 … and I thought this isn’t going to work, but she was 21 going on 40. She was totally unselfconscious about her body, about her times, about her work. She was my introduction to unselfconscious sexuality, and life and verve ….”
The road trip was a great success, Weston and Wilson married in 1939, and in the next two years they published two well-received books — photographs by Weston, text by Wilson.
Buoyed by this success, Weston sought and received another road-trip commission, this time to create photographs for a special edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. But in the face of restrictions, deadlines, and divergent interests, the couple did not experience the joy of their first venture. When Wilson wished to explore areas not connected with the commission, a focused Weston would not allow it. The relationship was tested. The team began to splinter. It was the beginning of the end.
In the years that followed, art imitated life in their final sessions together: in contrast to the open sensuality of the early shoots, the final sessions show a clothed Wilson posing with closed body language. Not aware at the time that the onset of tremors spelled Parkinson’s disease for Weston, Wilson filed for divorce in 1946. “We both knew when we did break up, that it was a good idea, that we weren’t doing each other the kind of good that we had once been sort of selected by nature to do.”
Although Wilson remarried and had children, she kept in touch with Weston, particularly through letters. In 1957, knowing that he was greatly debilitated by his disease, she visited him in the home they had once shared. Visiting the home once more, this time for the documentary, a 92-yr old Wilson, looking beyond the camera, tells us:
“One of the things I aimed to do when I was here was pick up a good many of my books, and I remember going over to the big bookshelf over there where a lot of the books were, and plucking these things out and stacking them up, but when I looked at this shelf it just made me feel kind of sick. It was like looking at a … looking at a … jaw that had had the teeth taken out of it, and I put the books back and that was the last time I saw him.”
This is surely Eloquent Nude’s most poignant moment. Mixing the sad with the sweet, it reminds us that sacred times and sacred space should not be tampered with, lest we destroy the sacred memories that give them meaning.
Like the placement of Wilson’s books, photographs also have the power to call up the sacred by suspending time. “Photography,” Jonathan Spaulding tells us, “is about something evanescent. It captures through the alchemy of its process a moment which you then send off into the future.” Stated differently, we can use the camera to freeze time, if only for an instant — but if it is the right instant, we can revisit that moment years down the road, and soak up its resonance as if we were there.
Describing Weston’s portraits of Wilson, Arthur Ollman expounds on this thought:
“Decades ago, in a place we’ve never been, at a time we weren’t even alive … there we are, transported back into his head, looking through his eyes at a woman he loves, and we get to feel that. His pictures of Charis are probably the most intimate pictures he took in his life, the most personally exposed, and the most emotionally generous, perhaps.”
In the end, this is not a film about photography. It is a film about love as the source of creation. “Edward did some of the best work of his career,” states Watts, “as a result of having Charis in his life, and Charis was able to explore and understand parts that she never would have without Edward.” But time is relentless. And as Spaulding observes, while “the relationship of Charis and Edward is all about the magic of creation,” it is also a reminder that given the time we’re here, we should try our best to seize as many of the instants that add up to a lifetime as we can.