Category Archives: reviews

review — Eloquent Nude: The Love and Legacy of Edmund Weston and Charis Wilson

 

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.”

 

“Nude” by Edward Weston, 1936

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.”

 

“Charis, Lake Ediza” by Edward Weston, 1937.

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.”

On location still by Carson Michel © 2005

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.

For a short video from Eloquent Nude, click here.
To visit the official Eloquent Nude site, click here

Also posted in documentaries, masters of the medium, other photographers

Vivian Maier — a new master is discovered

Imagine going to an auction and purchasing a repossessed box of film, only to later discover you’ve bought 30,000 negatives created by an unknown woman who promises to be one of the great street photographers of the 20th Century. That’s exactly what happened to John Maloof, a 29-year-old real estate agent who made his purchase in 2007, hoping he might find some vintage images for a book on a Chicago neighborhood.

 

© Vivian Maier –the Maloof Collection, LTD

The master Maloof discovered was Vivian Maier, a former nanny who died in obscurity not too long thereafter — at the age of 83 in April 2009.  Ironically, it was just about that time that Maloof seemed to have fully appreciated the treasure he was sitting on.  Although it was too late to contact Maier, it wasn’t too late to become her champion.  Seized by the excitement of having discovered a great artist, Maloof diligently searched out more of Maier’s work, and began to promote her genius.  As a result, he now owns no less than 100,000 Maier negatives, most of which have never been seen by the public, and many of which await development.

Although Maier has been a story for some time, I discovered her only recently, when a friend sent me an email promising to lead me to a collection of “amazing photographs.” I’ve received many such emails over the years, and while I’ve often enjoyed the result, I’ve never been amazed – until now.

 

© Vivian Maier

© Vivian Maier

Vivian Maier is quite a force. A recluse who apparently was loved by those few who knew her, she took to the streets with her camera during the second half of the 20th Century. The result is a collection of perfectly-exposed images that sharply capture the times in beautiful black & white. While the subjects vary, her portraits of random encounters are among her strongest images. In these we see isolated individuals — sometimes posing, sometimes observing, sometimes lost in thought — belonging precisely where we find them, in well-composed settings (usually slices of the city) that add to the story.

 

© Vivian Maier

© Vivian Maier

© Vivian Maier

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Looking at Maier’s images makes you feel like you’ve traveled through time to a place far far away — and it is this nostalgic fermentation which surely is part of the charm.  But the faces painted across her canvas — noble faces, fragile faces, faces of concern, anger, surprise, hubris, bemusement, concentration, joy, pain and quiet desperation — speak to a timelessness of condition common to all generations.

In Maier, we also see something of the chameleon at work. While her eye, sensibility, and technical expertise is that of a master, I wonder about her aesthetic, that special signature that sets her apart.  I’m sure that it’s there, but for now, as I continue to explore her images, I can’t help but see the style (if not the influence) of others — the street drama of a Helen Levitt, the humor of an Elliott Erwitt, the compositional geometry of a Cartier-Bresson, the conscious voyeurism of a Lee Friedlander. To be clear:  this isn’t a criticism; few photographers are so multidimensional.

Another master who comes to mind is, of course, Diane Arbus.  While Arbus appears to have had the darker vision, both women appreciated the Absurd, sharing an existential sensibility that surely inspired them to seek out souls caught in a moment of isolation.  And as others have noted, there’s also Lisette Model, who may have been a direct influence.

 

© Vivian Maier

© Vivian Maier

© Vivian Maier

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you’re a lover of street photography, I strongly recommend that you explore Maier when you have some quiet time.   John Maloof’s website, simply titled, Vivian Maier, is a good place to start, as is the always excellent New York Times LENS.

See also:  The Curious Case of Vivian Maier’s Copyright

 

 

Also posted in masters of the medium, other photographers, street photography

review — Seeing Now: Photography Since 1960

 

A DISAPPOINTING EXHIBIT AT THE BALTIMORE MUSEUM OF ART — WHAT WERE THEY THINKING?

 

Currently on view at the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) is a show entitled, Seeing Now:  Photography Since 1960. The BMA tells us the exhibit, ending on 15 May 2011, contains “200 compelling and provocative images.”  I was less impressed — and actually left the show with a nagging feeling of antipathy.

Some of the show (at least to me) bordered on the pretentious, and some of it left me wondering:  what were they thinking?  Consider, for example, Untitled (Sand), No. 1- No. 8, by Felix Gonzalez-Torres:

To my eye, these are snapshots of footprints in the sand.  The BMA sees something much more transforming:

“Sand offers an ever-changing surface – smooth and firm one minute, uneven and choppy the next – as it surrenders to the weight of passing feet.  These eight patches of sand, each with a unique pattern of ridges and hollows, bear the imprint of people who have ventured through and moved on, leaving only footprints behind.  For Felix Gonzales-Torres the footprints spoke of the painful loss of dear friends to the Aids epidemic.  The patterns preserved in these photographs were probably short-lived.  The action of wind or water (or perhaps more feet) could have erased them in a minute.  Yet on paper they remain as reminders of the power of light and shadow to create beauty at the same time that they become lasting metaphors for impermanence and loss.”

Tying these images to the serious issue of Aids doesn’t, to my sensibility, make them better; and while I’m an existentialist at heart, I don’t think eight images of a trodden beach is a uniquely worthy springboard for reminding us about the transience of life.  Shelley did it much better I think, and a long time ago, in Ozymandias.  As for the remark that these images are “reminders of the power of light and shadow to create beauty” … puh-leeeze.  They’re footprints.  And not very pretty ones.  I know I’m in the minority here as I’ve learned elsewhere on the web that these eight images fetched $83,000.  I hope it wasn’t the BMA that paid this price.  If so, the next time you’re thinking of giving them a donation you might want to think about that.

Another grouping is Trademarks, 1970, biting as much of my body as my mouth can reach.  Here we see a man contorting his body to bite various parts of himself.  In one image we’re treated to the bite marks alone:

I guess there’s some kind of psychological/social commentary going on here.  Interestingly, the BMA is not alone in appreciating this work.  Though “not currently on view,” it’s also owned by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

In another grouping by William Christenberry we see a shack being invaded over time by enveloping leaves:

Perhaps Christenberry too is a fan of Ozymandias.

Photographs by Diane Arbus?  I saw two; if there were more, I couldn’t find them.  Helmut Newton? – a few.  There were also a number of Friedlanders and Winogrands if you like these guys.  I’ve never been a fan of Eggleston but surprisingly found I liked his displayed work more than most of the show.

I’d be curious to see what the curator chose not to show.  Art is, of course, subjective, so if others ultimately find this show to be spectacular, as did Tim Smith and Mary Carole McCauley of the Baltimore Sun, I think that’s great.  That’s what makes the world go ’round.

 

 

reflections on The Forger’s Spell

 

WHAT MAKES GREAT ART GREAT?


I recently finished a fast nonfiction read called The Forger’s Spell, by Edward Dolnick.  No, it’s not about photography.  But it is about art, and it raises some interesting questions.  What makes great art “great?”  How much respect do we give a work simply because it’s attributed to a “master,”  or because a “great critic” tells us the work is a masterpiece?  When do we judge a work on our own, and when are we swept along by a tide of opinion?

More particularly, The Forger’s Spell is about Han Van Meegeren, who had a successful career forging and throwing into the marketplace “newly discovered” Vermeers.  For the most part, his forgeries weren’t copies of lost paintings.  Instead, he broke new ground by creating original works in the style of his subject.  One such piece found its way into Göring’s possession, and as a result, at the end of the war, Van Meegeren was arrested and charged with selling a national treasure to the enemy.  If proven, the act would rise to the level of collaboration, a crime then punishable by death.  Van Meegeren’s defense?  Göring’s prize was no national treasure.  It was Van Meegeren’s own creation – an original painting, made in the style of Vermeer, a forgery.  Put to task, Van Meegeren painted another “masterpiece” to prove he could do it, then was placed on trial to prove his story.

If this weren’t true – and it is – it would be equally readable as a novel.

At its core, The Forger’s Spell raises a fascinating question.  States Dolnick:

“Underlying all the specific questions about who painted what, a deeper question lurks.  Van Meegeren posed it in its starkest form:

‘Yesterday this picture was worth millions of guilders, and experts and art lovers would come from all over the world and pay money to see it …. Today, it is worth nothing, and nobody would cross the street to see it for free.  But the picture has not changed.  What has?’”

[Dolnick, 1st par. of the Epilogue (2008)]

As noted elsewhere by Dolnick when interviewed by the film director, Errol Morris:  “On the surface it seemed to be a story about art and history, but really, it’s a story about psychology.”  [Errol Morris, “Bamboozling ourselves,” New York Times, 5/27/09 at click here]

When Dolnick finally saw, not a picture or copy, but Van Meegeren’s actual “Supper at Emmaus,” a painting that once had the reputation of being Vermeer’s greatest work, he said:

‘Well, it’s an astonishing thing to see …. You want to see the object that started all this. It’s hard, having thought about it and seen so many reproductions of it, to see it for itself, in the same way that it was hard for the Dutch in the 1930s who were told that this is the greatest painting ever, it was hard for them to see it simply as a painting …. [F]or me, knowing it had touched off this whole story, it was hard to look at it and say, ‘Is it really dreadful?  Could, in fact, it actually be beautiful?’  It was surrounded with too much story to be able to look at it and make an open-minded judgment.”

[Errol Morris, supra]

The Supper at Emmaus, Han Van Meegeren, 1937

Referencing Abraham Bredius, the critic who “discovered” and authenticated Van Meegeren’s “The Supper at Emmaus,” Errol Morris writes:

“In 1937 Bredius wrote, ‘It is a wonderful moment in the life of a lover of art when he finds himself suddenly confronted with a hitherto unknown painting by a great master. Untouched. On the original canvas and without any restoration. Just as it left the painter’s studio!’ For Bredius in 1937 “The Supper at Emmaus” is the greatest Vermeer. By 1947 it was no longer even a Vermeer, and it was an embarrassment.'”

[Errol Morris, supra]

This should certainly make one think twice when confronting the rave of a critic or crowd.

Published around the same time as Dolnick’s book is another treatment of the subject: The Man Who Made Vermeers, by Jonathan Lopez.  From what I can gather, Lopez’s book takes a more in-depth approach, but it would have to be well written indeed to be as fast a read.  Perhaps it is.  Notably, Lopez also sees Van Meegeren as a real Nazi sympathesizer, while Dolnick is less direct on the subject.

As already referenced above, here’s a link to a well-written, lengthy seven-part New York Times piece by Errol Morris on the Van Meegeren phenomenon (which includes interviews with Dolnick and Lopez): click here.