Not every father would pull his 13-year-old son out of school so he could take him to Mexico as his photographic assistant. Not every father would introduce his son to revolutionary cultural figures like Tina Modotti, Diego Rivera, and Frida Kahlo. Then again, Edward Weston wasn’t your average dad. Not only did the influential American photographer introduce the second-eldest of his four sons to a world of travel and opportunity; he also introduced him to the world of photography. It was to become Brett Weston’s passion for more than 60 years.
In the Shadow of Fame
Opening at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art (SBMA) next week, Brett Weston: Out of the Shadow is the most comprehensive retrospective exhibition of the younger Weston’s work in more than 30 years. A joint project of the Phillips Collection and the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, the exhibition examines Weston’s 65-year contribution to the medium. He was the progeny-and prodigy-of an artistic icon, but Brett Weston by no means followed in his father’s footsteps. Even in the early stages of his career, he was crafting his own clearly defined artistic vision. Influenced deeply by the modern art he discovered during his visits to Mexico in the mid 1920s, he developed a graphic sense of structure and form. One need look no further than his early images, such as “Tin Roof, Mexico,” to see evidence of his unique approach. While his is a truly remarkable visual legacy, it is one that has lingered in the shadow of his more famous father.
“There’s a very interesting passage in an early essay that reads, ‘I frequently hear curators, dealers, and collectors say that Brett would have been a better photographer had his last name not been Weston,’” recounted Karen Sinsheimer, curator of photography at SBMA. “I think what that really means is that Brett would be considered among the pantheon of great photographers had he not been the son of Edward. As the title of this exhibition reflects, Brett has remained in the shadow of Edward, and it’s time he was brought out of it.”
The Santa Barbara Connection
At the conclusion of their time in Mexico, the Westons returned to California, where Los Angeles afforded them the opportunity of a joint exhibition at the University of California, and served as the location for a portrait studio. By the early 1930s, though, the pair headed north: Edward to Carmel, and Brett to the Central Coast, where he established a photographic studio in Santa Maria in 1931. One year later he decided to relocate again-this time to Santa Barbara. In opening a downtown studio, Brett Weston forged a creative connection with the city. He would continue to visit throughout his life.
“Brett had a portrait gallery here in town,” recounted Sinsheimer. “One of his really beautiful images-the cactus with all the spines-was actually made in Santa Barbara in 1931. But he just couldn’t survive here.” Shortly after the move, his marriage fell apart, and by 1933 Brett Weston had moved on from Santa Barbara. But Santa Barbara didn’t forget him. “The museum did a show in 1952 of both his sculpture and photography,” Sinsheimer explained. “In 1978, we had a show of his photographs, and in 1988, we did a show of his work from Hawai’i. He was also commissioned to photograph the museum in 1954.”
In addition to his Santa Barbara connection, another nearby locale-Oceano-helped shape the younger Weston’s visual signature, and provided him with one of his most potent muses. It may have been his father who brought the region’s sand dunes to the attention of the world, but it was Brett who consistently returned to the location and produced some of the most impassioned work from the area. The combination of sympathy and sensuality with which he portrayed the subject matter has come to be his visual trademark.
A Love Affair with the Camera
But the scope of Brett Weston’s vision was by no means limited to California, or even to the Americas. After spending the majority of the 1950s in Carmel, interrupting his own photographic career because of his father’s ill health and overseeing the printing of thousands of Edward’s works, Brett again headed out into the world. Europe, Asia, and Hawai’i all loom large in his photographic oeuvre.
“It was after his father died that he started making these trips,” explained Sinsheimer. “I think what he was trying to do was not only distinguish his subject matter, but also distinguish himself from Edward by not having his own work confined to North America. I think he was making a statement about how different his work was, and traveling was one of the means for him to accomplish a sense of individuality.”
The result is a vision that stands Brett Weston clearly apart from his father, and also from the rest of his photographic contemporaries. While the natural world was an undeniable inspiration to Weston, it was its intricacies that most captured his imagination. His intimate, graphic studies of leaves, cacti, rocks, and ice reflect a stunning and insightful contemplation that broke new photographic ground. In what was an almost obsessive pursuit of detail, Weston captured the world around him in vivid, strikingly spare images.
“He lived, breathed, and slept photography,” explained Sinsheimer. “It was his love and his mistress. He was also very single-minded, and I think that is reflected in his photography. One thing you will notice is that there are no people in this exhibition. He really didn’t like people a lot, and because photography was his one true love, he didn’t really have very good relationships. Everything he was and all of his emotional life is poured into his photographs.”
Brett Weston: Out of the Shadow opens at SBMA on May 2 and runs through August 16. To learn more, call 963-4364 or visit sbmuseart.org.