… [At the end of his life, he became] willing to allow his approach to be guided simply by the subject as it presented itself to his camera, without the safety net of form …
… The standard repertoire of “modern” objects never really appealed to him. He quickly tired of the few he did photograph (Egg Slicer, 1930 and Bedpan, 1930) and thought them unconvincing, facile stylistic exercises (“the egg slicer, one of my worst”). … He learned about the photography of the Bauhaus and László Moholy-Nagy through the modernist avant-garde set he cultivated in Mexico, but was underwhelmed by its “trivial mannerisms.” That may shed some light on his reticence about Germany’s New Photography. Despite the fact that both Albert Renger-Patzsch and he were interested in larger-than-life, clinical observation of objects at close range, Weston was concerned not so much with objects in themselves as with their form.
[ … ]
… Henrietta Shore hit the nail on the head in 1927 when she told him, “I wish you would not do so many nudes — you are getting used to them — the subject no longer amazes you — most of these are just nudes.” Then again, take away form and Weston’s nudes are just this side of obscene. (Weston, who feared that most persons saw his Nude of Fay Fuquay, 1928 would “only see an ass,” realized this.)
[line break added to make this easier to read online] But that is not what made his approach to the nude so triumphant, no more than did unabashed display of pubic hair (which he once wryly misspelled “public hair” in an antipuritannical outburst sparked by Beaumont Newhall’s efforts to negotiate its removal from prints the public would see at the 1946 Museum of Modern Art retrospective). His triumph lies more in the compelling give-and-take he set in motion between form and desire, order and chaos, and in the resulting tension between them. In this respect, Weston’s nudes are very much in keeping with his general photographic take on the world around him.
When viewed in his ground glass, the merely physical presence we call an object emerged from the chaos of nature. Order/chaos: to Weston these were two sides of the same coin. Since nature is “crude and lacking in arrangement,” order separates out from chaos only through the process of human selection. If one object is chosen over another, it is primarily and fundamentally because it is formally significant.
[line break added] It is form, and form alone, that allows an object to stand out from the background and become expressive. … At the same time, however, Weston became increasingly aware of its pitfall: abstraction. … [T]hose who succumbed ran the risk of lapsing into what Weston quickly concluded were “intellectual juggleries” once he had tried them out himself in Mexico. Continuing in that vein, he feared, might drain objects of their very objectness and lead to the purely formal.
Instead of eliminating abstraction, Weston held it in check by redefining its role in photography as “elemental form” or “simplified form” and by underscoring the essential, ubiquitous part it plays in the natural order. He gave form its due, using its offshoot, composition, as a way to validate it and intensify its presence. In so doing he turned the photographed object into a photographic object. There was little to lose (because of the medium’s unerring precision) and much to gain (because by making an object’s form visible, photographic art expresses its “inner necessity”).
… [At the end of his life, however … ] Little by little, cracks began to show. There as a noticeable transition to less methodical composition, starting with the landscape photographs from the West (1937). Interest shifted from the emptied center of the image (San Carlos Lake, Arizona, 1938) and collected at its edges, setting up a boundary which, though uncrossable, might easily extend beyond the picture frame. Elsewhere, he gave his subjects more context; no longer do they seem to float in a sidereal void (William Edmondson, Sculptor, Nashville, 1941).
… With the coming of age and experience, Weston seems to have gained a deeper understanding of cosmic uncertainty, for it was around this time that he shed the photographic inhibition of composition. He was now willing to allow his approach to be guided simply by the subject as it presented itself to his camera, without the safety net of form: witness the Point Lobos photographs of cliffs, kelp, and debris. As his life drew to a close, Weston became absorbed in the same issues that preoccupied Walker Evans late in life: absence of form, the province of a pure photography beholden only to the laws of entropy and of the medium bearing witness to it.
Eroded Rocks, South Shore, Point Lobos, 1948 [the last photograph Weston ever made]