The Exquisite Realities of Edward Weston

Edward Weston (1886-1958), who spent many years in Southern California before settling in Carmel, is generally considered to be among the most important 20th-Century photographers.

He had a small studio in Tropico--now Glendale--where he did commercial portraits, including photographs of such movies stars as James Cagney and Gary Cooper. He was influenced by both painters and photographers, and his own influential work ranged from soft-focus, sensual portraits to landscapes and close-ups of shells and peppers and later, rocks and trees at Point Lobos.

Such photographs as the 1927 "Shell" (featured on the cover) exemplified what has been called "straight photography," or photography that essentially goes from reality to print without being manipulated by the photographer. In one of his daybooks, or journals, Weston once wrote, "I want the stark beauty that a lens can so exactly render, presented without interference of "artistic effect."

He got it in "Shell." "Shell" was "a pivotal piece" for Weston, recalls his former daughter-in-law, Maggi Weston, a photograph dealer. "I think he loved that piece," she says. "He felt it was one of his best images."

But when Weston was selling his pieces, she says, "photography wasn't what it is today in terms of being a collectible item." Representatives at both Sotheby's and the University of Arizona's Center for Creative Photography--home of the Weston archives--say the photographer made very little money from his photographs. He traveled, but he lived simply and was never a rich man.

The Tucson-based center, which has most of Weston's negatives, does not sell those negatives or make prints from them, a spokesman says. But because Weston himself printed many copies of his prints in response to demand, many copies of some images already exist.

Weston made about 40 prints of "Shell" over the years, and nobody really knows how many of those 40 exist today. Between 27 and 30 prints were made between 1927 and 1931--only 24 of which have been accounted for--and as many as 12 more were printed in the '40s for a retrospective at New York's Museum of Modern Art and for a circulating exhibition around that time.

But no matter how many there are, fewer than half a dozen have changed hands since 1979, says Russell Anderson, co-owner with Maggi Weston of the Weston Gallery in Carmel. And only about a dozen "are in really superb condition," he adds.

In 1979, a print of "Shell" sold for a record $9,500 at Christie's. Another print sold in November, 1981, for $28,600 at Christie's, and less than eight years later, Sotheby's sold another print for $115,500 in April, 1989, to a Canadian dealer buying for a private client.

But Christie's sold yet another print to a dealer last October for only $66,000. What happened? Explaining that she has not seen the print sold by Sotheby's, Christie's director of photography, Claudia Gropper, guesses that the "quality and tonality were probably very different. Just because a price reaches a certain level at one time, it won't necessarily reach that level again. We see that all the time in photography."

According to Howard Read, photography historian and dealer at New York's Miller Gallery, until the mid-'70s or so "if somebody called and wanted another photograph, the photographer would make another print. Since the mid-'70s--and beginning largely with Robert Mapplethorpe-- photographers began to produce work within a limited, defined edition."

Sotheby's director of photography, Beth Gates-Warren, agrees: "It's not as simple as just buying the image. The quality of the print has become more and more important in the market, and people are making distinctions from one print of the image to another. This is particularly true with vintage prints, where the condition varies greatly, depending on how they've been treated over the years. Contemporary photographers are more and more aware of the necessity of limiting their editions as a contributing factor to the price they can expect people to pay for their work."

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