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A Bonfire of the Vanities? : Admirers of Brett Weston Question Why He Destroyed a Lifetime’s Worth of Negatives

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Photographer Brett Weston raised serious questions about artists’ responsibilities and the marketplace when he destroyed his negatives earlier this week.

Does burning his negatives--on his 80th birthday, as he had long promised--enhance Weston’s status by controlling the quality of his work? Or would his legacy have been better served by making the negatives available for study, reproduction and posthumous prints? Was his dramatic act entirely motivated by aesthetic concerns or was it in part a shrewd marketing move?

As the ashes settled on a Monday-night bonfire at the Stone Pine Estate in Carmel Valley--where the photographer burned 75 negatives--and as news spread that he had burned or chemically defaced all but 12 of the thousands of negatives he had produced since his youth, the artists’ admirers reflected on the meaning of his action.

“I deplore it,” photography collector Leonard Vernon said. “Although I respect his right to do as he likes with his work, I regret the destruction very strongly.”

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Weston’s negatives might have gone to a museum or study center for the use of future students and they could have been used for reproductions in publications, he said. “There’s nothing like an original negative if you want to properly reproduce a print.”

“It’s important for scholars to be able to compare prints and negatives because there’s a vast difference between them,” said Andy Grundberg, chief curator at the Friends of Photography in San Francisco and former photography critic for the New York Times. “The art does not reside in the negative, but the negative is the original fact and it’s an important scholarly resource.

“There’s no reason that an artist has to destroy his negatives out of fear of losing control. When they leave their work to a place like the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, they can stipulate restrictions and those will be honored,” Grundberg said.

Weston, who is one of four sons of the pioneering modern photographer Edward Weston, apparently thought the benefits of his action outweighed the drawbacks. He left his home in Carmel Valley for Hawaii on Tuesday morning and could not be reached for comment.

In carrying out the destruction, he acted upon a long-held conviction. “No one can print another photographer’s negatives,” he stated in “Brett Weston: Photographs From Five Decades,” a 1980 monograph on his work published by Aperture. “It’s just too personal. There are infinite choices to make. It’s partly a matter of mood. You have to work with enthusiasm. When I’m back from the field, I like to hit the darkroom that night and print the next morning.

“The continuation of the flow of excitement is very important, and I’m always excited in the darkroom. Hell, I can’t work on my old prints anymore. There’s no enthusiasm unless I can find a way to make a better print.

“My will has instructions that my negatives are to be burned. I want to do it myself when I’m 80 and, hopefully, go on to make some new ones,” he said in the book.

Weston tried to persuade other photographers, including Ansel Adams, to destroy their negatives--and even offered to do it for them--but no one accepted his offer. In a field where many celebrated artists have their negatives printed by others, he stands out as problematic purist. The 12 negatives he has preserved are now in the possession of his brother, Cole Weston, and they will be given to the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson.

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Weston’s action is unusual in a field long plagued with placing a value on prints of the same image that may vary in quality.

“I have no problem with Brett Weston doing what he wants with his work,” collector and dealer Stephen White said. “It’s like a printmaker canceling a plate or a painter destroying a canvas. There are more ethical questions on the other side. The problem with Edward Weston’s work is that there are eight different states of his prints, from vintage prints to those that are printed by his sons. It’s very confusing.”

Prints produced by Edward Weston’s son Cole Weston are clearly labeled, but confusion persists in the marketplace, White said. “Cole Weston’s prints sell for about $2,000. My question is, what are you getting for your $2,000? Would you do just as well with a good reproduction? I personally have a problem with that, but many collectors don’t. They say they could never get an original print and this is a way of having his work.” As a son of a world-famous photographer, Brett Weston and his work have been in the limelight for years. While Cole Weston is primarily known for printing his father’s negatives in posthumous prints that have a market of their own, Brett Weston has been revered for producing a large body of work, including expansive landscapes and close-ups of nature that read as abstractions.

“He is the first successful artistic heir in the history of photography,” R.H. Cravens wrote in the 1980 monograph. “His father, Edward Weston, expanded the medium with the credo that ‘the camera should be used for the recording of life, for rendering the very substance and quintessence of the thing itself. If the father was a pioneer, the son is a warrior who set out to conquer the ‘thing itself.’ He has imbued his subjects with a unique personal imprint. And in his extraordinary abstraction, Brett Weston has established photography’s most powerful affinity with the great modern artists.”

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“For those of us who knew him, this was no surprise,” said Carol Williams, his dealer and host of the birthday party where 100 of Weston’s friends and relatives watched him burn 75 large negatives.

The primary reason he decided to destroy his negatives was that he did not want his work to be handled as his father’s had, Williams said. “He had watched the difference between the way Edward worked and how Cole printed the negatives. I think he felt that it may have been a necessary financial inheritance for his father’s sons, but the artistic compromise was something he couldn’t live with. He has always felt that the print is the final statement.”

Williams, who has been privately accused of encouraging Weston’s action, said she thought the prices of Brett Weston’s work would eventually equal those of his father. Brett Weston’s prints range from $1,000 to $15,000, with some vintage prints bringing over $20,000, she said. Edward Weston’s works command $2,500 to $200,000.

Brett Weston has been enormously prolific and he continues to make photographs. A book of his photographs of Hawaii will be released in four months, Williams said. But the destruction of his negatives has turned off the spigot on what might have been a steady stream of prints. There are definite market advantages in limiting supply, dealers say, but no one knows if the demand for his work will increase.

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