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Huntington displays photographer Edward Weston’s ‘Leaves of Grass’ project, including overlooked ‘masterpieces’

In 1941, Edward Weston set off on an intriguing mission. The Limited Editions Club had asked the master photographer to find “real American faces” and “real American places” for its deluxe printing of Walt Whitman’s epic poetry collection, “Leaves of Grass.”

Weston hit the road, intending to do more than simply match images to the 19th century writer’s words. “He wanted to create a group of pictures that embodied Whitman’s vision of America,” says Jennifer Watts, co-curator of a new exhibition at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino.

“Real American Places: Edward Weston and Leaves of Grass” features 25 black-and-white photographs taken during the artist’s eight-month journey from California through the Southwest, South and East.  Also on display is a copy of Limited Editions’ 1942 two-volume set and items related to Whitman, who first published “Leaves” in 1855.

"Mr. and Mrs. Fry of Burnet, Texas, 1941," gelatin silver print. (Edward Weston / Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens / Center for Creative Photography, Arizona Board of Regents)

Show co-curator James Glisson says Weston ended up offering a view of America less exuberant than Whitman’s, his richly detailed images “evoking the worn surfaces of everyday things — graves, human faces, buildings — that together are a sign of the nation’s age and the passing of time.”

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The trip produced hundreds of pictures. Weston liked them so much he included 90 in the 500 prints he donated to the Huntington in 1944. The exhibition, which ends March 20, draws from this gift and other Huntington holdings. Glisson, assistant curator of American art, says the “Leaves” project has not received the attention it deserves because Weston was disgusted by the book’s design and the publisher’s pairing of its 49 images with lines of text.

“Nonetheless, this is an important body of work,” says Watts, curator of photography. “There are masterpieces in the mix.”

"Woodlawn Plantation House, Louisiana," 1941, gelatin silver print. (Edward Weston / Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens / Center for Creative Photography, Arizona Board of Regents)
"Mr. Brown Jones," Athens Georgia," 1941, gelatin silver print. (Edward Weston / Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens / Center for Creative Photography, Arizona Board of Regents)
"The Brooklyn Bridge," 1941, gelatin silver print. (Edward Weston / Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens / Center for Creative Photography, Arizona Board of Regents)
"White Sands, New Mexico," 1941, gelatin silver print. (Edward Weston / Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens / Center for Creative Photography, Arizona Board of Regents)
"New Orleans," 1941, gelatin silver print. (Edward Weston / Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens / Center for Creative Photography, Arizona Board of Regents)
"Gulf Oil, Port Arthur, Texas," 1941, gelatin silver print. (Edward Weston / Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens / Center for Creative Photography, Arizona Board of Regents)

Follow The Times’ arts team @culturemonster.

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