Charis Wilson dies at 95; model, muse and last wife of photographer Edward Weston
Charis Wilson, the muse, model and last wife of art photographer Edward Weston and the author of several books including “California and the West,” which the two co-wrote, has died. She was 95.
Wilson, who had been suffering from various age-related ailments, died Friday in Santa Cruz at the home of her close friend Joseph Stroud, her daughter Rachel Fern Harris said.
A free spirit who took up with Weston when she was 20 and he was 48, Charis (pronounced CARE-ess) Wilson posed for a number of his photographs, many of them nudes, but her involvement with his career went far beyond modeling. Wilson edited articles on photography by Weston and traveled extensively with him for his work.
“She was one of the great models and one of the great artistic muses of the century,” Arthur Ollman, director of the School of Art, Design and Art History at San Diego State, told The Times in 2007.
“Charis was fully involved in the making of Edward Weston’s art during a very productive period in his life,” said Ollman, who included the couple in “The Model Wife,” his 1999 book on artists and their spouses.
A spirited subject
Wilson’s entry into Weston’s life led to a change in his formalist style, according to critics. Images of “her youthful face and womanly form” show how Weston the “self-conscious aesthete” had matured into an artist, “capable of indulging in true sentiment,” critic Andy Grundberg wrote in a 1990 New York Times review of a Weston exhibit at the International Center of Photography.
Photographs of Wilson rolling down a sand dune (“Dunes, Oceano,” 1936), floating in a swimming pool in Carmel (“Floating Nude,” 1939) or sitting on a chair in Weston’s studio with a robe casually draped over her shoulders (“Nude,” 1934) are unlike nudes Weston had been known for.
A number of the Wilson images are included in “Eloquent Nude: The Love and Legacy of Edward Weston and Charis Wilson,” a 2007 documentary featuring archival footage and interviews with Wilson, directed by Ian McCluskey.
“He had been the master of the close-up of body parts,” Ollman said of Weston. In “Dunes, Oceano,” however, “the model is moving in space, there is no horizon line. It was a breakthrough for him, largely because of Charis’ spontaneity. Her uninhibited style gave Weston a freedom that was vitalizing to him,” Ollman said.
Weston was aware of a change in his style. “The first nudes of C. were easily amongst the finest I had done, perhaps the finest,” he wrote in his daybook in April 1934.
One of the best-known photographs he made of Wilson shows her fully dressed. In 1937’s “Charis, Lake Ediza,” she sits on the ground leaning against rocks wearing pants, a pullover and tall boots. Her head is wrapped in fabric to ward off mosquitoes when traveling and camping outdoors. There is “a look of exhaustion on my face -- since identified by critics as ‘sensuality,’ ” Wilson wrote in her 1998 memoir, “Through Another Lens: My Years With Edward Weston,” co-written with Wendy Madar.
The 28-year age difference between Wilson and Weston gave their romance “a Bohemian, May to December quality,” photography dealer and historian Stephen White said in a 2007 interview with the Los Angeles Times. “Charis brought an essence of youth, when Weston was starting to wear out.”
Soon after they met in Carmel in 1934, she began to pour her writing talents into advancing his career. Along with editing his articles for Camera Craft magazine, she wrote some of them under his name, she recalled in her memoir. “My goal was to make the articles sound exactly like Edward Weston,” Wilson wrote.
“She did write under his name,” Ollman confirmed. “It was easy for her and slavishly hard for him.”
Wilson also managed Weston’s studio, captioned and cataloged his negatives and kept up his business correspondence. In 1936, she helped him write an application for a Guggenheim fellowship, expanding on his brief statement to make it a five-page presentation. He won a Guggenheim in 1937, the first one ever granted to an art photographer. It was renewed for a second year in 1938.
The money funded a series of road trips that led to the book “California and the West,” which was published in 1940.
Wilson drove their Ford, and Weston scouted the landscape. She kept a diary that was the basis for the text of the book, which features close to 100 photographs by Weston. It was a critical success that “settled any lingering doubts I had about my value as a partner,” Wilson wrote in her memoir.
“You feel the presence of Charis strongly in the book,” White said of her contribution to “California and the West.”
In her relaxed, informative writing style, Wilson described a crab apple tree “in a full coat of snowball blossoms” that Weston photographed “forty-six miles from Glendale on U.S. No. 66.” She reduced Death Valley to “a hundred miles of desolate geography” and noted “a wheezy rattletrap” truck that passed them on the empty road.
She also traveled with Weston as his assistant for “Leaves of Grass,” his books of photographs to go with the poetry of Walt Whitman, published in 1942. She is the co-author of “Cats of Wildcat Hill,” (1947), with photographs by Weston.
She was born Helen Charis Wilson on May 5, 1914, in San Francisco and raised in Carmel. She was the only daughter of Harry Leon Wilson, a popular novelist and humor writer in the 1910s and 1920s whose best known work, “Ruggles of Red Gap,” was first adapted as a movie in 1918. Her mother, Helen, was an amateur artist and actress who performed in local theater.
Wilson’s older brother, Harry Leon Jr., was editor in chief of publications for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City for some years.
As a child, Wilson was shipped from boarding school to summer camp, she wrote in her memoir. After her parents divorced, she graduated from Catlin, a boarding school in Portland, Ore., and was awarded a scholarship to Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y. Her father said he could not afford to pay the expenses that the scholarship didn’t cover, so Wilson had to turn down the scholarship.
For some months after that she lived in San Francisco, worked as an actress in a French language theater and did secretarial work. She “acquired a number of boyfriends and patronized the last of the speakeasies” and was “desperately unhappy,” she wrote in her memoir. She returned to Carmel and soon afterward met Weston.
“My eyes keep returning to a short man in brown clothes . . . across the room,” she wrote in her memoir. They were at a concert in Carmel, and before they were introduced, “we were keenly aware of each other,” she wrote. At intermission, Weston made his way across the room to meet her.
He also wrote about the event. “A new and important chapter in my life opened on Sunday afternoon, April 22, 1934,” he wrote in his daybook. “I saw this tall, beautiful girl, with finely proportioned body, intelligent face well-freckled, blue eyes, golden brown hair to shoulders -- and had to meet.”
Most of the photographs he made of Wilson call attention to her beauty. That changed toward the end of their 11 years together.
In “Civilian Defense” of 1942, she reclines on a couch, wearing only the gas mask that was requisitioned to her when she served during World War II at the local aircraft warning post.
The next year she posed for “My Little Gray Home in the West.” Standing outside the work studio behind the main house in Carmel, she holds a sign with her husband’s name on it that partly hides her nudity. Her sullen expression adds to the sarcasm of the photograph’s title.
“When I look at the nudes Edward made of me during our last years together, I am struck by the sad face of that young woman who was me,” Wilson wrote in an essay for the 1977 book “Edward Weston: Nudes.”
“We had broken the backbone of that strong bond of love and understanding that keeps daily life from turning stale and deadly.”
She fell from her place as “exalted goddess to the more human, unenviable and inglorious role of helpmate and art wife,” author Francine Prose wrote of Wilson in her 2002 book, “The Lives of the Muses.”
Wilson left Weston in 1945. Soon afterward, she met Noel Harris, a labor activist who lived in Eureka, Calif. They married in December 1946, the day after her divorce from Weston was finalized.
“I can see now that falling in love with another person finally allowed me to leave Edward, something my physical absence from Wildcat Hill hadn’t accomplished,” she wrote in her memoir.
During her second marriage Wilson had two children, Anita and Rachel. She worked various jobs and taught creative writing. The marriage to Harris ended in divorce, but they remained close friends.
Anita died in 1967. Wilson’s only immediate survivor is her daughter Rachel.
Weston stayed in the house he and Wilson shared. She owned it but rented it to him and eventually sold it to him for $10,000.
He died there, of Parkinson’s disease, in 1958. She continued writing to him through most of his life.
“I would love to see your children,” Weston wrote to Wilson in September 1955. She brought them to him. It was their last meeting.
Rourke is a former Times staff writer.
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