Brett Weston’s Dunes
Father & Son
The Weston surname is one of the most well-known in the history of photography. Any preliminary research into the Weston’s will demonstrate its significant influence on the evolution of photography. The name initially gained recognition by its first creative force, Edward Weston. Legendary photographer Edward Weston built a powerful legacy as a modernist visionary that helped introduce an American aesthetic to the budding medium of fine art photography in the early 20th century. However, Edward left more than one legacy. His son Brett Weston followed the photography practice, mastering the art of photography by his own merit.
An American Great
Brett Weston ultimately became one of the greats in American photography. He produced a rich and varied body of work with an aesthetic that was simultaneously shaped by his father’s iconic work and his uniquely independent and innovative vision. This seminal effect was accomplished by a career that spanned seven decades. Found in his abstract, free-moving, textured, and high-contrast body of work is a thrilling new insight into the psyche and language of American fine art photography. In Brett Weston’s Dunes series, he forms an expressive outlet that he would mine for fifty years.
The Early Years
Born in Los Angeles in 1911, he was the second son of photographer Edward Weston. Brett had a very close artistic relationship with his father but did not follow directly in his father’s footsteps. However, the younger Weston was amid some of the most consequential modernist artists of his time by introduction through his father, such as Tina Modotti and Frida Kahlo. Brett would be influenced by them as well as painters Diego Rivera and Jose Clemente Orozco. In the early stages of his career and within this milieu of revolutionary art practice, Brett was crafting a clearly defined artistic vision. Both Weston’s were among the prestigious small group of California photographers in the 1930s, known as the Group f/64, which included Ansel Adams and Imogen Cunningham. They favored large-format view cameras, full-frontal images, and very literal and precise black-and-white prints.
Capturing the Natural World
Brett Weston’s intimate, graphic studies of the natural world become a driving force in finding his creative vision. The natural world was an undeniable inspiration to Brett Weston, it captured his imagination. In an almost obsessive pursuit of detail, Weston captured the world around him in vivid, strikingly rich images. He paid close attention to the formal values of linearity, volume, depth, contrast, and negative space. This approach of utilizing a highly polished style would govern his original photography of the renowned dunes. For Weston, the dunes served as the meeting point between abstraction and figuration.
Brett began exploring the subject of dunes at the age of nineteen, and he would return to them periodically throughout his career until the 1980s. Brett found a rich environment to photograph and begin to capture images of dunes before his father. Brett studied this iconic landscape, and the dunes became a signature of his aesthetic. He first encountered the subject of dunes on a cross-country drive at the White Sands National Monument in New Mexico. This area holds the largest concentration of white gypsum dunes. Its harsh, minimalist desert landscape, along with the sensuous texture of the sand, provided an excellent subject for Brett Weston. In 1931, he began photographing the dunes at Oceano, California, where he would create some of his most powerful images.
Brett Weston, Dune, Oceano
Early to Rise
For Brett, mornings were ideal for photographing the dunes. The cool of the night cleared the air, and the wind was at its most calm. The early morning sunlight would transform the muted dune shapes into sharp-edged swirling forms of light and dark. Brett immersed himself fully in the environment and often camped around the dunes while photographing. His approach in the field was rudimentary itself: all he required was a tripod-mounted camera over one of his shoulders, a maximum of two lenses, a blackout cloth, and a pouch for film holders. He would work in the field and contact print in his darkroom.
A Natural Sensuality
The dunes’ singularity came from their seemingly three-dimensional nature, the use of a chiaroscuro treatment of light, and an emphasis on the formal qualities of the photograph. The dunes had a kind of natural sensuality for Weston. He exploited dramatic side lighting, sometimes photographing directly into the light, but used only the range of natural light for his compositions. His photographs are distinctly abstract but nonetheless connected to the real world.
A Weston Legacy
In a time of rapid social development (from the 1930s to the 1970s), urban growth, and the building of American suburbs, the dunes remained pristine. They offered solace and spoke to a more elemental and more constant environment. Brett Weston’s work is held in numerous public collections. Among these is the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. His work was pioneering, and many photographers took up his mantle and returned to photograph the dunes of Oceana. However, no one has surpassed the incredible dune photographs of Brett Weston. His compositions remain startling in their clarity of vision and sophisticated use of form. Moreover, they brought striking dimensionality to photography. In their celebration of nature, they created images that have championed the art of photography.