- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 27, 2008

Photographer Brett Weston (1911-1993) followed in the footsteps of his famous father, Edward Weston, and never entirely left his path. The two photographed the same subjects in a similar way, turning rocks, vegetation and landscapes into sensuous emblems of nature.

Brett Weston: Out of the Shadow” at the Phillips Collection tries to distinguish the son’s accomplishments from the father’s, but it only partially succeeds. The survey of more than 100 images emphasizes how the photographer emulated his dad’s pioneering modernist viewpoint, while pushing it further into abstraction by zooming in on the details of uninhabited landscapes and buildings.

Brett Weston’s extreme close-ups made even the ugliest elements — cracked plastic, broken windows, dried mud — appear beautiful through the crisp shapes and distinct contrasts of his black-and-white photos. His intimate scenes, more sharply focused than his father’s, emphasize patterns of light, shadow and texture so that the depicted object almost seems beside the point.

This formalist approach remains constant throughout the exhibit so as to become formulaic. By the last gallery, images of underwater nudes from the 1980s are a welcome change from all the views of leaves and stones if only for their humanity.

Edward Weston’s better known images of female figures, seashells and vegetables aren’t part of the show to allow for comparisons, but their influence is evident throughout the exhibit. The son learned the art and craft of photography from his father and the two remained close until the elder Weston died in 1958.

They first bonded on a 1925 photography trip to Mexico where the teenage son shot his first pictures. Several rooftop views from his travels, including images of a basketlike vent and an angular shadow between tin peaks, reveal his knack for graphic composition at an early age. “He is doing better work at 14 than I did at 30,” Edward Weston wrote in his 1926 daybook.

Back in California, Brett photographed the sand dunes at Oceano and rocky beaches at Point Lobos, places that later became Edward’s favorite subjects. Some of the most sensual photos in the exhibit are of the rippling dunes, their curves accentuated in inky shadows resembling birds and snakes.

Teaching his son photography was only part of the career boost given to Brett by the elder Weston. Edward served as one of the judges for the landmark 1929 “Film and Photo” exhibit in Stuttgart, Germany, helping to ensure his 17-year-old apprentice’s pictures were part of the show along with his own. They were displayed next to images by leading photographers such as Berenice Abbott, Imogen Cunningham and Man Ray. Three years later, museums in San Francisco and Oakland, Calif., mounted shows of the younger Weston’s work.

Early success, however, didn’t propel the novice to pursue a new direction. He deviated from his father in photographing industrial and urban subjects for several years, but in the same style as his outdoor work. A 1935 image focuses on the play of light and shadow across an airplane’s ribbed metal surfaces in a manner similar to his photos of sand dunes.

In 1943, Mr. Weston joined the Army and was soon stationed in New York City as a Signal Corps photographer. Spending time in Manhattan led to an atypical series focused on street scenes and buildings. However, even in these photos, nature is never far from sight. The black silhouette of a tree dominates a 1945 picture of masonry walls framing a courtyard. It looks nearly identical to a 1959 photo of a tree in front of a stone canyon.

Returning home in 1946, the photographer reconnected with the California landscape to produce moody vistas of beaches and lakes. In close-ups of sea kelp and ice-trapped leaves, shot in the 1950s, he pushes his subjects to the brink of abstraction without completely losing a sense of reality.

During this period, Mr. Weston spent considerable time in the darkroom, printing the negatives made by his father, who was suffering from Parkinson’s disease. This control over Edward’s work influenced the look of his photographs and further strengthened the tie between the two men.

After Edward’s death, Brett traveled in the 1960s and ‘70s in search of places his father had never photographed, only to continue his love affair with nature. The misty “Holland Canal” with its orderly rows of trees and the multilayered “Mendenhall Glacier, Alaska,” showing ice reflected in dark water, are more romantic than previous images and reminiscent of Ansel Adams’ scenic views.

At the peak of his career in the 1970s, Mr. Weston’s photos became more artsy and abstract. “Kelp and Sand” resembles scribbled lines on paper, “Metal Abrasion” recalls smudged paint on canvas and “Foam” suggests a lacy collar draped on black fabric.

Mr. Weston continued to separate his work from his father’s by accentuating the contrasts in his black-and-white pictures and photographing objects so their shapes continue beyond the frame. Wavy reflections in water and glass building facades, with some so distorted as to become unrecognizable, became favorite subjects.

His last portfolio of photos resulted from explorations of Hawaii, where he built a home in the late 1970s. He divided his time between Kona, Hawaii and a house and studio near Carmel, Calif. Unlike his father, he commanded top dollar for his work during his lifetime but came to be overlooked by the museum world as a second-tier talent.

Concerned about his legacy, Mr. Weston destroyed many of his negatives at his 80th birthday party in 1991 by tossing them into a fireplace. This act may have been another attempt to break with his father, who saved the best of his negatives for posthumous reproduction by others. Brett Weston felt he was the only one who could print his photos, which even in his well trained hands, rarely express a truly original vision.

WHEN YOU GO

WHAT: “Brett Weston: Out of the Shadow”

WHERE: Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St. NW

WHEN: Through Sept. 7; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday

ADMISSION: $12 adults, $10 seniors and students, free 18 and under

PHONE: 202/387-2151

WEB SITE: www.phillipscollection.org

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