- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 15, 2002

Edward Weston was one of the great photographers of the 20th century. The subtleties of tonalities and formal, sculptural designs of his images influenced younger photographers.

Mr. Weston (1886 to 1958) used large-format cameras and natural light to produce clearly defined natural forms such as sensuous nudes, pounding surf, undulating dunes, rocks, vegetables, fruit and shells. The photographer was able to extract the essence of objects with close-ups of forms and surfaces such as shimmering flesh, rough rock or steel. He turned reality into the poetical.

Photographer Ansel Adams may have put it best: "Weston is, in the real sense, one of the few creative artists of today. He has re-created the matter-forms and forces of nature; he has made these forms eloquent of the fundamental unity of the world. His work illuminates man's inner journey toward perfection of the spirit" (Encyclopedia of Photography, 1984).

Ordinarily, the "Edward Weston: Photography and Modernism" exhibit at the Phillips Collection would be a cause for rejoicing, but the mixing of photographs from Mr. Weston's mature period with paintings by Georgia O'Keeffe, Arthur Dove, Charles Sheeler, Franz Kline and Jackson Pollock dilutes the power of Mr. Weston's work. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, organized the traveling exhibition to show how the photographer responded to work by his fellow modernists. These juxtapositions break up the concentrated and meditative responses Mr. Weston's photographs usually evoke.

The show begins by contrasting his work to photographs by such contemporaries as Imogen Cunningham and Paul Strand. It then jumps to a wall holding impressively stark photos of Jose Clemente Orozco, Igor Stravinsky, Isamu Noguchi and E.E. Cummings, and jumps again to still another wall that illustrates Mr. Weston's first experiments with modernist simplification.

One is his dramatically lucid rendering "Armco Steel" (1922), taken at the American Rolling Mill Co in Ohio. In reducing the factory's vertically thrusting stacks and low, horizontal buildings to simplified forms, he was on his way to exploring the unifying geometry that would characterize his future work.

Visitors to the show then are supposed to take a hard right turn from this "Introduction to Modernism" section to the "Mexico: 1923-1926" grouping, although there are no directional indicators. The entire exhibit needs to direct viewers in better ways. Its layout is confusing.

Mr. Weston began with the same soft-focus approach to making images of female bodies and friends as was used by the older photographer Alfred Stieglitz. Mr. Weston visited Stieglitz in 1922 in New York, where he saw modernist works by painters Dove, O'Keeffe and Sheeler and photographer Strand, but his stay in Mexico was what radically changed his artistic direction.

Exposure to Mexican avant-garde artists Orozco, Diego Rivera and Jean Charlot and to the hard-edged, ancient Mexican monuments and landscape turned Mr. Weston to looking at, and expressing, the universal beauty of natural forms. He could make folded cabbage leaves as fundamentally appealing as succulent peppers, and the pristine and crystalline textures of a curved "Chambered Nautilus" shell as sensuous as his rhythmic arrangement of legs, arms and torso of his "Nude" of 1936.

The photographer produced his most intense and evocative images of nature when he began shooting dunes, surf, twisted cypress trees, gritty sand and convoluted rocks at the Point Lobos state nature preserve, near Carmel, Calif., where he moved in 1929. Mr. Weston pulls the viewer into the black holes behind the high patterned peaks of sand. He produced a Japanese otherworldliness when he broke the water of "Surf, Point Lobos" (1938) into pure pattern and texture.

Whether he creates the sculptural harmonies of shells and nudes or the repeated rhythms of water and sand, Mr. Weston points viewers to the miracles of nature and the universal spirit.

WHAT: "Edward Weston: Photography and Modernism"

WHERE: Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St. NW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, to 8:30 p.m. Thursdays; noon to 5 p.m. Sundays, through Aug. 18

TICKETS: $7.50 adults, $4 seniors and students, free for Phillips Collection members and children younger than 18

PHONE: 202/387-2151

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