The Weston Way — Jeffery Jay Luhn

The Weston home sits on the end of a dirt road under a sky that can’t make up its mind whether to drizzle or shine. The weathered siding, the ancient trees, and the shafts of light—it looks like an Edward Weston photo because it is. In a community known for its ostentatious mansions of high tech barons, the Weston’s collection of simple redwood buildings says a lot about four generations of unchanging analog life.

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Greeted by a smiling Gina Weston, she is tall, bright blue eyes and relaxed and recognizable as the model in many Weston photos. Coming down the steep path behind her is husband Kim Weston, the son of Cole Weston and grandson of Edward Weston. He appears boyishly shy, sunburned, and happy to see us. Handshakes all around, and then an invitation for us to follow him through a rustic garden into the small one-room house. The interior is both kitchen and living room, lit by windows and skylights. The furniture is organic and simple, much of it familiar because it appears in many of Weston’s photos from 1938 – 1948. Edward’s writing desk, where he often worked on his famous Day Books, sits comfortably against a wall next to a circa 1925 camera on a tripod. There’s no technology to be seen, not even a television.

 

Kim talks about the Weston family pictures on the walls and many curios collected by Edward in Mexico. It is a museum of sorts, but with food on the table, casually placed blankets on the couch and a friendly cat seeking attention, it self identifies as a residence. We are all quite interested in a partially open door near the kitchen counter where a wood wall partition encloses the darkroom of Edward Weston. Kim swings the door open and turns on a single bare bulb hanging from a cord. There it is, the space where hundreds of iconic photographic images were given life.

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Although bottles of chemicals and enameled trays from an earlier time are on display, the space is still very much a working darkroom. It’s still used on occasion when Kim’s regular darkroom can’t accommodate the workflow of big projects or workshops. The space is simple in every way. There’s no enlarger of course, because Edward made contact prints from large format negatives. A plastic egg timer sits next to a wooden contact printer where prints were exposed by the bare bulb above. This is an example of how Mount Rushmore could have been created with a penknife if Edward Weston had been hired for the job.

 

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After a tour of the house and darkroom we go into the office/print finishing room where Kim speaks at length about Edward, his uncle Brett, his own work, and his son Zach’s photos. For about an hour Kim takes a mounted print from a stack, places it onto an easel, makes a few comments, and then grabs another print. On a few occasions Kim takes out an 8×10 negative and passes it around the room for us to hold with our bare hands. It doesn’t get more analog that that. In this way we see first hand the contrasting of styles between Edward, Brett, Kim and Zach.
Edward Weston lived in a time when the camera was often used as a tool to produce dreamy and romantic landscapes. Photographers often shot through gauze to create soft focus, blooming highlights and other ethereal effects. Portraiture was undergoing a change from stiff studio shots to the flamboyant and powerful images of the Hollywood cinema. Edward’s work followed none of those trends. He recorded scenes lit with natural with a technical perfection and uncanny sharpness that surpassed the photographers of his day. The detail and tones were, and remain, astounding. He was a remarkable recordist, capturing images exactly as they appeared in life.

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Brett Weston’s style was more interpretive. His landscape compositions were carefully planned, always balancing bold elements to great effect. If one word characterizes Brett’s work, it is purposeful. Camera placement, time of day, use of perspective and a variation of focal lengths made Brett’s work stand out from his contemporaries. As in the case of his father, he executed the process of black and white photography with precision. A little known fact about Brett was that he was an accomplished wood carver, creating deconstructions of his photographs in mahogany. His woodwork gives us an insight into how he saw the elements of his photos as discrete elements.

 

Kim Weston’s work is, and has always been, in the process of reinvention. In earlier work he built elaborate sets and photographed them with large format cameras in his studio. Live nude figures are placed in the constructions almost as accessories, never dominating the scene. He achieved strong impact with the use of stark tones, high camera angles and precise control of tones. The images before 1995 represent a strong departure from previous Westons in that they are conceptual pieces. No element exists in Kim’s work unless it has been purposely placed there.

 

In his later work the human figure takes up more of the frame and it becomes evident that his process incorporates serendipity. Figure posing looks more collaborative. In his recent work he has taken his favorite models to numerous locations and used existing architectural interiors with natural lighting to achieve remarkable images. In this image making process we see a deliberate effort to use live models, fresh locations and challenging lighting conditions to create spontaneous and compelling works of art. He is very engaged in teaching and most of his location photography is done during workshops.

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Kim is more willing than previous Westons to place himself at risk of failing. By his own admission, some images don’t work. This is what happens when you swing for the fences every time you step up to the plate. On the other hand, he’s constantly at bat, shooting more subjects and locations than ever: Wyoming, the Southwest, Scotland, Spain, etc. His darkroom is filled with hanging negatives that he hasn’t yet managed to print. This is a man that cannot stop himself from making photographs. The results are astounding.

 

Zach Weston, Kim’s son, has only recently gotten serious about his photography. At age 22, he seems the recipient of photo osmosis. His work is clean and deliberate, showing none of the traits we would expect from a budding novice. In that way, he’s beginning his career at an advanced state. We have no way of knowing what he’ll choose to produce, but his work is quite promising.

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Each generation of Westons has created a different set of visions with their photography. If there’s one thing that ties the Westons together it’s the fact that they will not allow themselves to create bad work. We can theorize about why that’s true; the presence of a ‘photo-gene’ or the fear of bringing disgrace upon the family name. The reasons aren’t important. What matters is that we have an enormous body of work from Edward, Cole and Brett Weston. Kim’s portfolio is stunning, deep, dynamic, and growing. Zach is starting out with the tools and support necessary to achieve creative heights.

That’s the Weston Way.

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Jeffery Luhn- Jeffery Jay Luhn began his career as a small town newspaper photographer while attending the photo program at Laney College, Oakland, CA. He later graduated from Brooks Institute of Photography and shot for United Press International in Asia and Latin America. Jeffery founded a studio in San Francisco and for 30 years did studio and editorial shooting. Client list and photo galleries can be viewed at LuhnPhoto.com.