beautiful mind

different strokes

A beautiful mind

Scene One: 1927. Bernice Githens Lovett (1902 – 1998) visits East West Galleries located in the San Francisco Women’s Club Building. She falls in love with a small black and white photograph on display and decides to buy it.  The price for the piece, a princely ten dollars is a bit steep for her. Luck is on her side; the gallery offers a flexible payment plan. Lovette pays in 50 cent increments over a period of time and acquires the photograph. When the final fifty cents is paid, she carries the photograph home in a Kodak paper box. The picture remains with the Lovette family for more than eight decades.

Scene Two: April 13, 2010. The same photograph which Lovette picked up in 1927 comes up for sale at Sotheby’s auction in New York with pre-auction estimate of 300,000-500,000 USD. Printed on a matte-surface paper, it measures no more than 9.5 X 7.5 inches (24 X 19 cms).  Mounted, signed and dated by the photographer in pencil, it bears an inscription ‘Sold to Lovett’; the letterpress East West Galleries label is on the reverse. The photograph in question is ‘Nautilus’ and its photographer, Edward Weston (1886-1958). When the hammer comes down at the auction, it signals that the picture has been sold for an incredible 1,082,500 USD (hammer price plus buyer’s premium).

Living fossil
Nautilus, incidentally, is a unique marine creature, which has survived, relatively unchanged for millions of years. The habits of this ‘living fossil’ are still shrouded in mystery. Found throughout the Pacific and Indian oceans, it has a lifespan of about 20 years which is spent mostly in deep water at depths of more than 500 metres. In spite of its poor eyesight, it is an active predator. The striking feature of Nautilus is its shell which is composed of a matte white outer layer, and a striking white iridescent inner layer. The nautilus shell presents one of the finest natural examples of a logarithmic spiral. Thanks to its distinct and attractive shell, the nautilus is harvested by humans and preyed on by large marine animals.

Weston’s still-life photograph of the shiny nautilus shell set against a clear dark background is hailed as a benchmark of modernism in the history of photography, and indeed of 20th century art. A picture of grace, beauty and sensuality, it stands out as a fine testimony to Weston’s stance that a photograph must record the very quintessence and interdependence of life. The simple sea shell in Weston’s picture combines the physical with the spiritual.

Photography, in Weston’s view, was meant to be nothing but direct, honest, and uncompromising. He believed that the difference between good and bad art in any medium or of any age lies in the creative mind rather than in skill of hands. “The way of seeing is what counts,” he said. “And that is conditioned by the artist’s attitude, not by his skill as craftsman.” Weston continually sought to clearly express his feeling for life with photographic beauty. He believed in presenting objectively the texture, rhythm, form in nature, without subterfuge or evasion in technique or spirit. He wished to record the quintessence of the object or element before the lens, rather than an interpretation, a superficial phase, or passing mood. “This is my way in photography,” he said. “It is not an easy way.”

In one of his writings, Weston also bemoaned how photography in America was in a sadly anemic condition; how it was dominated by dexterous technicians who resorted to tricks like diffusion of focus, manipulation of prints, or worse, recording of calculated expressions and postures; how hundreds of tired businessmen or tradesmen, and idle women, played with photography as a holiday hobby, and then offered their results as ‘art’! “It is a measure of Edward Weston’s greatness that he — it seems to me more than any other photographer of his time — escaped the confinement of photographic categories and movements and theories (even his own theories), and produced a body of work for which there was no explanation,” observed John Szarkowski, Director of Department of Photography, Museum of Modern Art. “Weston’s real aesthetic philosophy was a simple and functional one — he photographed clearly what he saw life to be. What he saw made him a nature poet, a transformer of commonplaces into wonders, a fantasist, and a discoverer of seminal form.”

Pictorialism to abstraction
Curiously Weston (who took his first photographs when he was 16) began his career as a conventional pictorialist.  In his early 20s, he photographed children, pets and funerals to make a living. He attended the Illinois College of Photography in 1908 and completed the 12-month course in six months. By the time he was 25, Weston had started his own photo business called The Little Studio in Tropico, California and established himself as a wonderful portraitist. He subsequently came to renounce the tenets of pictorialism and started focusing on abstract forms and sharper, unpretentious and straight images. In the mid-1920s, he began to photograph single objects removed from their ordinary contexts; even simple household implements whose shapes seemed intrinsically beautiful caught his attention. His stunning nudes also brought him name and fame.

“I want the greater mystery of things revealed more clearly than the eyes see,” revealed Weston. “Anything that excites me, for any reason, I will photograph; not searching for unusual subject matter, but making the commonplace unusual.” In course of time, Weston came to be hailed as the most influential American photographer of the 20th century. He lived by his word that the camera should be used for a recording of life, for rendering the very substance and quintessence of the thing itself, “whether it be polished steel or palpitating flesh.” Sadly, Weston was stricken by Parkinson’s disease and was unable to take a picture in the last 10 years of his life. After he died on the new year day of 1958 at the age of 72, his ashes were scattered into the Pacific ocean.

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