A few weeks ago we drove up to Santa Barbara to see some old friends and for me to get a chance to see the Brett Weston exhibit at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. Brett, who was the second oldest child of Edward Weston, one of the most famous of the West Coast photographers working in the early-middle years of the twentieth century, left school and followed his father on his early journeys to Mexico where he learned the technical craft of of his art. His sense of composition, point of view, his “voice”, was already maturing. Several early photographs clearly show that Brett was his own person with a style that differed from his well-known father.
I was impressed by the sheer number of photographs in the show, well over one hundred, mostly 11x14 in size. In traditional film photography, I’ve always felt that the actual making of the image in-camera represents only half of the final artwork. The other half, and by far the hardest part, is printing the image in the darkroom. This is where the photographer’s vision is realized, in the alchemy of light, paper and chemistry. These prints were awesome in the literal meaning of that overused word. Inky black richness and detailed highlights coexisting with a beautiful scale of grey that sucked you into its world. I read somewhere that to see the light, you have to print dark, and while that may be a gross generalization (and opinion!) I can see the genesis of that idea in these prints. Even more amazing is that almost all of them are contact prints, the negative and the paper sandwiched together in a frame and exposed to a light source. All of the beautiful richness of the print has to be on the negative itself, for there is little opportunity to use the usual tricks of the trade that photographers who enlarge their negatives use quite regularly and matter-of-factly.
I was surprised that I was drawn to the abstract photographs of intense beauty; cracks in a mud plain, peeling paint, broken glass, close-ups of tide pools, bubbles and other subjects, seeing that I hadn’t been interested in that style before, but these were printed so beautifully that I instantly “got it”. It took two hours to see it all and I could easily have gone back several times to let it all sink in.
The show’s no longer in Santa Barbara, but you can visit the Brett Weston Archive here.