Photographer. His intense realism, formal purity, and impeccable printing played crucial roles in reorienting photographic practice toward a modern form of expression. Inspiring artistic heirs even today, he extended long-standing American artistic and philosophical traditions into the late twentieth century. Like such painters as John Singleton Copley and Asher B. Durand, he embodied the ideal in closely observed reality. Following in the path of Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Transcendentalists, he aspired to a personal and mystical relationship with universal life rhythms manifest in nature. Born in Highland Park, Illinois, Edward Henry Weston spent much of his childhood in nearby Chicago and developed an enthusiasm for photography as a teenager. He dropped out of high school in 1903 and moved to the Los Angeles suburb of Tropico (now part of Glendale) about three years later. He returned to Illinois in 1908 to attend a photography school in Effingham for a short time. In 1911 he opened his own portrait studio in Tropico. While working as a commercial photographer, he won many honors for his early creative work, which reflected the prevailing aesthetic of pictorialism. In the 1910s, his growth as an artist was stimulated by his appreciation for modern forms of visual expression and by a friendship from about 1913 with photographer Margrethe Mather (1886–1952), who outpaced his grasp of contemporary art and thought. In her own pictorialist work, which peaked in the 1920s, she achieved a concentrated modern vision often emphasizing patterns in playful and delicate arrangements of objects.
During a visit to Middletown, Ohio, in 1922 Weston photographed the Armco Steel plant with a newly direct, unsentimental, and formally inventive approach. His dramatic interpretations of industry suggest the precisionist romance with technology, seen also in photographs by Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand. Although he rarely returned to such subjects, the Armco series represents a decisive moment in his gradual, logical progression toward a personal style. A visit to New York, where he met Alfred Stieglitz as well as Sheeler, Strand, and other leading photographers, reinforced his new direction. In 1923 Weston moved to Mexico City, accompanied by Tina Modotti. There, mingling with a vital modernist community, he refined his vision by striving for simplicity and objectivity in aestheticized images of prosaic objects, perhaps most famously the toilet in his apartment. These works ratified his mature practice of operating with the most basic photographic equipment and techniques: large-format view cameras, small apertures, and long exposure times for maximum detail and depth of field. He used only natural light and produced only contact prints, which provided extreme clarity and allowed a wide range of subtly modulated tones. He returned to California late in 1926 and moved to San Francisco the following year. For about three years he emphasized uncanny realism in objective studies, often in extreme close-up, of isolated, usually natural objects, such as peppers or halved artichokes. Suggesting a Brancusian sculpture, “Shell” (1927) presents a pearly nautilus balanced so that its opening flares upward, as its outline provides a sinuous border. Against an entirely black background, it glows, an icon of art and nature. After Weston settled in Carmel in 1929, in a similar spirit he also photographed nudes, generally sliced by the picture frame, as well as rocks or vegetation he observed along the coast at Point Lobos. Throughout, formal elegance accompanies an unnaturally intense realism that seems to penetrate the essence of his subjects.