Brett Weston, whose photographs are currently on view in a solo exhibition at the CMA, was the second of four sons of Edward Weston, a master of modernism and a key figure in the history of 20th-century photography. Two of Edward’s sons, Brett and Cole, went on to devote their lives to photography, despite it likely being difficult to compete professionally with their father.
Portrait of Brett Weston, Unknown photographer courtesy of Erica Weston
In many ways, Edward Weston was far from an ideal father. His marriage to schoolteacher Flora Chandler Weston was a troubled one. He struggled to support his family, and longed to give up commercial portraiture to concentrate on fine art photography, even though there was little market for it. Flora has been described as domineering, although Edward, a frequent philanderer, seems to have gotten his way most of the time.
Edward was devoted to his children, teaching them practical skills and inculcating the values of thrift and self-reliance. He frequently photographed them, too. Yet in 1923 he abandoned his family to live in Mexico with his latest mistress, Tina Modotti, a movie actress who wanted to become a photographer. With them went his eldest son, 12-year-old Chandler. In 1925 Edward and Chandler briefly returned to California, then Edward went back to Mexico with 14-year-old Brett, who had been exhibiting behavioral problems since the family separated.
Tina Modotti, Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.
On board the ship to Mexico, Weston handed Brett one of his cameras and the teen made his first photograph. Edward gave him cursory information on how to use the apparatus, but offered no guidance or pressure about what to shoot. Brett took to the medium immediately. By the next year, Edward wrote in his journal that Brett “is doing better work at fourteen than I did at thirty. To have someone close to me, working so excellently, with an assured future, is a happiness hardly expected.” Brett even influenced his father: it was the son who introduced semigloss gelatin silver paper into the Weston studio, a material integral to the sharp focus demanded by the new modernist style with which Edward was experimenting.
“[Brett] is doing better work at fourteen than I did at thirty. To have someone close to me, working so excellently, with an assured future, is a happiness hardly expected.” — Edward Weston
Brett soon had photographs included in influential exhibitions, such as the groundbreaking Film und Foto show in 1929 in Stuttgart, Germany, and the first exhibition of the American modernist Group f/64 in 1932 at San Francisco’s de Young Memorial Museum, where his work hung alongside prints by Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham, and his father. From the 1920s through the 1950s, he remained a photographer’s photographer, little known outside what was then an insular field. When Edward became incapacitated with Parkinson’s disease, Brett devoted several years to printing a master set of his father’s most important images. After Edward’s death in 1958, though, Brett ceded to his brother Cole the business of making posthumous prints from their father’s negatives; he was relieved to return to making his own art.
Plants and Leaves, Hawaii, c. 1985. Brett Weston. Gelatin silver print; 34.9 x 26.8 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Gift of the Christian Keesee Collection, 2017.168. © The Brett Weston Archive
In the 1970s and 1980s, when fine art photography entered the mainstream art world and captured popular imagination, Brett finally gained fame. His images were emulated by professionals and amateurs alike who took nature as their subject matter. With fame came fortune, a reward that had eluded his father during his lifetime. But after Brett’s death in 1993, his celebrity was eclipsed by the rise of new approaches to photography. The only Weston in the major histories of photography remained Edward. However, a recent revival of interest in Brett’s work, due in part to generous gifts to museums from the Brett Weston Archive by donor Christian Keesee, is returning him to his place in the sun.
Cracked Plastic Paint, Garrapata, 1954. Brett Weston. Gelatin silver print; 34.6 x 26 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Gift of the Christian Keesee Collection, 2017.142. © The Brett Weston Archive
Brett Weston: Photographs is on view in the museum’s Mark Schwartz and Bettina Katz Photography Gallery (230) through May 6. This exhibition is made possible in part by a gift from Donald F. and Anne T. Palmer.
Inspired by the show? We invite you to create your own images in the style of Weston and share them on Instagram by using the hashtag #CMABrettWeston in the #CMABrettWeston social media challenge. More info on the contest including dates and prizes here. To see example posts, check out the images below, and click here.