San Francisco — Alongside Alfred Stieglitz and Ansel Adams, Edward Weston (1886-1958) ranks among the foremost American photographers. His prolific career spanned three decades and encompassed many of the major innovations of American modernism. From his first professional photos of doe-eyed beauties posturing against stark studio walls to his last images of cypress trees silhouetted against quiet skies, Weston's photographs exude a rare and masterful tension between visual drama and pure, economical form. Now two West Coast exhibitions (one divided between two locations) have come along to chronicle Weston's life and work: The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is host to an impressive and insightfully selected retrospective, ``Supreme Instants: The Photography of Edward Weston.'' The 237-piece show, organized by Arizona University's Center for Creative Photography, continues through Feb. 15. Thereafter it will tour museums in 13 cities, including Seattle, Atlanta, Washington, and Cincinnati.
In Los Angeles (through January), the Getty Museum in Malibu and the Huntington Library in Pasadena draw from their important Weston holdings to mount the joint offering ``Edward Weston in Los Angeles.''
Fortunately, Weston was an articulate artist with a public persona and an eye to leaving a written as well as visual legacy. His copious letters and diaries were self-consciously edited as if intended for public viewing. These writings have been backed up by biographical data painstakingly gathered by photohistorian Beaumont Newhall, curator of the ``Supreme Instants'' exhibition. Combined with these West Coast shows, they produce an unusually thorough and candid profile.
Weston's boyhood experiments with the camera - tightly composed nature studies that are surprisingly free from clich'es - show an uncanny ability to distill from his subject only the most emotionally and visually telling details.
By 1906, the 20-year-old Weston was determined to turn a loved hobby into a respectable profession. He attended two years of photography college and apprenticed for long hours in commercial studios. Eventually he set up a successful but tedious portrait business in a small suburb of Los Angeles, where he married his first wife.
Diary excerpts exhibited with photos in the San Francisco show reveal that he felt a perennial conflict between bread-and-butter work and what he called ``personal'' creative work. Yet the technical discipline that distinguishes Weston's most creative photographs and underlies his keenly poetic vision is evident in the images from those early studio years.
Both shows treat us to formally pristine and psychologically probing portrait studies of fellow photographer Immogen Cunningham, art critic Sadakichi Hartman, and his close friend Margrethe Mather.
These are followed by the ``attic portraits'' of friends and notables, which got their tag from lofts in which he photographed them. These and other works of this period show Weston's early involvement with so-called pictorialist photography.
Spearheaded by the prodigious Alfred Stieglitz around 1902, American pictorialism sought to give photography the creative rigor and fine art status enjoyed by modern painting and sculpture.
Whether by conscious intent or intuitive gift, Weston's stylistic innovations mirrored every important development in American modernism. In the early '20s, he captured images of Ohio factories in photos whose acute focus and urban content anticipate American precisionist art and explore the machine aesthetic that gripped a newly industrialized America.
Weston returned from a somewhat disillusioning Mexico retreat in the mid '20s to create his famous images of isolated vegetables, shells, and single objects: a solitary toilet, a bell pepper, the cross section of an onion. Shot with long exposure times and at very close range, inanimate objects took on an animate and alternate identity. A shiny cauliflower fragment becomes highly sensual, while the back of a female nude becomes a neutral and elegant study in line, tonality, and texture.
Weston's 1929 move to Carmel took the artist out of the studio and into nature. On his arrival there, Weston described feeling a little intimidated by the chaotic vastness of the Northern California coast. During the years that followed, however, he perfected the art of capturing sweeping environmental vistas that retain their natural vitality but lack none of his poetry.
Between 1934 and 1947 - the year that Weston's active photomaking stopped short because of illness - he produced some of the finest, most confident, and vigorous works of his career. In these photos of the California coastline, Yosemite, Death Valley, the sand dunes of Oceano, and the ghost towns of Nevada, questions about abstraction or realism, figure or nature seem trivial in light of a mature and piercing vision that records the life of each thing not necessarily as we see it but as it really is. The quality that seems to empower Weston's work was his ability to see more than most of us do in simple things. Through his works we are fortunate to be able to do the same.