EDWARD Weston (1886-1958) was one of the greatest photographers America has produced. For most of his adult life he supported himself as a studio portraitist, but he was never successful; he seems to have felt proud that he was not cut out to make money by flattering the well-to-do. Weston's poverty combined with his romanticism to make him a truly American artist. On the one hand, he felt that things and people ought to be shown as they are, without trickery or adornment. On the other, he wanted something more than material reality, which was in his case exceedingly modest.
During the early years of his career he had made would-be artistic photographs informed by a genteel and vague-ly Oriental conception of beauty. Portraits of his fellow Californians were given added refinement with dim lighting, kimonos, and flower arrangements.
In the early 1920s he repudiated all that. At a time when Japan seemed to be the land of cherry blossoms, Weston made outstanding photographs of a steel mill in Ohio. Nothing could have been further from Oriental refinement than those smokestacks. In 1932 he announced that he would no longer retouch even his commercial portraits and felt enormously relieved, as if a great burden of untruth had been taken off his shoulders.
For all his avoidance of the most obvious kinds of distortion, Weston knew that a photograph is in itself artificial. The subject matter was unimportant, he said; the photographer's way of seeing it was everything.
That distinction could surprise his admirers. When Charis Wilson first went to the beach with Weston - she was his assistant and later his wife - she expected it to look like his spectacular photographs of sand dunes. She writes that she was disappointed to find just a beach; Weston had to do the most painstaking selection of camera angles and lighting conditions to create his nominally realistic photographs.
In 1931 Ansel Adams, not yet a famous photographer in his own right, reviewed a show of Weston's work and complained that Weston ``often makes his subjects more than they really are in the severe photographic sense.'' But that is precisely what Weston was trying to do.
He was fascinated by what he called the ``plus'' of photography. Of his famous photograph of a tree trunk in Mexico he wrote that it ``is but a photograph of a palm, plus something - something - and I cannot quite say what that something is - and who is there to tell me?'' He described the subject of another photograph as ``a pepper - but more than a pepper ... this new pepper takes one beyond the world we know in the conscious mind.''
The sand dunes in the photograph on this page are perfectly real, but the pattern of light and shadow is ambiguous. For a moment it may suggest the curved outlines of the human body, but then our perception changes and the pattern stands for nothing in particular, or anything.
Weston perceived all of his subjects - a human torso, a seashell, a vegetable, an expanse of sand - as symbols of something larger. As an artist he sought to portray not only the limited reality of the thing itself, recorded in the most precise detail, but also the whole vast life of the universe and perhaps something beyond even that.
These photographs and about 200 others may be seen in a traveling exhibition, ``Supreme Instants: The Photography of Edward Weston,'' organized by the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona to honor the centennial of Weston's birth. The exhibition is at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art until Feb. 15. Over the coming three years it will travel to museums in Seattle; San Diego; New York City; Washington, D.C.; Fort Worth, Texas; Los Angeles; Atlanta; Evanston, Ill.; Denver; Santa Fe, N.M.; Cincinnati; and Tucson, Ariz.