More Lessons from the Masters of Photography: Edward Weston

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In any art form, we have those who seem to transcend the medium itself. Those who by their very accomplishments earn the respect and admiration of those who view their work. We call these esteemed individuals “Masters”. In photography, there great names that we hold high because their photographs move us on some emotional, nearly spiritual plain. We see these people as masters of photography not simply because of their level of technical skill but how their application of those skills makes us feel. At the same time, we strive to reach that same level of proficiency.

In this installment of Lessons from the Masters of Photography, we are going to examine the work of Edward Weston. We will look at the photographs and also the man to see what valuable lessons they can teach us about photography.

Edward Weston

Edward Weston - masters of photography

Edward Weston by Fred Archer- 1915

Weston was born in Highland Park, IL on March 24th, 1886. He began photography at the relatively young age of 16 when he was given a No. 2 Bulls-Eye camera by his father. The camera used 3 ½ inch roll film and Weston used the incredible little box to make photographs around Chicago where he spent a large portion of his childhood.

After moving to California in 1906, he worked as a surveyor and began working in photography essentially as a “door-to-door” photographer. A couple of years later, Weston would return to Illinois to attend the Illinois College of Photography where he became proficient in darkroom and camera techniques. Finally, in 1911, he opened his first studio in Tropico, California. The rest, as they say, is history.

Edward West went on to become one of the most dominating forces in the world of photography and is now considered by many to be one of the first great American photo makers. His work ranges from landscapes to fine art nudes and still life. In this article, we’re going to look at a few of the many lessons you can learn from the great Ed Weston, one of the Masters of Photography.

There are no Rules

How many times have you stopped yourself from placing a horizon dead center in a composition because it isn’t generally considered correct? Have you worn out the Rule of Thirds?

Do you always want to retain detail in the shadows each and every time? If you ever don’t make a photo in a certain way because it isn’t the “correct way”, then you are limiting yourself and your work…and Ed Weston would likely agree with me.

More Lessons from the Masters of Photography: Edward Weston - man looking up on a forest of tall trees

Weston believed there were no set “rules” to composition, He saw photography as a progression in self expression and would photograph the scene or subject based on what he felt, not necessarily based on any set rules.

When you photograph, always remember that while there a few technical constraints the majority of the creative side of your photograph is completely up to you. Be like Edward Weston and don’t hold back just because what you want to do is unique.

Beauty is Everywhere

If you look at some of Weston’s most celebrated works, you’ll see that they consist of everyday items that you might have in your home right this second; lettuce, sea shells, even a toilet. In fact, what is considered to be one of his most famous photographs is nothing more than a bell pepper.

More Lessons from the Masters of Photography: Edward Weston - pepper #30

Pepper #30 by Edward Weston, 1930/Image courtesy Sotheby’s

Weston made the everyday commonality of objects disappear. One of my favorite quotes by him is as follows:

“This then: to photograph a rock, have it look like a rock, but be more than a rock. Significant presentation – not interpretation.”

What’s Weston telling us here? Is he just being overly dramatic as some of us photographers tend to be (as my hand slowly raises)? Or is he saying that we should see the things around us not only as what they are but also what they could be?

Beauty and therefore photographic material surrounds us all. Don’t overlook something because it appears simple. Instead, attempt to see its beauty photographically and learn to use your camera to show that quality in your work.

Use Simple Techniques in a Grand Way

Something I found surprising as I learned more about Weston is that most of (if not all) of his photographs were contact prints. This means that the negative is placed directly on top of or in very close contact with the printing paper. A contact print is the same size as the negative it is birthed from and in the case of Weston that was usually 8×10 inches.

silhouette of a camera on a tripod - More Lessons from the Masters of Photography: Edward Weston

Can you imagine that? All these great photographs were printed with extremely simple methods using nothing more than a negative, a piece of paper sandwiched in a wooden box, and light. The magic happened when Weston would add in the most important thing of all; his immense skill.

You see, Weston might have used simple tools, but the way in which he used them made all the difference. In your photography, never forget that amazing things can come very very simple means. The important thing is learning how to use the tools you do have expertly. Don’t believe me? That Pepper #30 from earlier…it was shot in a tin funnel on Weston’s kitchen table.

Some Final Thoughts on Edward Weston

I realize as I close out this article that it is March 24th, Edward Weston’s birthday. Oddly fitting as I think back on the legacy and lessons he left us to help better ourselves as photographers.

Weston was a master of making the simple profound. He used simple techniques and wasn’t afraid to bend the accepted “rules” in order to get the photography he saw fit. As you continue on your photographic journey I urge you to learn more about Edward Weston and his wonderful work as you discover more ways to become a better photo maker.

Read other dPS articles on the masters of photography here:

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Adam Welch is a full-time photomaker, author, adventurer, educator, and self-professed bacon addict. You can usually find him on some distant trail making photographs or at his computer writing about all the elegant madness that is photography. Follow his blog over at aphotographist.com or pick up his new book Lightroom Mastery: A Complete Guide to Working in Lightroom Classic CC

  • Thank you for this article. I very much appreciate articles about photographers like this from the relatively early days. I like the ‘No rules’ approach with the idea that we make an artistic decision with every photograph. I also greatly appreciate the idea that beauty is everywhere – there is always something to appreciate.

    (Small points: There is a typographical error in the 5th Paragraph. ‘Edward West’ should be ‘Edward Weston’. Later in the same paragraph ‘Ed Weston’ seems a little incongruous unless he was know by that name.)

  • oldclimber

    Many have the opinion that his son Brett actually produced superior prints, from Edward’s negatives. Contact prints might seem unchangeable, but paper, exposure time, and some burning and dodging could still be done to alter the total exposure for areas. “There are no rules” may not be entirely an accurate or sincere way of expressing a valid sentiment. Closer perhaps: There are many rules, and the good photographer knows how and where to break each one.

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