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Edward Weston: Leaves of Grass

By Peggy Roalf   Wednesday December 26, 2012

I heard that you ask'd for something to prove this puzzle the New World,
And to define America, her athletic Democracy,
Therefore I send you my poems that you behold in them what you wanted.
Walt Whitman, from Leaves of Grass.

In his epic poem Leaves of Grass, written before the Civil War, Walt Whitman celebrated the vastness and vitality of the young nation in plainspoken verse. Almost 100 years later, Edward Weston, arguably one of the great photographers of all time, was commissioned to illustrate a new edition to be published by the Limited Editions Club of New York.

Weston spent nearly a year in 1941, driving 25,000 miles and taking more than 700 photos in 24 states, on the cusp of enormous social and economic changes that culminated in World War II. Working primarily with an 8-by-10-inch camera, Weston developed nearly 700 negatives from the trip, eventually sending 74 to the publisher who reproduced 49 images in a two-volume treatment published the following year after the outbreak of World War II.

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Edward Weston, Woodlawn Plantation House, Louisiana, courtesy Boston Museum of Fina Arts/Lane Collection.

Organized by Karen Haas, Lane Collection curator of photographs, the exhibition is further narrowed down to 46 photographs. Weston, a perfectionist who worked according to his own agenda, was uncomfortable with assignments.  Haas said he resisted club director George Macy’s suggestion that his photos should "literally illustrate’’ Whitman’s complex cycle of free verse poems and, instead, aimed to "capture its spirit.’’

Weston, who never considered himself a documentary photographer, took the commission for the fee and the opportunity to make a major road trip with someone else covering the costs. He captured the sense of change, of a nation recovering from the Great Depression through industrialization while heading toward war. And in his unnervingly lyrical image of a crumbling Louisiana plantation house (above), he embodied the end of an old way of life that was perhaps much like what Walt Whitman had experienced in the years following the Civil War.

Haas said Weston’s photos – regarded as one of his last great series – were taken amid great personal difficulties as his relationship with his wife Charis began to flounder and the initial symptoms of the Parkinson’s Disease that would severely limit his career began to appear.

Weston‘s starkly beautiful images of aged gravestones, old rail fences, and barren trees evoke an earlier era, one that a nation on the cusp of change must leave behind. His images of the Grand Canyon, Maine seaports and the skyscrapers of New York share Whitman’s equation of America’s vast spaces with its special destiny. Perhaps sharing Whitman’s faith in human decency and democracy, Weston wrote about the project: "I do believe … I can and will do the best work of my life.’’

Edward Weston: Leaves of Grass concludes its run at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts on December 31, 2012. Information. It will then be on view at the Arkansas Arts Center, Little Rock, AR from1 February 2013 - 21 April 2013. Information.
View the slideshow on The Daily Beast.

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