Edward Weston
The View From Within

by Reneé Jacobs

The remarkable widow of a pioneering giant of modern photography, Edward Weston, remains as feisty and bright as the day she attracted the attention of the great man. At 93, Charis Wilson Weston clearly recollects a life that is now an immutable part of art history.
Charis Wilson Weston
Photo by Reneé Jacobs

AT THE AGE of 93, Charis Wilson has seen more than most people ever will - and the art world has seen more of her than almost any other woman in the history of photography. As Edward Weston’s lover, writer, companion, driver (Weston never learned to drive), and model from 1934-1945, Charis left an indelible imprint on Weston’s work and the way in which his photographic nudes are examined. Charis is the subject of more than half of all of Weston’s nudes, including some of his most famous – the Oceano Dunes series and Nude in a Doorway. His portrait of her at Lake Ediza is well known (if somewhat misunderstood). Charis grew up in a literary family, surrounded by adults and few children to play with. She was a sickly child and developed her strength by bicycling - and swimming naked out to the kelp beds in Carmel Bay. When she met Weston, she was 19 and he was 48, already an accomplished photographer with one book to his credit and a growing reputation as a new breed of modernist photographer. Her literary skills helped secure Weston a Guggenheim grant in 1937 – the first ever awarded to a photographer. Her insight and observations accompanied his photographs during their Guggenheim travels in the ground breaking and best selling book, California and the West.

When they met in 1934, at a small concert in Carmel, Charis was recovering from a ‘lost weekend’ in San Francisco that had lasted for about a year, following her father’s refusal to allow her to accept a scholarship to Sarah Lawrence. Weston was estranged from his wife, Flora Chandler, with whom he had four sons, and was living with photographer Sonya Noskowiak. He had also been involved with a string of his models and had lived and worked with Italian photographer and actress, Tina Modotti, in Mexico City in the 1920s, during which time he reveled in the company of artists such as Diego Rivera and Jean Charlot.

Over the course of two beautiful, crisp fall days in Santa Cruz, California, during conversations that ranged from art to politics to species extinction, Charis (which means grace in Greek) shared her life as part of one of the most celebrated artworld couples of the 1930s and 1940s. She teased me when I told her that I had left photography in the 1980s to pursue a career as a lawyer – ‘What were you thinking?’ Her blue eyes were particularly mischievous when she recited one of her favorite limericks:

‘While Titian was mixing rose madder,
His model was posed on a ladder,
Her position to Titian,
Suggested coition,
So he ran up the ladder
And had her.’


Renée Jacobs: You first heard about Edward Weston from art collector friends, Walter and Louise Arensberg, when you were attending Hollywood High in Los Angeles?

Charis Weston: Yes, the Arensbergs were friends and first exposed me to such major artists as Duchamp, Picasso, Braque and Brancusi. Walter Arensberg told me in the early 1930s that Edward Weston was a major artist that lived in Carmel - which is where we were from except for the moment we were staying in Hollywood with my mother.

…and then you met Edward Weston at a concert back in Carmel?
Yes, well he looked like a very lively, real person. I was observing him during the intermission at the concert as I was standing there gabbing. He seemed twice as alive as other people. He was talking to various people in the audience and he had such a really open face as though you could take anything out of it. And as often happens I was very aware of him and he was very aware of me. So he left the group he was talking with and came through the lines of chairs that were nearly empty of people. He said hello to my brother, Leon, whom he knew, and suggested that he introduce him. I was very taken with him and remembered Walter Arensberg’s comment about him as an important artist. Well, I said: ‘Maybe on Sunday I can come by and view some photographs’; and he said, ‘fine, do that’. But it turned out he had to go to Los Angeles - it was Depression time and he had a paying job.

You were 19 and he was 48, similar to the age disparity between your mother and father when they met?
Yes, it amazed me when I realised that there was a copycat aspect to it. But of course, the difference was that my father was completely unsuited for marriage or any other human relationship, whereas Edward was a charming and fully mature human being who felt comfortable playing jokes, being with friends, and telling stories.

So Sonya showed you the photographs. Did you realise at that point that he and Sonya were lovers?
Yes, I think I knew that because everybody knew all about everything in Carmel.

What was your reaction to seeing the photographs for the first time?
I had seen some poor reproductions before that - but to actually look at the prints, I had never seen pictures like that. I was used to other people that made pictures softening things - the Pictorialist style was in vogue - so I had never seen photographs like these. Sonya showed me some of the shells and the peppers - then pulled out some of the 4x5 nudes.

…and what was your reaction to the nude photographs?
I thought they were terrific. Again, I’d never seen anything like that.

Did it make you want to be part of that art or did it make you more interested in him as a man and a person?
Yes, I was more interested in him I think... well, it’s hard to say. It’s too far back to really determine - but whatever it was, I wanted more of it. More photographs. More of the person that made the photographs!

When you saw the nudes were you aware - or interested at all - in his relationship with the models who had posed for the photographs?
Well, that’s an interesting idea. I don’t really know. It’s not that easy to put myself back there and think I would have a clear picture of who I was then and how it struck me.

So you arranged to have a sitting when he came back from Los Angeles?
Well, Sonya arranged that.

Describe what that first sitting with Edward was like when he got back from Los Angeles. Was there some tension in the air because of the attraction?
I think I was kind of bowled over. I have a feeling that the tension was all on my side…

…and you had never posed nude before had you?
No, I hadn’t. At the first sitting, I was trying to be fairly bold and so I walked in and, even though Edward offered me a bathroom to change in, I stood right there and took my clothes off. I think I was conscious of the fact that it wouldn’t hurt to shock him a little bit. But actually, I was kind of nervous, and since I had just had my appendix out I had this big and nasty scar across my abdomen. I had a feeling he might decide I was not ready to be photographed but he just said: ‘too bad about that scar. We’ll try and keep away from it’. The next day I ran into him in Carmel and he said: ‘Come by later and I’ll show you the pictures’. He was just developing them and making some trial prints, since he didn’t expect I’d be able to read a negative - which I couldn’t. So I went down in his darkroom, which was in a basement under the house, and again I was absolutely amazed that I could stand right next to this man in his darkroom - right up against each other practically - and he didn’t, as they say these days, ‘make a move’. He picked two or three prints out of the wash water and slapped up on a sheet of glass so I could see. In my opinion they were even better than the ones Sonya had shown me. But of course, I didn’t say that. But it looked to me like I hit the jackpot the first time.

Had you had some concerns that you wouldn’t measure up as a model?
Yes, yes of course I did. Especially with that scar across the middle of me. But Edward said: ‘I’d like to make some more again as soon as possible’. And I just said: ‘Fine’.

So you set up a second session for a few days later? And what was the second sitting like?
Well, I thought it was great. He was full of jokes and we had a couple of glasses of wine and we were, I thought, very relaxed and easy with each other. A fairly witty affair.

You became lovers at that second sitting, right?
Um… hmm. Yeah, I guess about this time. I decided that if he wasn’t going to do anything I should.

Which was a pretty fearless thing for a 19 year old to do back then.
I think so. Well, Edward was a very attractive man and I had the feeling I couldn’t be wrong in trying to encourage whatever this was to go ahead.

So after the second sitting you commenced a passionate affair with Edward. You were both living in Carmel and you could see his studio from your mother’s dress shop where you were working?
No. No. But when I went up the main street, Ocean Avenue, to go to the post office, to go to the lunch place or whatever, I would always find an excuse to go see if the card wasn’t in the window (their signal that Edward had visitors). That meant that I could go up to Edward’s studio, which was upstairs and around the corner. You couldn’t see it from the dress shop, but I could see him when he walked by on his daily trip to his house - and back after he had lunch.

You said that some of Edward’s appeal to women was in the photographer’s process of being so attentive...
It was a very, very interesting experience. You have a feeling that someone... a feeling that you are really being seen for the first time. That more of you is being seen. That you somehow have a stronger - more real - existence somewhere. Something takes place between a man and his camera. It’s very hard to describe the sensation you feel.

In your introduction to the Edward Weston Nude book (Aperture, 1977) you write that you had looked at those images as being so much more about Edward and his artistry. But over time, you’ve come to see them more as you?
Yeah, I think so. I think so. Part of that is age, of course, since you’re looking at yourself as a young thing that doesn’t exist anymore - or at least doesn’t exist in that particular dimension.

What was the posing or directing method that he would use in those early sessions?
He didn’t give any directions. He just said: ‘Go over there and sit down or lie down, or do what you feel like doing and move around all you want. Change your position as you want to’. That’s what Sonya had told me: ‘… there’s nothing to posing for Edward. In fact, you don’t even pose. You just move around and do what you feel like’. And that’s all very well, except when you try to do what you feel like he’d yell: ‘hold it! Hold it! Stop right there’. So you could never move without being told to ‘hold it’. I had a mental picture of what I would look like in his camera - these rather idealised nudes based on ones seen in his darkroom – but even after 5 or 6 moves I never got to the point I had imagined because he’d keep stopping me on the way.

When Edward was taking your photograph, where were you in your mind?
Oh, I was right there. It’s an interesting idea that I could have been somewhere else. I was always trying to see what he was seeing, to visualise the picture that he was making. It seemed to me that as a writer I should be able to conjure it up and after some experience with the pictures he made I had a pretty good idea of how I looked. The great word these days is ‘extrapolate’ - to project how it would turn out in the picture - but I was a hopeless dud at doing it.

The same thing happened to me on the Guggenheim travels when Edward would be looking at a landscape. We would stop along the road and he set up his camera and was quite excited and enthusiastic about what he was seeing. I would look over his shoulder and finally look through the camera – the ground glass of the camera – and of course, what you see is a beautiful colourful picture, all kinds of color. But what you’re getting in the negative is the black and white. Quite a difference! So I very seldom got it, even when I had looked through the camera...

There was one instance when Edward photographed nude studies of both you and Sonya at the same event, I think a picnic at Big Sur. What did that feel like to you?
Just didn’t feel like anything special.

You were remarkably free of jealousy?
Uh… hmm. I don’t know. I had... I think I had a real horror of jealousy because I had seen it in my father and seen the kind of turmoil it created. Edward had talked to me at some length about his own problems with jealousy and especially when he was with Tina [Modotti] and how he hated himself for giving in to it. It was there in him and he seemed unable to help himself. What made the difference I don’t really know, but I evidently missed out on that feature. I can remember when I was going to move down to Santa Monica Canyon and join Edward and the various Weston offspring there. A young woman photographer was telling me of a wonderful visit that she had with Edward and it got late and Edward said he only had one pair of pajamas but ‘one of us can wear the top and the other can wear the bottom’. I just couldn’t get stirred up about it partly because I knew Edward never wore pajamas, he didn’t even own a pair. I thought if he had wanted to ‘get it on with her’ he probably would have. So based on the pajama story, I can’t imagine they did. I mean, what the hell!

…then not long after that he moved in with Brett in Santa Monica. About eight months later he sent you a message saying ‘come on down. If we are going to starve, we might as well do it together’.
[Laughs] When he left for Santa Monica Canyon he found a place and started working for the WPA1. It looked pretty grim because he had to take the offer to get him on a WPA art project. Meanwhile Carmel was being shut down by the Depression and we weren’t making enough in the dress shop to keep going. So I could see that time was closing in on us.

Earlier in the Fall of 1934 you took an overnight ride with Edward down to Los Angeles, during which you shared so much of your past and history together. Up to that point you hadn’t gotten to spend much time together. I think it was on that trip that you realised you had both had about the same number of lovers.
[Laughs] Yes.

Edward later told you his one experience with a man had been with Ramiel McGehee (a friend he had photographed who had been a former dancer, tutor to the Crown Prince of Japan and a book designer). What was your reaction to that?
Uh… hmm. Uh…. hmm. Well, I thought it was interesting. I thought it was interesting in the sense that it didn’t surprise me. I knew Ramiel pretty well by then - and well enough that I could feel sorry for him that he would be so totally in love with Edward.

There was an immense love and friendship between the two of them.

You wrote in your book Through Another Lens: My Years with Edward Weston, that you and Edward agreed it was a shame the both of you were only attracted to the opposite sex - because it limited your range of human experience.
[Laughs] Yes, right. By 50% in fact.

When you moved into Santa Monica Canyon, with the ever-changing pattern of Weston offspring (Brett was older than you, Neil was younger) you were kind of in the middle. That must have been an interesting dynamic. You had these young virile boys. I can’t remember if it was Brett or Neil, but there was an incredible photograph of one of them looking quite handsome in a white t-shirt. So you had this very interesting dynamic where they were together with Edward and then you moved in. That must have been a very interesting household.
Yeah, it was. And I had the advantage, I suppose, in that I regarded them as children. They were so immature compared to the way Leon and I had grown up and the number of things they just hadn’t been exposed to.

It was during that time in 1936 that Edward made the famous nude study of you in the doorway of the Santa Monica Canyon house - and neither you nor he were completely happy with that image, correct?
Well, we knew it was a good picture. But we had our objections to things that should have been straightened up.

You were not satisfied with the uneven part in your hair and the bobby pins and he was not satisfied with the shadow on your arm?
That’s right. Well, the shadow on my arm was really worth protesting, because if you didn’t print it very carefully it looked as if I had a withered arm. Whereas the hairdressing was simply sloppiness on my part I’m afraid.

…and he only made the one exposure of that?
He did with everything 8x10; you couldn’t afford to make duplicate exposures. He never did.

Do you think there is any difference in the way that men photograph the female nude as opposed to women photographing the female nude?
I suppose so, but I never saw enough of it to really get a handle on it. I don’t think it’s necessarily a difference between men and women photographers, I think it’s more of a difference between individuals who have a different slant and a different way of coming at it.

Ruth Bernhard has written that she never wanted to photograph anyone that she was attracted to, and she also writes about having burst into tears the first time she saw Edward’s nudes. Bernhard doesn’t come up in your autobiography at all, but she had a very intense attraction and passionate friendship with Edward Weston. She also wrote that she found Edward’s peppers and seashells much more sensuous than his nudes, which also leads into the whole discussion of how people read all sorts of symbolism into Edward’s still life’s - that he never felt was there. The Arensbergs had very much taught you about symbolism and abstraction. Did you think Edward was being truthful with you and with himself (and with the art world) when he said that there were no hidden meanings? Weston wrote in his Daybooks about the things people would find in that work – penises or a vulva, or wrestlers, all sorts of things that he never intended.
Yes. Uh huh. Yeah, well Bernhard is the one that I was quoting for the pajama story, how she had spent the night and doing her best to whip up something over it. For heaven’s sake - I couldn’t care less. On the symbolism: Edward had a way of saying that in some cases symbolism was inescapable. It is just there and you can’t very well erase it when you’re making a picture, even if what is moving you to make the picture is something else. So he was not interested in the obvious reading of a photograph. He got impatient with people who were looking for everything to be sexual in a picture of a pepper. To him, that was a much too simple – and simplistic – way of looking at a picture.

What do you think would motivate somebody to say the peppers or the still life’s were more sensuous than the nudes?
Well, I suspect them of being kind of superficial about it. It was a time in the 1930s when this kind of jargon was considered wise - and witty - if you could appreciate the sex in a green pepper. It seems to me Edward was simply saying nobody’s really looked at what a pepper looks like before so that’s what I’m doing.

In a way you were saying the same thing. No one had ever seen you or looked at you in that way.

And similarly, with the famous Lake Ediza photograph - you’ve written about how tired you were and how exhausted, but still you were somewhat perplexed or amused that people would read into that photograph a certain sensuality. It was really you just sitting against the rock exhausted.
Um… hmm. Yes, I really was just exhausted [smiles]

Can you talk a little bit about your role in the Guggenheim application and the process?
Well, the problem was that he sent in this very truncated four liner, after he had worked at it and sworn at it and had all kinds of problems trying to make it say what he wanted. Finally he said, well I guess I’ve said it all here - in the four-line version - on why he should get the grant. This was, you know, just plain nonsense. He just tried to say it in fewer words and ended up saying nothing.

And then you both heard from someone within the Guggenheim establishment that is wasn’t sufficient.
Right. And that he was embarrassed to show it to his committee, because it sounded as though Edward was a premiere artist and the Guggenheim Foundation would be pretty stupid if they didn’t give him the money to continue to make good pictures.

Which probably was a little bit risky given the fact that the Guggenheim had not previously funded any photographer.

So you stepped in and took charge of the application...
Well, I didn’t take charge, but I was very cautious and careful about improving his attitude. Obviously they needed some sort of statement about photography to point out to them why it was important and why it should be considered an art.

By this time you’d spent a lot of time listening to Edward and talking about his view of photography, listening to him talk to visitors, so you were able to distill his thoughts. You did that anonymously in a number of photography magazines – Camera Craft articles – as well? You even used an alias, is that right, in writing some of those articles about his thoughts on photography?
Uh… hmm. Exactly. Right. Yes.

It got to the point where driving around during the Guggenheim travels, Edward would doze off and you would scout a location because you were so tuned in…
Uh huh. Right. For the most part.

But you felt like you still could never quite see the ‘Weston moment’.
In the early years, I was obsessed with doing that. I was making the picture in my head. I figured I knew what he was doing, and how he was seeing, so well that I could put it together - I never did. I finally figured that Edward was the picture maker and I was the wordsmith. He simply does not do it in words; I do not do it in pictures.

Why do you think you were obsessed in the early years with doing that?
I think because I had a very strong feeling that anything anyone else could do, I could do, you know. It was really bigheaded on my part, I think. That everything in the world could be that simple. That it was possible to get hold of and ease myself into things is a really egotistical view...

Did you ever have any desire to photograph or do nudes of him?
No. No. I never wanted to take photographs. And it absolutely amazed Edward, because he had a good number of female students in those days that had all been helpers of one sort or another and he kept offering to teach me. I always wanted to look through the ground glass, in fact, it was so automatic that he finally stopped asking me and just moved off for me to get under the focusing cloth and look at his picture. He knew I always wanted to see it. But to do anything photographic? Absolutely not.

I knew this much about photography from listening to what he said. It took far more command, self-command, of what you were looking at and doing than I would ever have. As far as I was concerned, writing – which is what I assumed I was pretty good at – meant that you wrote and then you rewrote - and then you rewrote again. Carefully. I had learned this from my grandmother and great aunt and father, all of whom were writers of one kind or another. Something you worked on. This was anathema to Edward. Photography - a photograph - wasn’t something you worked on. That was the kind of thing that no good people who fixed it up later in the darkroom did. He had to be so sharp and so straightforward that he could find the thing immediately, set up the camera and see just what he expected to find there. Get the thing in focus in no time at all, pull the slide, make the exposure. I could never see this as a way of working. Why would I want to be a photographer? I loved what he did and that was enough for me.

I understand that you have some interesting reactions to words like icon or iconic. Can you talk just a little bit about how those words sit with you?

[Smiles] Oh yeah... nonsense tossed around and I don’t know. It just seems to me nonsensical fooling with words...

[After a lengthy debate and some kidding, Charis reconsiders the issue]

… it’s quite true, I’ve had the luck to come to a fairly elderly state and have people look up to me as a trailblazer. I remember being tremendously impressed by this saying: ‘me having this effect on people?’ and thinking it was very wonderful.

R: In the same way, what about the word muse?
Well, I guess that word historically was used by French thinkers to keep their mistresses busy when they wanted them to pose - but also fix their food and put up with other women. I felt it was a handy word to keep the woman in her place, which I of course wouldn’t think of…

You described yourself as unhappy prior to meeting Edward and that you had found an emotional home with Edward that allowed you to be who you were. You met in 1934, were married in 1939, and you left in 1945.
Yes, I did. I think that that’s right. I had been at a pretty low ebb before that and just about decided there was no way out and no place to go. Suddenly there was an open door and it wasn’t at all what I expected it to be. It drew far more on me than anything I had thought. Up to this time, it had been too easy for me to impress people with my wit and my own picture of who I was. I don’t know how to put it. Something that I created obviously impressed people - and I could get away with it. Then I came to a fork in the road. We had an enormously productive life together and I would say made a rich contribution to each other in those years. But I had a feeling it was too much photography.

I had managed to absorb all of the photographic stuff. There were a lot of people that came and wanted to talk about photography, wanted to go in the darkroom and go up to Point Lobos. Books to read, plays to examine... photography just wasn’t enough. I was interested in too much else - other things that I wanted to talk about, think about. Very often we’d have people come to look at photographs and Edward would go to bed early, as was his habit in order to be up for the first light, and I would stay up with whoever it was and discuss things other than photography. But the appetite in me was obviously growing for something more than what was causing the blue stains in the negatives and what materials used for development may be causing this. So you could say, in addition to other deeper problems, part of the breakup was due to the fact that I had taken the measure of photography and I knew I needed something different. It just hadn’t interested me. Edward couldn’t believe it, because every helper who had started as an assistant had learned photography from him had become quite successful in her own right. Why wasn’t I following the pattern? As a writer you had to learn, think through what you had done, change it in detail and deduce the finished thing - this was not the way Edward worked in photography.

Was this the downside of being an icon? Did you feel trapped in amber or trapped within the four corners of print?
No, no because I had tremendous appreciation of Edward’s work and it was just incidental that I came along and did so well as a part of his product. I felt he was a tremendous photographer, much greater than I expected I would ever be as a writer - or anything I was gonna be.

What was your reaction to seeing the finished work in a gallery or on a museum wall?
Well, I thought it was interesting - and this is not really a put down - but it seemed to be almost entirely removed from me. It was Edward’s photography and it was there amongst other examples of things he had done. As I thought, a very good example of what he did, but I didn’t have any real sense of identity with it.

We talked the other day of rejecting sexual symbolism in peppers and so on. ‘Reality’ and really looking at something was what Weston was about. When he was doing nudes of women, do you think he was showing the reality of women qua women or that woman as a particular individual?
Well, I don’t know. That’s an interesting way to think about it. Well actually, I don’t think either one. I think the real passion for Edward was to see photographically. I think of those pictures as being of women that he wanted to say something about. I think there’s a real weakness in my part in explaining it. I don’t know. It’s hard to get myself to look at them. I don’t know why.

Does it have something to do with acknowledging a certain power and individuality that they had as models and lovers in his life?
Could be. Could be, but I doubt it. I’m so unaware of anything that specific - it’s going to take some really deep thought to get some answers.

Well, we’d be happy to come back for just that one answer.
[Laughs] You’re welcome.

The WPA (Works Progress Administration) was created in 1935 by the Roosevelt Administration as part of the New Deal initiative, providing employment to millions of individuals across America and encouraging, in particular, literacy and the arts.

Edward Henry Weston was born in Highland Park, Illinois on March 24, 1886. In 1906, Weston moved to California and a career in photography. He married Flora May Chandler in 1909 and had four sons: Chandler (1910), Brett (1911), Neil (1914) and Cole (1919). In 1910, Weston opened his first photographic studio in Tropico, California (now Glendale). He began regular visits to Mexico with his professional and romantic partner, Tina Modotti, whose relationship with Weston caused a scandal in the artworld. After 1927, Weston worked mainly with nudes, still life - his shells and vegetable studies were especially important - and landscape subjects. In1932, he co-founded Group f/64 with Ansel Adams, Willard Van Dyke and others. In 1937 the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation awarded Weston a fellowship, the first given to a photographer. He married Charis Wilson in 1938 (they had lived together since 1934, and divorced in 1946).

Suffering from Parkinson's disease, Weston made his last photographs at Point Lobos State Reserve in 1948. Brett and Cole Weston, and Brett's wife Dody Warren, were appointed to print 800 of his most important negatives under Weston’s supervision in 1955. Edward Weston died aged 71 at home on Wildcat Hill in Big Sur, California, on January 1, 1958.

Generally recognised as one of the greatest photographic artists of the 20th century, the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona in Tucson houses a full archive of Weston’s work.

All images © Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona
Reproduced by permission.

Reneé Jacobs
Photographer & Journalist
With a BA in photography & journalism from Penn State University, Renée freelanced on the East Coast (The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer) winning a Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award. Renée practiced civil rights law for 15 years, but in 2006 turned back to professional photography.