Edward Weston’s Women

In 1975 I wrote a review of a retrospective of Edward Weston’s photographs at the Museum of Modern Art for The New York Times. I was allowed an illustration, but the one I chose—the well-known pear-shaped nude, a starkly abstract study of a woman’s bottom—was considered too racy by the Times of that time, and I was obliged to accept a staid substitute: a seated female nude in which the model had so arranged her body that nothing of it showed but bent legs and thighs and arms and the top of an inclined head. A few years later, I had occasion to look at that staid picture again and to see with amusement something I and obviously the Times had not noticed in 1975: if you look very closely at the intersection of the woman’s thighs, a few wisps of pubic hair are visible. I had been led to this discovery by the photograph’s model, Charis Wilson, Weston’s second wife, who wrote a remembrance of Weston in a book of his nudes published in 1977, and recalled of the picture that

he was never happy with the shadow on the right arm, and I was never happy with the crooked hair part and the bobby pins. But when I see the picture unexpectedly, I remember most vividly Edward examining the print with a magnifying glass to decide if the few visible pubic hairs would prevent him from shipping it through the mails.

The photograph was taken in 1936. In 1946, when the Modern gave Weston his first retrospective, it was still against the law to send nudes showing pubic hair through the mail, and the museum seriously debated whether to show any of Weston’s nudes at all. (It finally took its life in its hands and showed them. Nothing happened.) Weston’s biographer, Ben Maddow, quotes Weston’s satiric letter to Nancy and Beaumont Newhall of the Modern’s photography department, “re ‘public hair’” (as he liked to call it):

By all means tell your Board that P.H. has been definitely a part of my development as an artist, tell them it has been the most important part, that I like it brown, black, red or golden, curly or straight, all sizes and shapes. If that does not move them let me know.

Weston’s bitter jest contains a truth evident to anyone familiar with his history. Weston’s erotic and artistic activities are so tightly interwoven that it is impossible to write of one without the other. It is known (from Weston’s journals) that most of the women who posed for his nudes and portraits—arguably his best work—slept with him (usually after the sitting) and were sources for him of enormous creative energy.

Margrethe Mather, the first of these all-important models, was, as Maddow writes of her, “a small, very pretty, and exceptionally intelligent woman… mostly, though not wholly, a lesbian,” and a mysterious, elusive …

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