To explore the American West, I, just like Edward Weston, will need a car. Weston is my hero and one of America’s iconic photographic masters. Back in 1936, when he was already well on his way to international recognition, Weston bought a new Ford touring sedan (with the help of a Guggenheim grant) that allowed him to explore and photograph the American West over a two-year period. In doing so, he produced what many think is his best work — and the photographs that most influenced my career.
“That car was his salvation,” says Weston’s granddaughter Cara Weston, who’s also a professional photographer. “He had been scrimping along in Los Angeles, doing boring and unrewarding portraits. It allowed him to travel to places he really wanted to photograph.”
My regard for Weston’s work has deep roots. I was living in my hometown of Bradford, a failing industrial city in the north of England, when I first came across Weston’s work in a Time Life book about documentary photography. From sweeping vistas of desert dunes to close-ups of shells and trees, his beautifully composed and lit photographs inspired me to explore and document the world around me.
To many people, photography is an art form. If you can integrate form and lighting to emphasize the power of your images, so be it. But to me, photography is a medium to tell stories. I did it in Bradford, and this summer I had the opportunity to fulfill my dream by following in Weston’s footsteps.
Like Weston, I am traveling in a Ford, but I’m driving a 2013 Taurus SHO from Arizona to the Carmel Valley in California. With a 365-hp, twin-turbo V-6; beefy brakes; and a leather-lined, sybaritic cabin, the recently revised Taurus SHO is a long way from the simple ’36 Ford that carried Weston and his cameras. There’s no better way to travel U.S. highways than at the wheel of an American car, especially one as powerful as the SHO, which eats up the long stretches of open road in the emptiness of the West. American cars suit American roads — their softer suspensions and seating soak up the bumps and irregularities of badly surfaced desert roads. Just as important, their powerful air-conditioners work well in the extreme summer heat of the California hinterland.
Weston was known for keeping daybooks that documented his life, work, and travels, but they don’t clearly indicate a start and finish point for his trip. It seems more likely that Weston made several random visits — finding time for his discovery trips when he could get away from his regular portrait business — rather than one single journey.
The route I follow is pieced together from a couple of his well-recorded drives. I start in Yuma, Arizona, and then work my way into California, past the Salton Sea and the Coachella Valley to Amboy on the old Route 66. From there I head on to the famous Pacific Coast Highway and Oceano, where Weston was a member of the Dunites community, and finish at Point Lobos and the Carmel Valley, where Weston made his home and where his granddaughter still lives.
After nearly two weeks on the road, I am exhausted but elated. Of course, there’s no way you can document the American West in two weeks. In fact, you can’t even scrape the surface. It would take months, years even. But I’ve made a start and that’s the point.
When I reach my final destination of Carmel for my much-anticipated meeting with Cara Weston, we talk photography from her hilltop studio overlooking the cloud-covered ocean. I mention that, when reduced to its basics, photography has only three elements — light, composition, and subject. Immediately she sets me straight. “Don’t forget passion.” She continues, “That’s what makes [Edward’s] pictures so special. He had passion for the subject. Ansel Adams’s photographs are technically perfect — but maybe too perfect; cold even. Edward’s subjects come alive.”
She’s right. The photos in that Time Life book I’d read forty years ago included some of Adams’s work, but the photos I remembered, the ones that influenced me, were Weston’s. Passion: the missing fourth element. The one that makes us remember.
We talk a little about the migration to digital photography and the use of Photoshop to manipulate images. “Right or wrong?” I ask. “Any idea whether Edward would have used Photoshop?”
“Of course,” she replies. “He manipulated his images in the darkroom — everyone did.” I understand. He wasn’t saying, “Here is a photograph. It is visually correct.” He was saying, “This is how I saw it, how it felt at the time. This is my interpretation. My passion.”