When it comes to adaptation, no photographer did it better than Brett Weston. Put simply, his eye adapted to any subject in any genre. Landscapes of all stripes, portraits of any type of sitter, show no weaknesses. Like his father, photography giant Edward Weston, he created works that are highly sensual, yet tempered with geometry, composition and narrative.
And Brett Weston could entrance even with photos of common things: flaking wood; dried, cracked mud; foamy tide pools.
It's difficult to explain why his photos make these things appear so uncommonly beautiful, and even reproductions of his work (like the one accompanying this article) can appear flatly literal. The difference lies in seeing the works themselves, says Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center museum director Blake Milteer, who organized the institution's upcoming 60-piece Brett Weston in the East and West.
"There's something about the silver print," he says. "There's a depth to the image, a richness to the image, that you just don't get in any other form but the real thing."
Milteer selected the works specifically for this show, choosing images from the Brett Weston Archive in Oklahoma that feature the American West and the East Coast, all to highlight Weston's ability to artfully capture any setting. And despite the verisimilitude of the photographs, Weston enhanced each one with an abstract eye.
Milteer says that Weston not only shot abstraction in close-up views, as one might expect, but in distant viewpoints as well. Even gritty city scenes get his unique treatment. "One of the things that I really love about the New York photographs," Milteer says, "is that he really had his head wrapped around finding the most beautiful detail in what would normally be the not-terribly-pleasing, urban spaces to look at."
The exhibit's selection ranges from images taken in the 1940s all the way through the late '70s and early '80s, literally from coast to coast and from Alaska to Hawaii, where he lived before his death in 1993.
Such travel was always part of Brett Weston's life; as a teen and 20-something, he moved with Edward throughout the U.S. and Mexico, meeting other noted photographers like Tina Modotti and artists like Diego Rivera and Jean Charlot. Before his 17th birthday, he exhibited alongside his father, who claimed that Brett was already better than him.
The younger Weston even urged his father into switching to silver gelatin prints from the elder's favored platinum. (Platinum, which creates warmer tones, can tinge nearly to brown, while silver creates a crisper, colder print, more reminiscent of old black-and-white photography.) But together, they helped launch photography into the fine art realm, Milteer says, largely by way of reproducing their photographs with "the utmost focus and control."
"The dark room was, for the photographer — and it is, of course, for many photographers — the place where you're able to control aspects of the image just like a draftsman controls aspects of a drawing, just like a painter would control aspects of a painting."
The results are enough to impress seasoned art viewers. Milteer says that in the process of unpacking the show, the entire museum office huddled over the prints in awe.
"It was just jaw-dropping, the beauty of these photographs, and we lingered on every one of them. ... They're just so beautiful."