Visual verses: Edward Weston's photographs for Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, 1941-1942
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This dissertation examines the photographs created by Edward Weston during his travels through the United States in 1941 and intended for a luxury reprint of Walt Whitman's Leaves ofGrass published by the Limited Editions Club in 1942. By contrasting the hundreds of photographs Weston made now residing in archives and collections with the forty-nine images ultimately selected and arranged by the Club's director, George Macy, I argue that Weston's larger, more complex and diverse version of America more closely resembled Whitman's text than his publisher's limited selection. Moreover, this under-examined body of work promotes a new understanding of Weston's late oeuvre; inspired by cross-country travel, Whitman's poetry, and other artists, Weston tackled new subject matter, experimented with different styles, and synthesized artistic and documentary modes in his photographs. Chapter I introduces the commission, the role of Weston's wife Charis Wilson in the project, the timely choice in 1941 of pairing Whitman and Weston, both of whom challenged boundaries of their respective media, and the outcome of the book's design. Chapter 2 turns to an analysis of the sequence of the first ten images as representative of Macy's caption-driven approach to the book, which generally discouraged the probing of close relationships among images. The chapter concludes with an analysis of the images themselves paired with close readings of select poems in order to establish the parallels in sensibility of the two artists. Chapters 3 through 5 broaden the discussion by including Weston's unpublished images from the 1941 trip. Focusing on Weston's portraits, Chapter 3 discusses Weston's diverse sitters-African and Native Americans and womensometimes selected while researching ethnography. Chapter 4 focuses on landscapesindustrial, urban, desert, and rural-in which he engaged with popular American imagery and created art and documentary images. Chapter 5 analyzes Weston's photographs of plantation ruins and cemeteries in Louisiana, and folk art and customs for which he recorded examples of American ethnography. Through examination of these images, a new picture of Weston emerges as not only a modernist art photographer, but also a photographer with deep interests in American people, landscape, and culture.
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