The power behind each of these images was great enough to stop and redirect its subject’s progress through time. The instant when the shutter of Edward Weston’s camera opened and then closed was as definitive a change as the signing of a surrender. In that fraction of a second, Tina Modotti and Manuel Hernández Galván became ceded imagery. From now on, so far as history is concerned, they will be part of that which was taken over by Edward Weston and remade. Aes perennius, their lives have been replaced by shadow and angle and undying light. From now on, things will be different for them.
USS Missouri, Tokyo Bay, September 2, 1945
But what of Weston’s image of his friend Robinson Jeffers? If our reaction to one of Weston’s seizures of power eventuates in words, what will happen to us when we read Weston’s conquest of the face of a poet?
In 1933, when Weston seized the image at the top of this page, Jeffers wasn’t just a poet; he was universally believed to be a poet. His long lines in their vaguely classical prosody told stories of rocks and hawks and incest and violent death close to the elements along the California coast, and his admirers were fond of dropping the name of Aeschylus. That claim on history was to die during the Second World War, embarrassed to death by Jeffers’s lofty pronouncements that it didn’t matter in the slightest who won, because all of us are doomed! doomed, I say! But Weston’s 1933 image is of a face at the moment when it seemed in contact with the same power that was helping Weston see.
In words, Jeffers’s medium, Weston once tried to think about that power after an unpleasant encounter with the lionized sculptor Jo Davidson. Passing judgment afterwards, Weston awarded himself a laurel made of words: the title “portrait photographer.” But when he thought about what those words had cost him, his grammar broke down. The subject “Twenty years of pleasing others” was so awful that Weston couldn’t bear to see it through to conclusion in a predicate.
Davidson was jealous of my work, his aggressiveness was a defense. My portraits of Jeffers made his bust of Jeffers look weak. That’s the whole story. He had to keep his exalted position on a shaky pedestal. Now I know my portraits, and I realize they seldom reach the importance that my other work has, not even when I make them for myself — with intention. In the first place my professional routine worries me, so I throw my best creative effort into trees, rocks, peppers, to escape the other: I admit, too, that twenty years of pleasing others,– probably I have made near to five thousand portraits, always trying to please the sitter, for a price, this must often tinge my conception when I work for myself,– habit! This is my ‘out.’ But I do know when I rise above habit, often enough to place me far ahead of Davidson, often enough to have me considered by some very fine minds, the best portrait photographer in America which means the world so far as I know from reproductions.
— The Daybooks of Edward Weston. II. California. Ed. Nancy Newhall (Millerton, NY: Aperture, 1973) 161 (May 19, 1930).
Still, all you have to do to understand Weston’s missing words is place a pair of wordless images side by side: Weston’s portrait and Nat Farbman’s 1948 Life magazine photograph of Jeffers with the Davidson bust.
This photograph shows Robinson Jeffers diminished because postwar. But the change hasn’t remade his face into a tragic mask; it has only lent it to a professor at his retirement party, posing between his tribute bust by a commercial artist and the manuscript of his speech of acceptance. Weston’s photograph has no props except the poet’s own hand, and it’s different in another way too. Weston has used his repertoire of studio techniques — the rapt upward gaze, the pin spotlight aimed at the eyes — as an extension not of his subject’s face but of his own hand. Weston’s Jeffers isn’t posing; he has been posed. “I am nothing but a photograph,” says the image, without words but as clearly as as words could speak if they spoke the language of the sun — “but to be nothing but a photograph is the quiet destination of my short noisy transit through language. As I’m about to show you, a poet’s words are only a way of bringing you closer to the poet’s image. To read a poet’s words is only the first stage of reading the poet. Reading is only another way of seeing.”
That is: a view of a face seen by Edward Weston reduces to a grammar. It is the most minimal of grammars: a single word, an adjective in transition to a pronoun without a referent and out of time. It strives only to say: this.
Robinson Jeffers, a poet of the sole self, never learned how to write that referentless language. Wallace Stevens, a poet of poetry, did learn at the end of “The Man on the Dump,” where the poet he has envisioned into existence realizes that he has been searching all along only for the definite article: “the the.”
That’s the moment when the moon creeps up To the bubbling of bassoons. That’s the time One looks at the elephant-colorings of tires. Everything is shed.
Vision came to the man on his way down through the dump’s strata of meaning. A counterpart to that advent, Edward Weston’s way of reading a face was a way of seeing upward. And perhaps a Weston way of reading in our own time, post-Weston, would involve us in looking at the shape of words from below, reading upward from language’s roots in the soil of the human and toward the space in light where an image comes to be.