Thursday, January 23, 2003
Photo: Carlton E. Watkins, "The Garrison, Columbia River Series,'' 1867. Albumen print.
An exhibition of historic photographs from the collection of Carmel collector/dealer Maggi Weston opens this weekend at the Monterey Museum of Art''s downtown Civic Center. Taking up all four galleries of the museum''s second floor, "Passion and Precision: Photographs from the Collection of Margaret W. Weston" is an essay on the history of photography, with nuggets and gems by most of the leading lights of photography hanging side by side in a dazzling display.
The first hundred years after the invention of photography in 1839 is the story of aesthetic debate and entrepreneurship as the new method of recording found identity as both art and wildly popular hobby. Artists argued about whether photography was merely a tool for artists or a process of image-making worthy of being considered fine art. As the process became more affordable and populist, everyone got box cameras and began taking commonplace pictures. For highbrows, this plebeian aspect worked against photography''s claim to be a true art form.
Unflappable photographers, nevertheless, went into the field to document travel scenes and searched their immediate regions for the picturesque. Happily, their direct approach and technical skill produced remarkable pictures, rich in tone and fascinating in historic subject.
The artistic debate, however, continued into the 1920s and 30s until a generation of Americans and Europeans produced photographs, unanswerable to painting, of such undeniable visual force that the debate seemed unnecessary.
On the West Coast, the f64 group headed by Ansel Adams and Edward Weston put the region and straight photography on the aesthetic and historic maps for good. By 1950, the date of the most recent photographs in this exhibition, pilgrims were making their way to Carmel to imbibe what they could from the masters here.
Indicative of their popularity and desirability today, the price for photographs by Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, Brett Weston, and others routinely soar to the high five figures. Not bad for pictures that just 25 years ago could be purchased for 75 dollars. And practically every American knows of Ansel Adams.
It was Maggi Weston''s good fortune to be close to the Weston family and to Ansel Adams and to begin collecting and dealing at a time when photography still wasn''t being collected.
After Maggi''s divorce from Edward Weston''s son Cole, Ansel Adams approached her with an idea. Maggi recalls, "It was around 1974 and Ansel said to me, ''Maggi, why don''t you open a gallery? There are no photography galleries around; you would do great things.'' I really just knew West Coast photography, but I opened the gallery. My first show was Ansel''s work, on consignment. I sold out [the show], then used the money from that to build the business."
Years before, she had already begun collecting Edward Weston photographs. With the gallery''s success, that collection expanded. "If I couldn''t sell something, I tried to buy it myself. If a photograph I owned didn''t sell, I would just put it away. Over the years, the number of these favorites just grew. Many of them are in the museum show."
According to museum director Richard Gadd, "Maggi Weston has in English and in early French, 1840 to 1860, the most stunning examples I''ve seen. Just gorgeous prints. Her collection is very strong in 19th century, and there is a fine selection of 20th century: Paul Strand, Ilse Bings, Robert Franks, Imogene Cunningham, Bill Brandt, Irving Penn, it just goes on. She has a very strong emphasis on Ansel Adams and a good selection of Edward Weston."
When Maggi Weston''s gallery was still new, professional contacts in New York suggested she go to New York for auctions. This opened a new world of photography to her. Michael Hoffman, director of Aperture magazine and publications, contacted her. "Aperture had the Paul Strand archives," Maggi says. "They wanted someone to sell and buy the work. I had a couple of collectors whom I had worked with for a few years. I brought them in and they responded very generously to Paul Strand.
"The Strands were a real revelation for me. It was absolute awe. They just bowled me over. They are frequently one-of-a-kind, since he usually did just one, two or three prints. Many have been lost."
Maggi Weston continued to expand her range of sources, attending auctions and trade shows in London and Basel. Her timing was perfect, with excellent prints by the leading European photographers were available--and affordable.
"I just fell in love with those early photographs when I first saw them. There was some quality about them, their softness. They don''t have that stark black and white that we see today. They''re beautiful, rich prints. I made a point of buying just pristine examples. If I started collecting today like that, it would be impossible. Prices have gone so high you''d need millions and millions of dollars to do what I was able to do. And the photographs, in any case, wouldn''t be available any more."
Offers Gadd, "I would hope people would get from this show an understanding of how rich the photographs of Ansel Adams and Edward Weston are, seeing them situated near the range of historic prints. We are showing images that feature their individual strengths, not necessarily their most well-known works."
Passion and Precision: Photographs from the Collection of Margaret W. Weston opens Saturday at the Monterey Museum of Art''s Civic Center.