Art doesn't come out of a vacuum. It comes from influences, inspiration and experience of those who came before, of those who are your contemporaries. California-based photographer Edward Henry Weston was no exception. Born in Highland Park, Ill., in 1886, Weston received his first camera when he was 16. Only a year later, his photographs were exhibited at the Chicago Art Institute. From the time he moved to California in 1906, through his friendships and relationships with other artists and photographers -- namely Imogen Cunningham, Tina Modotti and Ansel Adams -- Weston began to evolve and amass an extraordinary body of work.
In the spring of 1934, at a party in Carmel, Weston met Charis Wilson, a precocious young woman of 20. Subsequently, she became a life model for Weston. But something else happened.
"[Weston] was a great master at coming in very close and isolating a moment," commented Arthur Ollman, author of the biography, The Model Wife, and one of the featured commentators in the excellent recent documentary, Eloquent Nude: The Love and Legacy of Edward Weston and Charis Wilson. "When [Weston] started to photograph Charis, he moved his camera back to include a little bit of environment, but mostly her personality. And he became fixed on her gestures ... it's a face that may be interacting with the person behind the camera. And after all, that's what great portraiture is."
The result was Weston capturing the intimate and trusting gaze and gestures of his subject, Charis, in photographs that are considered some of Weston's most exquisite. Weston recognized this instantly, calling the photos from that session his "greatest work." Soon thereafter, Weston and Charis (pronounced Karis) Wilson became lovers and equal partners. Eventually they would marry. It is this period in Weston's life that is the heart of the documentary Eloquent Nude, directed, written and shot by Portland-based filmmaker, Ian McCluskey.
"The story of Eloquent Nude is not a biography of Charis, nor an Art History analysis of Weston's work, but rather, it is a story of a relationship: a beginning, middle, and an end," says McCluskey. "With Edward and Charis there isn't a line between the art and the domestic life."
McCluskey presents an intimate look at Weston and Wilson's life together -- in work, art and life. We hear from Charis Wilson, filmed when she was 90, who gives a clear, unsentimental insight into their relationship and method of work. She immediately comes off as charming, witty and intelligent; she openly shares the experiences that went behind the work. The film also illuminates Wilson's contributions to Weston's work, other than simply being a model and muse. While accompanying Weston, who had received the Solomon Guggenheim Foundation grant, Wilson took precise notes of their journey across the country, typing them daily, as a travelogue. These writings would be included in the successful subsequent book, California and the West. "I just developed an easy, straightforward style that didn't even seem to be a style," Wilson commented.
McCluskey, who spent years learning the craft of documentary filmmaking, began the project after viewing an exhibition of Weston photographs in Portland. He says, "When I first read Charis' writing in the introduction to his Nudes, and her account of modeling for Weston, everything came into focus. Like any aficionado of the writing craft, I fell for her prose, her casual tone, sharp details, and above all, a wry humor."
And after talking to Wilson, he was committed. "There was no question in my mind that Charis, then age 90, and in extremely frail health, needed to have her story recorded on camera."
Working on a skeletal budget, the filmmaker did thorough research, interviewing Weston scholars as well as family members. He had one problem: There was no film footage of Weston and Wilson together, working and traveling. And even though he had an enormous amount of still photographs, including a number of unpublished archival images, he made a risky decision to include reenactments using "actors" (mostly friends and acquaintances). He shot these scenes in High Definition digital and using a Super-8 camera, which he brought along on a lark. The result was a success, giving the illusion that these scenes were some discovered old film footage, aiding the narrative to propel.
"Reenactments are risky," says McCluskey. "We took them as an excuse to go camping, to sit around a campfire, sipping whiskey from tin cups. Being young and artistic, money was tight for us, and luckily, we loved to camp, just like Edward and Ansel [Adams] and their friends in the 1930s. When Charis saw the reenactments, she said, ‘That's not acting, that's living.' And she, as usual, was perceptive and dead on."
Weston caught criticism for shooting photographs of eloquent beauty, both personal and natural, during the height of the Great Depression, but looking back we see he was reacquainting us with the power of such beauty. Eloquent Nude is a documentary that reminds us, especially during these times, what truly is most important to life -- living, love and beauty.
A special screening of Eloquent Nude will take place on Saturday, Oct. 11, at the Morris Graves Museum of Art, 636 F St., Eureka. There will be a reception at 6:30 p.m., with a screening and discussion with the filmmaker, McCluskey, to follow. Due to sponsorship by Pierson Building Center, admission is free. As an added bonus, a number of original Weston prints of Charis Wilson from the Humboldt Group collection will be on display that evening.