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Those Who Inspire Me (and Why) — A Media Book by Brooks Jensen

Each Thursday Brooks records another commentary and we post it here at LensWork Online. The audio versions are found here. There is also a text version for each commentary for those who prefer to read rather than listen.

From the Author's Preface:

"I started writing this book about 7 years ago. After considerable thought, instead of publishing this content as traditional book, Those Who Inspire Me (and Why) will be published here, as a series of downloadable audios and text. Consider it a small token of my immense gratitude to all those who have pioneered this way of life that I love, and a passing-on of the invaluable contributions they've made to our creative lives." Brooks Jensen, Anacortes, Washington, 2019

An Explorer from the Past

Edward Weston — Looking Within, Keep Working

It was impossible growing up photographically in the 1970s without falling under the magical spell of Edward Weston. Like all other aspiring West Coast landscapers, I quickly developed a reverence for both Weston's images and his mystique. He was the center of The Holy Triad of West Coast photography — great-grandfather Stieglitz, grandfather Weston, and father Adams. So, when I finally had an opportunity to visit the Holy Land of Point Lobos, I scurried to the park entrance eager to search for his footprints in that magical landscape. I had risen early that morning to catch the early light, and arrived at the front gates of Point Lobos State Park at about 6am. From that moment my photographic life changed, radically — and without doubt for the better.

The gates were locked. It seems as though the park rangers have decided that such mundane pursuits as photography could not be allowed to interrupt the morning repast of the native seals and other indigenous wildlife. There was nothing I could do but wait, for three hours, and salivate at the coming photographs I would make — in spite of missing the morning light. At last, the gates were opened at 9:00, I paid my day-use fee and headed off to discover, for myself, the magic that Edward Weston had photographed some 50 years earlier. I was giddy with anticipation.

I arrived at the parking lot of the famous Weston Beach. I was not about to be persuaded by the signs posted here and there demanding that I stay on the trails. I knew the great photographs were out on the rocks, with the crashing waves, the dead pelicans, the floating seaweed, and of course the photographic juju that Edward Weston had so adroitly copied with his camera.

I cannot adequately express the sense of deflation I experienced as I discovered how wrong I had been in all my assumptions about Point Lobos, and even Edward Weston. Weston Beach was nothing special; I'd photographed in many places more interesting on the Oregon and Washington coasts. The ocean was not special; the rock structures were not special; the light was not special; the juju was not special. It was at that moment that I discovered it wasn't the place that was special, but the man.

Many years earlier, I had read that some photographing or other wax eloquently about making versus taking photographs. It had all gone over my head and seemed to like a twist of semantics. That morning, on Point Lobos, I realized it was not mere semantics. Great photographers, like Edward Weston, made their photographs — and evidently made their great photographs from places and with subjects that in and of themselves may not be great. Up to that point, I can honestly state that my activity as a fine art photographer had been substantially, if not wholy, focused on the search of the great place, the great subject, the great moment, the great light. Standing on the very spot where Edward Weston had made so many of his magical photographs, I was led to the conclusion that the magic entirely with in him, within his command of craft, within his creative vision, within his sensitive eye. I realized that searching for the magical place was a complete waste of time unless that search was focused wholy within me. Edward Weston taught me, through the example of his work, that artmaking is not a function of what's out there, but rather a function of what's in each of us.

Over the years, I've confirmed this over and over again — by visiting Ansell Adams' Yosemite, Paul Strand's New England, and even Michael Kenna's Elkhorn Slough. It seems as though the great challenge in photography is to make something special from the often very mundane. Said more succinctly, the role of the photographer is to make photographs, not merely take them.

Of course, this is somewhat counterintuitive considering the mechanical and reproductive nature of photography itself. Many many photographs — indeed, perhaps most photographs — are merely taken. They record what is in front of us with a mechanical objectivity that is designed and built into the machine by the engineers who build cameras. Personally expressive art, however, is made by people who, by happenstance, use a device that is built with objectivity in mind.

Edward Weston inspires me in two other significant ways. He was, for reasons that thoroughly escape me, completely fascinated with small Mexican figurines and photographed them extensively. When the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson published a reference book with thumbnails of every negative Edward Weston made that is in their archives, it is it was overwhelming to see how many completely banal photographs he made of these silly little toys and artifacts — and as far as that goes, lots of other subjects. I'm sure there are others who find them as fascinating as Weston did, but the lack of popularity of these images from his archives would seem to indicate that I'm not alone in failing to understand what his artistic eye supposedly saw. I find this inspiring because it so clearly show that even the greatest  master talents of art can and do create banal artwork alongside their masterpieces. What is particularly important about this for us who are working photographers is that we need to just keep working. Who knows what Edward Weston learned while photographing these figurines that helped him in other photographs? Failures are part of the artistic process, not that we enjoy them or encourage them, but in reality they simply cannot be eliminated from our experience. We shouldn't try to eliminate them. I'm not even sure we should acknowledge them. We should just do the work and recognize that we may not be the best judge of our own efforts.

This leads me to the next lesson from Edward Weston, one I learned when I interviewed Francis Baer. Francis (wife of Morley Baer) offered to help Edward Weston organize his domestic life. When she met him, his house was disorderly, and she offered to do a little work to clean up the place. He agreed and she did so — and continued to do so for some time. From time to time Edward, filled with gratitude we must assume, offered to compensate Francis for her efforts by giving her a print. The way Francis told the story when I interviewed her, Edward tried for years to pawn off on her his not-so-famous photograph of bananas. Evidently he'd been on quite a fruit and vegetable kick, and had found considerable success with his photograph of a pepper. Turning his camera to a bunch of bananas, he made what he considered another wonderful photograph, but in Francis' words, "He kept trying to give me those awful bananas, which was just an awful photograph." Sometimes we are simply incapable of providing an accurate critique of our own work. Weston may have thought those bananas were another masterpiece, but I agree with Francis: the bananas were not one of Weston's best images.

In short Edward Weston is an inspiration for many reasons: not for what he saw but what he made; not for what he valued, but for what he made; not for everything he made, but nonetheless for those things he made that we are grateful for his having made them.

It was impossible growing up photographically in the 1970s without falling under the magical spell of Edward Weston. Like all other aspiring West Coast landscapers, I quickly developed a reverence for both Weston's images and his mystique. He was the center of the holy triad of West Coast photography — great-grandfather Stieglitz, grandfather Weston, and father Adams. So, when I finally had an opportunity to visit the holy land of Point Lobos, I scurried to the park entrance eager to search for his footprints in that magical landscape. I had risen early that morning to catch the early light and arrived at the front gates Point Lobos state park at about 6 AM. From that moment my photographic life changed, radically — and without doubt for the better.

The gates were locked. It seems as though the park rangers have decided that such mundane pursuits as photography could not be allowed to interrupt the morning repast of the native seals and other indigenous wildlife. There was nothing I could do but wait, for three hours, and salivate at the coming photographs I would make, in spite of having missed the morning light. At last, the gates were opened at nine, I paid my day-use fee and headed off to discover, for myself, the magic that Edward Weston had photographed some 50 years earlier. I was giddy with anticipation.

I arrived at the parking lot of the famous Weston Beach. I was not about to be persuaded by the signs posted here and there demanding that I stay on the trails. I knew the great photographs were out on the rocks, with the crashing waves, the dead pelicans, the floating seaweed, and of course the photographic juju that Edward Weston had so adroitly copied with his camera.

I cannot adequately express the sense of deflation I experienced as I discovered how wrong I had been in all my assumptions about Point Lobos and even Edward Weston. Weston Beach was nothing special — I'd photographed in many places more interesting on the Oregon and Washington coasts. The ocean was not special; the rock structures were not special; the light was not special; the juju was not special. It was at that moment that I discovered it wasn't the place that was special but the man.

Many years earlier, I had read that some photographing or other wax eloquently about making versus taking photographs. It had all gone over my head and seemed to like a twist of semantics. That morning, on Point Lobos, I realized it was not mere semantics. Great photographers, like Edward Weston, made their photographs — and evidently made their great photographs from places and with subjects that in and of themselves may not be great. Up to that point, I can honestly state that my activity as a fine art photographer had been substantially, if not wholy, focused on the search of the great place, the great subject, the great moment, the great light. Standing on the very spot where Edward Weston had made so many of his magical photographs, I was led to the conclusion that the magic entirely with in him, within his command of craft, within his creative vision, within his sensitive eye. I realized that searching for the magical place was a complete waste of time unless that search was focused wholy within me. Edward Weston taught me, through the example of his work, that artmaking is not a function of what's out there, but rather a function of what's in each of us.

Over the years, I've confirmed this over and over again — by visiting Ansell Adams' Yosemite, Paul Strand's New England, and even Michael Kenna's Elkhorn Slough. It seems as though the great challenge in photography is to make something special from the often very mundane. Said more succinctly, the role of the photographer is to make photographs, not merely take them.

Of course, this is somewhat counterintuitive considering the mechanical and reproductive nature of photography itself. Many many photographs — indeed, perhaps most photographs — are merely taken. They record what is in front of us with a mechanical objectivity that is designed and built into the machine by the engineers who build cameras. Personally expressive art, however, is made by people who, by happenstance, use a device that is built with objectivity in mind.

Edward Weston inspires me in two other significant ways. He was, for reasons that thoroughly escape me, completely fascinated with small Mexican figurines and photographed them extensively. When the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson published a reference book with thumbnails of every negative Edward Weston made that is in their archives, it is it was overwhelming to see how many completely banal photographs he made of these silly little toys and artifacts — and as far as that goes, lots of other subjects. I'm sure there are others who find them as fascinating as Weston did, but the lack of popularity of these images from his archives would seem to indicate that I'm not alone in failing to understand what his artistic eye supposedly saw. I find this inspiring because it so clearly show that even the greatest  master talents of art can and do create banal artwork alongside their masterpieces. What is particularly important about this for us who are working photographers is that we need to just keep working. Who knows what Edward Weston learned while photographing these figurines that helped him in other photographs? Failures are part of the artistic process, not that we enjoy them or encourage them, but in reality they simply cannot be eliminated from our experience. We shouldn't try to eliminate them. I'm not even sure we should acknowledge them. We should just do the work and recognize that we may not be the best judge of our own efforts.

This leads me to the next lesson from Edward Weston, one I learned when I interviewed Francis Baer. Francis (wife of Morley Baer) offered to help Edward Weston organize his domestic life. When she met him, his house disorderly and she offered to do a little work to clean up the place. He agreed and she did so — and continued to do so for some time. From time to time Edward, filled with gratitude we must assume, offered to compensate Francis for her efforts by giving her print. The way Francis told story when I interviewed her, Edward tried for years to pawn off on her his not-so-famous photograph of bananas. Evidently he'd been on quite a fruit and vegetable kick, and had found considerable success with his photograph of a pepper. Turning his camera to a bunch of bananas, he made what he considered another wonderful photograph, but in Francis is words, "He kept trying to give me those awful bananas, which was just an awful photograph." Sometimes we are simply incapable providing an accurate critique of our own work. Weston may have thought those bananas were another masterpiece, but I agree with Francis. Not one of Weston's best images.

In short Edward Weston is an inspiration for many reasons: not for what he saw what he made; not for what he valued, but for what he made; not for everything he made, but nonetheless for those things he made that we are grateful for his having made them.