Eloquent Nude – The Love and Legacy of Edward Weston and Charis Wilson, a film by Ian McCluskey
A deluxe edition DVD is available directly from the producer for $25 plus $5 shipping and handling. [Click here to order.] It includes a “Making of Eloquent Nude” documentary, which includes much fascinating and essential supplementary material, as well as further interviews, as well as unpublished photography and journal entries.
When I was still quite young, my father gave me, along with the use of his old Leica, a copy of an illustrated history of photography. I was fascinated by the book, but above all by the chapter on Weston and the famous photograph of Charis lying on the sand dune, the simplest of them. I thought it the best photograph in the book and returned to it over and over again. I don’t remember the year exactly, but I was probably of an age when no hint of sex would have gone unnoticed. I remember distinctly that I saw no such associations in the image. It struck me as essentially chaste—an example of the formalism which I thought was the essence of great photography. I was inspired in this view, of course, by that very image, as well as the peppers, which seemed to me to be more overtly sensual than the nudes. It was only later that I learned that the subject was Weston’s wife, and still later that I learned something about what their relationship was like. I still think that the photograph is severe and formalistic to the point of the visionary. Weston’s work was one thing and his life another.
On the other hand, many critics do perceive the Oceano Dune photographs as sensuous, and I am not inclined to contradict them. Some of Weston’s other nudes of Charis and others do strike me as explicitly sensuous, but not those. However, I find it curious that many people, notably some of the reviewers of Charis’s essential book, Through Another Lens: My Years with Edward Weston, insist on believing that Weston was a dry, emotionless, humorless and unsensual man, in spite of what Charis makes perfectly clear in the book. Apart from his sense of humor and his love for parties and fooling around with his friends, he seems to have had few, if any inhibitions with women he was close to. His marriage with Charis was one of several intense relationships, including Tina Modotti. Whoever is unable to understand this by reading her book can now hear it straight from Charis’ own lips in Ian McCluskey’s superb documentary, Eloquent Nude – The Love and Legacy of Edward Weston and Charis Wilson. Behind the most purely formal of his images there is a many-sided sensibility: the man who could be totally absorbed in what he saw on his ground glass and the man who sexually awakened the nineteen-year-old Charis.
Both in the film and in her book, Charis emerges as both likeable and admirable, an not least for her frankness, honesty, and her restrained, but extremely effective way of expressing herself. In the film this flashes out in dry, trenchantly funny summations of some peculiarity of hers or Edward’s, which McCluskey uses to punctuate individual sections.She is the daughter of Harry Leon Wilson, who was a successful humorist and novelist in the early twentieth century. He denied her the opportunity to attend college at Sarah Lawrence, although she had a been awarded a scholarship, and she embarked on what she herself describes as a “careless” life in San Francisco. While she was pursuing booze and casual sex, she was also writing poetry and preparing herself for a literary life. Weston saw her at a concert in Carmel in 1934. He knew her brother and asked for an introduction. She came to his studio to look at his prints. He was away, and his assistant, who was also his mistress at the time, received her, because Edward was away. Soon enough, Charis came back to the studio to pose for him, and eventually they became lovers. The relationship developed into a working partnership. Not a writer, Weston depended on her to make notes of his work and to write texts for his publications. As her book shows, she understood exactly what Edward was doing when he photographed, although she never became a photographer herself. This relationship reached a peak when they travelled the West on his Guggenheim Fellowship, for which she had eventually written the application. At one point in their travels, they married in some small coastal town. Her father deeded her a bit of property on the Carmel coast, Wildcat Hill, and Edward’s son, Neil, built them a simple house on it, “a little house with a big mood,” as they called it. Here they entertained friends and clients, discussed photography with the utmost seriousness one day and partying the next. There was a separate building which served as Charis’ writing studio.
Edward’s Guggenheim work led to a commission to travel the entire country to make illustrations for a luxury edition of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. This trip covered far more ground than the earlier expedition, and Edward felt under pressure to finish his work on time. This made him less inclined to give Charis the flexibility to pursue her own interests while on the road, and their relationship became strained. His single-mindedness as an artist began to exclude her rather than to include her as a free partner. She also became attracted to another man. After much deliberation she left Edward in 1945, just as the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease began to afflict him. She soon settled into what appears to have been a more “normal” marriage with children, etc. The pity is that she seems to have let her writing go, or at least she failed to pursue any substantial literary projects. Her plain style in Through Another Lens is so appealing that it is truly regrettable that we don’t have more books from her.
Later, angered by the inaccuracies of Ben Maddow’s biography of Edward and of other writing about him, she began to work on what became Through Another Lens. However, it turned out that she could not get through the project on her own. She approached an old friend, Wendy Madar, for help. Together, they finished the book. Ian McCluskey happened to read a copy after it was already out of print, and became fascinated with Charis, as well he might. He contacted Ms. Madar, who put him in touch with Charis herself, who was 90 at the time and living in Santa Cruz. On a tiny budget, McCluskey put a crew together and headed down to interview her. She had requested that he come on a sunny day, which he respected, and arrived at her home to find her in the garden. Now at her advanced age, Charis is still very much herself, sound of mind, sharp in fact, although confined to a wheelchair. These interviews and her book provide the backbone for this film, which is both poetic and genuinely informative.
Documentary films are notoriously poor vehicles for information. The more modern expression, “non-fiction” film is less committal, but it still fails to do justice to the fact that these films dwell as much in the realm of atmosphere and feeling as dramatic films. Documentaries which are too sparse on facts become boring, I find, and films which try to be entirely factual are even more boring. In Eloquent Nude McCluskey gets the balance just right, and all cinematic elements of the production—visuals, editing, narration, and music—show impressive artistry. No less artistic is the way presents Weston’s work. His telling choice of juxtapostions shows that he has a strong understanding of it. The film is not confined to biography, and there is not a touch of gossip in it.
At a fairly late stage in the filming, McCluskey realized that there were no moving pictures of Charis and Edward, and that his film would be the worse for it. He decided to reenact certain scenes from their life, something he would not have considered at the beginning. Charis, too, said that she would not have cooperated in such a film. However, when she saw the result, she was pleased. McCluskey and his team initiated a search for actors who resembled the couple, as well as their friends who appear, Ansel Adams, for example. Once he had assembled his small cast they went on location to Oceano Dunes, Ediza Lake, and to a number of interiors. An old Ford V8 was borrowed from a car collector’s club. He shot the scenes both in HD video and in Super-8. The HD version was perfectly satisfactory, but the somewhat soft Super-8 footage had a magical dream-like quality, as if the scenes were being drawn out of the most remote recesses of memory. In the finished film, McCluskey opted for these in most cases, usually functioning as an evocative illustration of Charis’ narrative. If he had used HD, the audience would be distracted by details, reflecting more on the resemblance or lack of resemblance between the reenactors and their real-life counterparts. In Super-8 they were entirely credible. I noticed only two flaws. “Heimy” the Guggenheim car was the wrong color, a pale bluish grey. In Through Another Lens, Charis mentions specifically that they bought a black Ford to save a small sum of money and repented later, as they sweltered in the heat absorbed by the black automobile. Furthermore, Edward’s Ries tripod looks—quite implausibly for a poor photographer like him—spanking new from the factory, a detail which struck me in one of the HD sequences. These are small matters, of course.
The most valuable thing about the film, apart from it being a moving work of art, and Charis’ book is that we learn a great deal about how Edward made his photographs, especially the nudes of Charis. Although there is not a hint of self-promotion anywhere in the film or her book, she makes it clear that her participation was crucial in their creation. Charis, even from the beginning, was not an ordinary model, and Edward’s photographs of her are in fact collaborative works. He encouraged her to move around freely, moulding her body into a variety of constantly changing poses. When he saw one he liked, he said, “hold it.” In the film Charis’ story of how the Oceano Dunes nudes were made is especially revealing. She initiated them by taking off her clothes and starting to play in the sand. Edward’s way of joining her was to photograph her. At the very least he would not have been able to make these supreme works of photographic art without a model who was particularly lacking in self-consciousness when in the nude, and whom he knew intimately. And, after all, Charis knew her own body as even he could not. Yes, perhaps there is a core of emotion—their sincere mutual love for one another—in these photographs.