I met Charis Wilson last summer at her friend Don’s house in Northern California. Charis, 94, wore black pants and a purple sweater and sat sprightly in a wheelchair. Her short hair was straight, smart, and delicate. She wore a purple headband and two bright blue hair combs. I immediately recognized her luminous face from Edward Weston’s photographs, taken over 70 years ago.
Charis invited me to watch Eloquent Nude: The Love and Legacy of Edward Weston & Charis Wilson. It had premiered at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art the week before.
After the film, Charis and I went outside for some fresh air. I asked her if I could photograph her. She gracefully obliged. I was terribly nervous, and was even more terrible at hiding it. I fumbled with the film and after a successful third roll I put my Leica down.
I said, “In your autobiography Through Another Lens: My Years With Edward Weston you mentioned how you visualized the image as a whole. You said, ‘I calculated my position in relation to the furniture behind me’ and ‘I tried to visualize and enhance the image I was transmitting.’ From my experience as Leonard Freed’s subject, these statements define the relationship between the subject and artist as a form of collaboration.”
Charis shook her head no. It was as simple as that. I was clearly perusing an agenda. Most of my questions were focused on the specific facet of the role of the muse as co-creator of art. I wanted to hear how similar our experiences were. I was looking to validate my own confused feelings about being a muse. Charis was interested in my questions and brushed me off gently when she said, “I hadn’t thought of it in those terms.”
In Charis Wilson’s relationship to Edward Weston, I searched for a parallel to my experience with Leonard Freed. I left California with the awareness that our experiences couldn’t have been more different.
“Why did you pose for Weston? What was your motivation?” I asked.
Charis leaned forward, looked me straight in the eye and said, “I wanted him.”
That was all I needed to know. I wanted something from Leonard Freed too, but it wasn’t “him.” Through my conversation with Charis, my confusion dissipated. Whereas Charis wanted, and ultimately had, a romantic relationship with Edward Weston, I wanted to learn how Leonard Freed saw the world as a photographer. I wanted to be his student and the best way to do that was to get in front of his lens.