In the 1940s, Edward Weston developed the first symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, and his sons Brett and Cole, both photographers, began to assist him in the printing of his negatives. Brett is best known for printing Edward Weston’s 50th Anniversary Portfolio and, helped by his wife Dody and his brother Cole, the ‘Project Prints,’ planned sets of Edward’s most representative work that would eventually number in the thousands of images. Cole, the youngest son, would also begin to make prints for his father while Edward was alive, but in addition was given the exclusive right to print from Edward’s negatives after his father’s death. As Cole summarized in an essay published in Darkroom 2 (Lustrum Press, 1978):
‘When I got out of the Navy in 1946, I started photographing for LIFE magazine in Southern California. My Dad, Edward Weston, wrote me that he needed an assistant because he was getting frail from Parkinson’s disease. Would I come? So I sold my house and moved to Carmel to help him. I stayed with him until he died on New Year’s Day, 1958. After his death, I continued printing his negatives, following the provisions set down in his will.’
Edward Weston’s will specified that Cole, and only Cole, would be allowed to print from his negatives after his death. A legendary printer, Edward had supervised both Brett and Cole in the darkroom, and the prints made by them were required to live up to his exacting standards. After Cole’s death in 2003, Edward Weston’s negatives were permanently retired to the Center for Creative Photography, Tucson, with the stipulation that no further fine art prints would be made. The 548 photographs presented in this catalogue comprise the last, and greatest, collection of prints by Cole, from his father’s negatives, in private hands. The only other groups of considerable magnitude are ones owned by institutions, including the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, with several hundred; and the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, which owns approximately one hundred of these ‘EW/CWs,’ as they are affectionately called by those who know them well.
After his father asked for help in 1946, Cole replied that he had just about decided to quit his magazine job anyway, because, as he wrote to Edward, ‘After looking at the ten prints of the sand dunes you showed me, I decided that I knew nothing about photography and that it was about time that I learned, if I was planning to continue calling myself a photographer’ (quoted in Laughing Eyes, p. 151). And so Cole returned to Wildcat Hill, where he became one of his father’s faithful caregivers and in time absorbed all that Edward had to teach him in the darkroom. Over the years, Cole in turn instructed his own children in what he had learned, passing down to the next generation of Westons the vision and the craft of their grandfather. As Edward’s granddaughter Cara Weston has written, the negatives that made Edward Weston famous became, over time, personal markers in her family’s collective history.
Three of Cole’s children—Kim, Cara, and Matt—and his wife Maggi have written, independently of one another, their remembrances for this catalogue. Certain words and phrases appear in their essays again and again: meticulous, perfection, exacting, careful, attention to detail, devoted, faithful, legacy, and last but not least, magic. The prints offered in this catalogue represent not only the legacy of Edward Weston, but also a legacy of darkroom photography of a very high standard. The swiftness with which this darkroom photography has now disappeared from the scene speaks to the changes—sometimes rapid, sometimes long in coming—that have characterized photography since its beginning. The photographs in the Master Set offered here are not only the last prints that will be made of some of the most influential photographs of the 20th century, but also one of the last great darkroom undertakings of our time.
Denise Bethel, Chairman, Photographs, Americas, Sotheby’s New York