With My Father in the Darkroom: Cara Weston
by| 08 Sep 2014
Cole Weston was a master printer, and with an absolute sense of honor and respect, he took the legacy of my grandfather’s negatives in his hands to produce Edward Weston’s images for over 40 years.
Edward had written printing instructions for each of his negatives on its glassine sleeve, and often there would be a reference print for comparison. My father was always very careful during the printing of Edward’s negatives, wanting the final print to look as close as possible to his father’s interpretation. Cole Weston was a perfectionist when it came to print-making, and his attention to detail was learned while working at Edward’s side. He followed Edward’s instructions precisely, taking into account the changing architecture of papers and chemistry over the decades. After each printing, the negatives were carefully placed back into the vault built for their safety, until needed again.
In 1974, at age 17, I began working for my father—I was eager to help, with the simple motivation of all teenagers: to make money. First, my father taught me how to spot and mount prints. Spotting is the delicate process of applying color pigment to the white spots that can appear on an image due to unseen dust or scratches on the negative. It is a tedious task, a challenge to match your pigment mix to the exact color and tone of the surrounding emulsion of the print. If done well, the improvements are invisible. As an apprentice, I ruined a number of prints while learning the craft, and my father demanded perfection. But over the years I became so good at spotting that even my father would say I was beginning to ‘over-spot,’ and laughing, he would add, ‘If you can’t see the imperfection at arm’s length, it is good enough!’
Every step required my father’s stamp of approval, whether printing, mounting, spotting, or even packaging. A watershed moment in my work with my father came unexpectedly, on a day when he was very busy and asked if I wouldn’t mind proof-printing a group of Edward’s 4 x 5 negatives. He set me up in the darkroom, and said I only needed to make straight prints of the images, to determine the base exposure and development times. No dodging or burning was necessary, as he would perform those tasks himself in the final prints, using Edward’s instructions.
There I stood alone in the darkroom, with the wood and glass negative holder, enlarger, trays filled with water, developer, stop bath, fixer, the dim color of the safety light, and the negatives that have made moments in Edward Weston’s life immortal, each telling its own story, each a postmark in our collective family history. Mesmerized, I was in the darkroom most of the day, and it was a privilege to print each one. Looking back, I still remember the awe I felt, even at that age.
To this day, my brothers and I have fun trying to determine when an image was printed, by calculating who was assisting my father at the time and whose handwriting has coded and titled each print. When it is my writing on the back of the mount, I know that the print is 35 to 40 years old. In earlier prints, our father’s writing alone is on the back, as he was not working with assistants in those first years.
Fate afforded me a rare opportunity and one that will never be repeated. As a daughter, it was a joy to work with my father Cole Weston, and as an artist, an honor to personally experience so many great images by my grandfather Edward.