Gift of the photographer to a close friend
Private Collectors, San Francisco
Sotheby's New York, 26 and 27 April 1989, Sale 5833, Lot 321
Acquired from the above by Jane Corkin, as agent, for Alexandra R. Marshall
Other prints of this image:
Theodore E. Stebbins, Jr., Karen E. Quinn, and Leslie Furth, Edward Weston: Photography and Modernism (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1999, in conjunction with the exhibition), cover and pl. 32
Nancy Newhall, ed., Edward Weston: The Flame of Recognition (Aperture, 1967), cover and p. 25
Beaumont Newhall, Supreme Instants: The Photographs of Edward Weston (Tucson: Center for Creative Photography, 1986, in conjunction with the exhibition), pl. 26
Manfred Heiting, ed., Edward Weston: 1886 - 1958 (Köln, 2001), p. 106
The photograph offered here, Edward Weston's single gleaming nautilus shell before a plain dark background, exemplifies the apex of his achievement as a photographer. The image's deceptively simple composition belies the complexity of its conception and its making, the years of evolution in Weston's own vision and the countless trials with objects before his camera. The trajectories of Weston's career --from his Tropico days as a studio portraitist, to his experiments with light and form in Mexico --culminate in this single image. One of the most recognizable photographs ever made, the Nautilus deserves its wide and far-ranging reputation: as a benchmark of modernism in the history of photography, and in the broader category of 20th-century art as a whole.
In Weston's lifetime, the Nautilus was included in his most important exhibitions: in the influential Film und Foto in Stuttgart in 1929, the only shell photograph among his 20 submissions; in his Delphic Studios gallery exhibition in 1930, his first one-person show in New York City; in the Vienna venue of Film und Foto that same year; and in the photographer's definitive retrospective at The Museum of Modern Art in 1946. Since Weston's death in 1958, it has been featured in innumerable exhibitions and books devoted to both Weston and to photography as a whole. For many, it is synonymous with the word photography itself. In a world inundated with photographic imagery, its particular resonance continues. In his daybook for 29 October 1930, Weston records a letter from Charles Sheeler, who had attended the Delphic Studios show. After thanking Weston for bringing his work in New York, Sheeler added, 'It must always be encouraging to those who insist that photography should stay within the bounds of the medium to witness such an outstanding demonstration as you have given that the medium is adequate.'
The present photograph -- printed on matte-surface paper, on a large mount, and with Weston's early signature -- represents the definitive early state of the image. Later in the 1920s, Weston would make the transition to paper with a glossy surface, and these later prints present a very different account of the subject. The photograph offered here is mounted to thick buff paper, and Weston's signature and date on the mount, which typically appear directly under the photograph in later printings, are located here in the lower right corner. This print is not numbered, and was produced prior to Weston's projected edition of fifty. According to Weston's negative log, now in the collection of the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, Arizona, Weston only printed eighteen numbered prints from the edition. The lack of an edition number on the present print, as well its matte-surface paper and presentation, strongly suggest that this is one of Weston's earliest prints of the image.
Upon Weston's return to California after his sojourn in Mexico in 1927, he devoted himself to a series of photographs of shells. Weston found the subject matter deeply inspiring, writing that their perfect shapes combined sensuality with 'the deepest spiritual significance: indeed it is this very combination of the physical and the spiritual in a shell like the Chambered Nautilus, which makes it such an abstract of life' (The Flame of Recognition, p. 24). Ultimately, Weston produced a small series of images, including the one offered here, that he felt 'will live among my best' (ibid., p. 23).
Realizing these images, however, was not easy: Weston struggled to capture the natural forms of the shells on film, experimenting with different compositional configurations, varying the exposure times (some lasting up to four and half hours), and experiencing frustration every step of the way. He recorded his trials in his Daybooks: 'After watching my shell arrangement all day - repeatedly warning Brett to walk lightly, -- even keeping the windows shut for fear of a slight breeze, though the day was hot, -- a cardboard background slipped, fell onto the shells, and completely disarranged them. I was literally on the verge of tears from disappointment, knowing the impossibility of repeating anything absolutely (Daybooks, California, 13 May 1927). Also, 'I worked all Sunday with the shells, -- literally all day. Only three negatives made and two of them were done as records of movement to repeat again when I can find suitable backgrounds. I wore myself out trying every conceivable texture and tone for grounds: Glass, tin, cardboard, --wool, velvet, even my rubber raincoat!' (ibid., May 1927).
When Weston sent several of his shell studies to his lover, the photographer Tina Modotti, in Mexico, they elicited an extreme reaction: 'My God Edward,' she wrote him, 'your last photography surely took my breath away! I feel speechless in front of them. What purity of vision. When I opened the package I couldn't look at them very long, they stirred up all my innermost feelings so that I felt a physical pain . . . Edward -- nothing before in art has affected me like these photographs. . . They contain both the innocence of natural things and the morbidity of a sophisticated, distorted mind. They make me think of lilies and embryos. They are mystical and erotic' (ibid., 25 July 1927).
Weston himself rejected any comments about the erotic qualities of the shell images. He wrote that he had not tried 'to record erotic symbolism. . . No! I had no physical thoughts, --never have. I worked with a clearer vision of sheer aesthetic form. I knew that I was recording from within, my feeling for life as I never had before. . . The Shells are too much a sublimation of all my work to be pigeonholed' (ibid., 7 July 1927).
The present photograph takes its place as a key image, not only within an important phase of Weston's work, but in his entire oeuvre. When Nautilus was made, his transition to a Modernist aesthetic was complete. Weston's vision was never doctrinaire or formulaic, however, and his primary concern when photographing was the object in front of his camera. Throughout the 1920s, Weston experimented tirelessly - in a series of nudes, still-lifes, and other studies - with photographing a single subject. In the pages of the present catalogue, the nude studies of Anita Brenner and Miriam Lerner, also made in the 1920s, are notable examples. In these images -- as with Nautilus -- he focuses on the object to the exclusion of all contextual information. In these studies, the form of his subject is his sole preoccupation.
In the present image, the most famous of Weston's shell studies, the photographer has presented his subject literally, in all of its corporeal reality. The shell stands in luminous relief against the deep black background, the striations of its exterior as well as its nacreous interior described with precise delicacy on the matte-surface paper that Weston favored in 1927. By isolating the shell, and rendering it with such intensity, Weston has transcended photographic documentation to create an image that operates on a higher level of representation.
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