Walt Whitman’s America is large, it contains multitudes. When Edward Weston set out to photograph the United States of the 1940s for a new edition of the 19th-century poet’s Leaves of Grass, he attempted to represent the manifold experiences of life in the country. Although Weston believed he did some of his best work on the cross-country road trip, the book was a failure. This was in part due to its bad design that printed his photographs on a seafoam green background, paired with Whitman quotes that gave his images an unintended illustrative perspective.
Real American Places: Edward Weston & Leaves of Grass, opening October 22 at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California, reconsiders this dialogue between the two creators. As Whitman died in 1892, and Weston was born in 1886, there was naturally no in-person discussions. Rather, it’s an unexpected connection between Whitman’s free verse and Weston’s tightly controlled photographs.
“Both Weston and Whitman were thinking about groups of pictures, whether mental pictures conjured by reading poems or those of photographic prints,” James Glisson, Bradford and Christine Mishler assistant curator of American art at the Huntington, told Hyperallergic. “Both poet and photographer are in a manner of speaking filmmakers cutting from shot to shot, jumping from place to place. Whitman has his lists that roll on for pages, while Weston was thinking about the groups of photographs gathered in the photobooks he spent much of his later years publishing. The abrupt transitions as one reads lines or flips through a photobook’s pages are roughly equivalent.”
Real American Places features 25 of Weston’s images from the 1941 Limited Editions Book Club edition of Leaves of Grass, as well as some of Whitman’s manuscripts from the Huntingon’s archives. While there has been new attention to these photographs — such as a 2012 exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston — they remain among Weston’s lesser known work.
The California-based photographer could transform the tight detail of a cabbage leaf or the close portrait of a face into monumental architecture, each detail having weight. By the 1940s, he’d already had a prolific career, yet his images for Leaves of Grass reach beyond that studied formalism.
Riding with his wife Charis, who typed a detailed narrative of the trip, in a Ford nicknamed “Walt,” Weston traveled 24,000 miles across the United States. The couple gazed at the sky over White Sands, New Mexico; witnessed the alien Gulf Oil storage tanks in Port Arthur, Texas; explored aboveground cemeteries in New Orleans; and spent time in Whitman’s beloved Brooklyn. Weston took portraits with his huge 8×10 camera of as many different people as possible, from Yaqui Indians, to farmers in Tennessee, to an African-American cook and choirmaster named Brown Jones in Athens, Georgia. Yet when it came to image selection, the publishers did not include this diversity in the book.
“Though Weston deemed the book a failure, he considered the photographs an unqualified success,” Jennifer A. Watts, curator of photography at the Huntington, states in her exhibition essay. When Weston donated 500 photographs to the Huntingon in 1944, 90 of them were for Leaves of Grass.
Ultimately, the attack on Pearl Harbor caused the Westons to quickly return to California, with over 700 negatives in tow. On the brink of this involvement in war, Weston’s images respond in a similar way to Whitman’s plainspoken words, offering a cross-section of experience in a vast country that resists a single narrative. As Weston stated in 1941: “My plan for work on this commission was direct: I photographed anything and everything I saw which excited me. I could do no more.”
Real American Places: Edward Weston & Leaves of Grass opens at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens (1151 Oxford Road, San Marino, California) on October 22 and continues through March 20, 2017,