Friday, January 25, 2008

Brett Weston

Brett is one of my all time favorite photographers, above even his father Edward, interestingly an opinion held by Edward himself. Although Edward's nudes and pepper # 30 and some other images have amazing power, when thumbing through a book of a hundred images from each of them, I find that Brett showed more consistent quality of images. I have a huge Aperture monograph of Brett's images which unfortunately showed them as contrasty and with seriously blocked shadows, nothing like the detail available in original prints or good reproductions.

Unlike his father, Brett travelled the world and some of my personal choices are from overseas - a forest in Britain, Italian hillside towns. I am not as enamoured of his work in Hawaii but that's probably personal taste. I feel he had a stronger sense of design than Edward and on the whole Brett's images are especially well composed.

Brett tended to isolate subjects more than Edward and he liked patterns and so not surprisingly his images became more abstract. You can perhaps see where some of my own interest in more abstract and close up images comes from.

I thought I'd pick one of his more ordinary images to discuss what works. Open the link below in a second window so you can read and view at the same time. and go to the 47th street image (second image).

The subject matter is hardly exciting, New York Apartment Buildings, the backsides. It is strictly an exercise in graphic design, yet also shows a side of New York few are privileged? to see. The image has a number of things going for it despite this inauspicious start.

The obvious features are the bright white lines of the roof and corner combined with the near white of the window blinds, all against a relatively dark yet highly detailed dark tonalities. The repitition of shapes in the walkway at the back and the zig zag roofline are critical to the image.

I'd also draw your attention to the management of the corners. There is a single line that leads right to the corner but most in fact simply come close, but in a staggered pattern. That is, a diagonal line goes from near one corner to not quite so near the other. Note the continuation of the white building corner on the top left to the zig zag roof and on down the side of the smaller building to the bottom.

There is framing left and right via these strong diagonals and the top and bottom are divided by more diagonal lines reaching from one vertical frame to the other. Even the streaks in the far wall contribute to the repretive lines. There are a lovely selection of textures from the flat roof, the slanted roof and three brick walls as well as the roof of the covered walkway.

There's a tiny highlight - too small for me to identify in this web picture, located on the small area of ground showing between the zig zag roof line and the top of the flat roofed wall bottom left.

The windows work well with dark windows against light brick, light against dark and the window on the right wall outlined with the white above and below matching other diagonals in the image.

The image works as a mystery - does anyone go out on that flat roof, why the fancy covered walkway and to where - the other building sure doesn't look like apartments, is this a dangerous back alley, does someone live or work behind some of the windows. It's a window into New York architecture and perhaps life of the first half of the 20th century.

Anyway, for a very unassuming photograph that some might not notice, it has a lot going for it - there's a valid reason Brett hauled up his 11X14 camera. He perhaps could have corrected perspective (though 11X14's are not known for excessive lens coverage so perhaps not) but the diagonals would have been lost and they work perfectly in this image.


Neil said...

Do you think that its an unfair comparison in a way though. No matter how accomplished, Brett followed but Edward innovated?

George Barr said...

Neil has an interesting point, do we admire an image more because it's new . Can we assume that Edward was first to 'invent' the sharp detailed rich prints. There are two issues, who is the better photographer, who is the more innovative, and who's images do you like the best. I suspect that we can admire a photographer for being innovative but probably choose him as a favorite because of the strength of his images in today's environment - in reality we can't help comparing their images of 30 - 80 years ago and they hold their own very nicely thank you.