Willard Van Dyke and His Mentor Edward Weston

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This low angle portrait of photographer Edward Weston was taken by filmmaker/photographer Willard Van Dyke in 1932. Weston was in the full flush of his creative years. A few years earlier, Van Dyke, a young photographer, had met Weston at the opening of an exhibition of Weston’s work at San Francisco’s Palace of the Legion of Honor; shortly after, Van Dyke became his apprentice. He introduced Weston to Ansel Adams and in 1932 the three and four other local photographers formed Group f.64. Van Dyke opened a small gallery in his home, calling it “683,” his street address on Brockhurst in Oakland, a backhand reference to the famous Alfred Stieglitz Manhattan gallery “291.” In November of 1932, the De Young Museum gave the group its first show. For the next decade Weston traveled widely through California and the Southwest, part of the time under a Guggenheim Grant. He also received a commission to illustrate an edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.

Weston had many lovers and models during the 1920s and 1930s, especially Marguerite Mather and Tina Modotti, but when he met Charis Wilson at a concert in 1934, he knew right off that he had found the love of his life. He was still living with fellow Group f.64 founding member Sonia Noskowiak but they soon parted. He and Wilson spent the next decade traveling and working together. She was also his muse and model. Shortly after they began their relationship, Weston photographed her in a series of nude studies on the coastal dunes of Oceano near Santa Barbara.

Charis Wilson at Oceano

Charis Wilson at Oceano

Weston and Wilson eventually settled near Carmel at Point Lobos in a home they called Wildcat Hill, named after all the stray cats they adopted. Over the next few years the duo created several memorable books of Weston’s photographs—with text by Wilson.

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Near the end of WWII, Weston’s heretofore-indefatigable energy became strained as he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. He and Wilsoneventually separated, with Weston returning to Glendale (Tropico) where he had had a portrait studio in the early 1920s during his “Pictorialism” period. Wilson sold the Point Lobos property, which was owned by her father, to Weston. He then returned to Wildcat Hill and continued to try to work, but it became apparent that he was simply too weak to manage by himself all his equipment and darkroom work. He had just sent a letter to his friend Ansel Adams seeking Adams’ help in finding a young photographer who would assist him, one who also had a car. At this moment, Dody Thompson came into his life, just as Van Dyke had many years before. Thompson eventually moved into his guesthouse becoming his student and assistant.

During the 1930s Willard Van Dyke became a cinematographer and director of US government sponsored documentary films. On Pare Lorentz’ 1938 film The River he shared cinematography with Floyd Crosby who already had won an Oscar in 1931 for his work on Murnau’s last film, Tabu. Van Dyke also co-directed and photographed The City with Ralph Steiner, and in 1947 he directed a feature length documentary for the U.S. State Dept. titled Journey into Medicine. It received an Academy Award nomination (it must be said that Van Dyke worked with the best non-studio cinematographers of his time); this film was photographed by Boris Kaufman, a younger brother of Denis Kaufman who, known as Dziga Vertov, created Man with a Movie Camera, the subject of a blog I wrote last January.

John’s Bailiwick: “The Spinning Top and the Parvo: Man With A Movie Camera” link

In Paris, during the 1930s, Boris Kaufman had been cinematographer for the young director Jean Vigo. Some years after Vigo’s death, Kaufman came via Canada to the United States in the early 1940s. He was unable to find employment in the closed union system of the time, but a few years later director Elia Kazan was searching for a cinematographer who could bring a feel of documentary realism in lighting to the practical locations of the film he was preparing to shoot in New York: On the Waterfront. Kazan was so impressed by Kaufman’s work on the Van Dyke medical documentary that he hired him, even though Kaufman had yet to photograph an American feature film. Kaufman won the Academy Award for his black and white cinematography of On the Waterfront—shortly after his admission in December 1953 into the ASC, an almost unprecedented short track into that elite fraternity.

Van Dyke had all but abandoned stills photography in deference to his friend Weston, but he approached the reclusive artist to be the subject of his 1948 film, The Photographer. The Parkinson’s disease had considerably weakened Weston but he was able to revisit for Van Dyke’s movie camera some of the locations that had been major subjects of his work, including the sand dunes of Oceano, the craggy gullies of Death Valley—and Point Lobos.

Dunes at Oceano

Dunes at Oceano

The nearly half-hour documentary was commissioned by the United States Information Service; the intended audience for these USIA films was not professional photographers nor even those interested in photography. The agency made films to be shown abroad—as an educational service to foreigners, to present them with a wide range of American experience. This is why the narration has a sometimes odd and obvious tone, a soft sell of American mores.

Frame grab of Weston, 1948.

Frame grab of Weston, 1948.

The film’s enduring value is in its closely observed following of Weston at work and his entertaining at home, as well as a fascinating sequence of the making of a contact print in his simple darkroom. Weston spent so much of his traveling career in impromptu bathroom darkrooms that even this simple one at Wildcat Hill was a kind of luxury.

The uncredited young woman who assists him through most of the film is actress Franny Clausen. It is apparent that Weston is frail in these working scenes; his steps are measured even when he is carrying the camera and tripod. Surely, his pride was such that he wanted to be photographed as the master of his tools—just as others had photographed him earlier.

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The documentary’s “cameraman” is Walter Doniger, whose images bear close attention to the landscapes immortalized by Weston, including a close-up of vegetables in a tray on the dining room table, a shot redolent of Weston’s famous studies of fruits and vegetables made during his years in Mexico. Director Van Dyke is also credited as the photographer, begging the question of whether Doniger’s contribution was essentially as the camera operator.

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Van Dyke is actually on camera in several scenes, especially sharing an apple with Weston at 16:45 and again in a nighttime group scene in the living room at the fireplace.

Note that there is some sound breakup in this video’s opening 15 seconds, but it goes away.

When I was a film student at USC Cinema, one of the first classes everyone was required to take was an introduction to visual aesthetics titled “Film Expressions.” The instructor was Les Novros who not only taught at USC from 1941 to 1984, but also trained several generations of large format film and visual effects artists through his company Graphic Films, a company that was virtually a recruiting depot for Kubrick’s 2001. The first film we students watched in this USC Cinema class was Slavko Vorkapich’s short, Moods of the Sea, set to Mendelssohn’s Fingal’s Cave overture.

The second film was The Photographer. I remember one moment from the Weston film when there is a POV of a weathered tree framed against the sky, The movie camera pans right and left—“Not here, not here, but here.” Seeing the shot today—there doesn’t seem to be much of a change in the composition.

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It was only a short time after the documentary was shot that Weston’s illness became so acute that he was no longer able to go out and photograph in nature. One of his last photographs is an undramatic, even casual, study of sand and rock at Point Lobos, an image that seems totally contemporary in its rejection of any centrality. The CCP logo in the corner of the frame is that of the Center for Creative Photography, an unparalleled archive and library in Tucson, Arizona.

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Rock and Pebbles, Pont Lobos, 1948.

Edward Weston lived for another ten years after The Photographer. He could not print himself but he supervised the so-called “Project Prints” made by his son Brett. During Weston’s working career he often sold his prints for twenty-five dollars or less. Four years ago, a print of “Nautilus” was hammered down in auction at Sotheby’s for over one million dollars.

Nautilus Shell

Nautilus Shell

When Weston died, his bank balance is said to have been about three hundred dollars.

Weston at Point Lobos

Weston at Point Lobos

 

5 Responses to “Willard Van Dyke and His Mentor Edward Weston”

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  • Hi John,

    Another wonderful blog filled with insight and history. I remember learning about Graphic Films when I worked at Hanna Barbera Productions in the mid to late 70s. Our studios were accross the street from each other on Cahuenga Blvd. Later, working at Robert Able and Associates, I met and worked alongside Con Pederson, who had worked for Graphic Films and was part of the team that left to work on “2001”. Les Novros had worked for Walt Disney as an effects animator before he started his own company. Pederson also got his start as an effects animator at Disney. Thanks for sharing all of this.

    JOHN’S REPLY: Mark, thanks for sharing this stroll down memory lane. Yes, it was such a small community back then. Everyone knew everyone else. Not exactly like the end credit scroll of hundreds of names from a dozen VFX houses around the world, that are the common denominator of today’s humungous effects-driven movies.

  • Great article John
    I went around the world with Willard’s son Murray on a film called Powaqqatsi by Godfrey Reggio

  • In the 1970s the Rochester Institute of Technology owned a 16mm print of Van Dyke’s The Photographer, always shown to young first-year students. In the film Weston appeared willfully old fashioned, and a 30-year old film seemed near ancient. Later seeing Weston’s prints at Eastman House made it clear I’d misled myself.

  • Enjoyed the history, one correction to an oft asked question.
    The role of Edward’s assistant in The Photographer was played by the professional actress, Franny Clausen, not Dody Weston Thompson.

    Thanks,
    Merg

    JOHN’S REPLY: Merg, despite my attempt to verify the correct actress, I had to rely on hearsay info. Many thanks for the correction. Just curious. How do you know it was Franny Clausen?

  • Hi John,
    From a publication by the Center for Creative Photography, “The Letters Between Edward Weston and Willard Van Dyke”. It was published by the Center in 1992, compiled by Leslie Squyres Calmes, Assistant Archivist at the Center.

    I knew Dody from her years at Wildcat until her death in 2012. Wonderful friend. She would have been excellent in the part, but alas, had not yet arrived on the scene!

    Merg

    JOHN’S REPLY: Merg, I will make the correction forthwith. Thanks.

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