Charis Wilson died last Friday. She was first the model, then the lover, and finally the wife of photographer Edward Weston, who was 28 years her senior.
When I came of age in photography, it was just past the time when reading Weston's Daybooks (in the then-ubiquitous two-volume Aperture set, now long out of print) was almost a rite of passage among photographers of a certain ambition. I remember reasoning during my penurious student years that I didn't need to own my own copy because the two volumes would always be available in libraries; and now all I remember about them are his accounts of his love affairs. Chiefly, Charis. Edward was a man much swayed by his passions for his lovers.
Wilson is often referred to as Weston's "muse," and the description for once isn't inapt. She was the subject of half of his nudes, many of them among his most famous pictures. And, according to some, she was the better writer and wrote the application for the Guggenheim—the first ever awarded to a photographer—that cemented Weston's national fame. She helped support them, helped him in the darkroom, even helped generate ideas for his pictures.
Weston died more than fifty years ago, and even his most famous photographer son, Brett, has been gone for more than decade and a half. I hadn't actually realized Charis Wilson was still alive. Weston distinctly belongs to an earlier time, a different era. Charis was long-lived. She was ninety-five.
Photographs by Edward Weston
I remember, from the Daybooks, Weston's palpable grief when they divorced—he wrote to a friend something like "Edward and Charis are no more!" —But don't take that as an accurate quote. Yet, although she left him and remarried immediately after their divorce, they remained friends, and she spent much of the latter part of her life talking and writing about her association with him—including in her autobiographical book Through Another Lens: My Years with Edward Weston, and in a film, made five years ago, called Eloquent Nude: The Love and Legacy of Edward Weston and Charis Wilson. (Anyone seen that?)
I'd love to own The Daybooks now, but can't afford a set. Hard to believe they're rare now. I wonder if Weston's work and the arc of his life are as familiar to photographers now as they once were. Amy Conger's book is still in print (although Amazon doesn't seem to have it in stock), as is the earlier Aperture monograph.
I have a feeling the definitive story of Edward and Charis is still to be written.
MikeFeatured Comment by Chris Y.: "Thank you for this blog, I can't tell you what it means to me sometimes. I took all of Newhall's classes at the University of New Mexico in the late '70s. He made these people real to us, and we felt as if we'd known them personally, because he had. The news about Charis reached me via The Online Photographer as I was leaving my office for the weekend, like a faint radio signal from a distant, distant star. I thought about it all day yesterday, but who could I tell, that it wasn't just a dream after all...."