The Weston family is one of the most influential families in the history of photography. Born in 1919 Cole Weston is the senior living member. One of four sons sired by Edward Weston, an icon of twentieth century photography, Cole is himself a father of five and equally famous.
His life has followed a varied course first from theater, then to the Navy, on to working for Life magazine, and later to portraiture, before he moved to Carmel, California in 1946, at his father’s request. In the years that followed he became his father’s personal assistant, companion, and confidant. As Edward struggled with Parkinson’s disease, Cole became the keeper of two careers, his father’s and his own. Throughout the years, Cole has kept both bodies of work flourishing and circulating widely.
Cole’s work shines too brightly to be obscured by the shadow of his father’s success. In 1988 he stopped printing his father’s work to devote himself exclusively to his own work. It is exhibited internationally and resides in many of the world’s finest collections. He teaches workshops extensively both at home, throughout the United States, and abroad. His work has been the subject of four books including Eighteen Photographs, Cole Weston Fifty Years, At Home and Abroad, and most recently Laughing Eyes, a collection of letters between father and son.
Cole Weston So what do you want to know? I’ve done this so many times I find myself saying the same things, so I’m going to leave that to you. You ask and I’ll talk.
John Paul Caponigro What was your earliest memory of photography?
CW Well, my earliest memory is my father’s darkroom sink, up in Tropico, and my sailing little boats in his darkroom sink. Then my brother Neil and I used to break out all the windows in his darkroom, so dad would give us his glass plates. “Here, take these, dip them in lye, and clean them off.” Then he would put them in his windows again. Those are two of my earliest memories of my father and his studio. Also, I have another very strong memory. He used to have these women, I swear they were old women, but they were young women, that worked for him. I remember this one. He was in the darkroom showing her something. He told me to go out and see if the red streetcar that ran from Glendale to Tropico to Los Angeles was coming. I went out and came back quickly. Here was my father holding this girl, kissing this girl. I’ll be. He didn’t live with my mother then at all. They lived apart. I was born in 1919 and my father had mistresses then. I always wondered how I was ever born. They must have gotten together just for old times or something. How was I conceived? I never remember sitting down at the dinner table with my father – never. We never had a family dinner. I have the strongest memory of my sitting at our big table in Glendale at my mother’s place. My father’s studio was a couple of miles away. M mother was a school teacher, and she was wonderful old gal, but she didn’t cook much. She used to go to school, teach, come back, have a cigarette, which she wasn’t allowed, and go to bed. I remember one Thanksgiving or Christmas sitting down at this table with a big turkey, all by myself. I was the only one there. It was pretty lonely. We traded off a great deal with my mother and father. They were amiable, on good terms, all their lives, at least that I knew them. They were divorced so we went back and forth to my father’s and then to my mother’s.
I talk about my letter from my son Kim, my second son. He writes a beautiful letter. It reminds me of my father and my brother Chandler. Chandler just hated my father, you know. He was older than me. Kim wrote to me about his bringing up, his childhood, putting me down pretty much. I wrote him back. I didn’t contradict any of these things at all. I said, “You know, I had a lousy bringing up, too. I mean, my father left me when I was five years old and went to Mexico. I never saw him as a father. He never played baseball with me or took me skiing.” I just talked to my older son Ivor. He lives up in Shasta and just spent the whole day yesterday skiing with his sons. He skis with them all the time. I never had that sort of relationship with my father. But I loved him. He was a wonderful guy. When he did come home he’d read to us. I don’t remember any strict American sense of the father sitting down there, with the mother here, and the kids here. We never had that. So I told Kim, “Come on, your life wasn’t so bad.” I divorced his mother when he was 14 and my older son, Ivor who was then 15, came and lived with me. He decided he wanted to live with me. Then Kim had to be the father of the family. There were four children. That was pretty hard on him. Then his mother died of cancer when she was very young, 36. Then his brother, my son Reese, was killed in a car accident. Then his best girlfriend was killed in a car accident. So I said, “You know, you had a bad time, too. There’s no reason to lay all this on me. I’ve done the best I can.” We are who we are, and we do what we do. And we’re the result of our parents. We can’t help it. That’s just the way it is. So life goes on. You’ve got to say this is the way it exists and then go on. We cannot mope about the way my brother Chandler did. He died an 84-year old man, hating his father, and blaming him all his life. He was an alcoholic. I said, “Why do you drink so much?” He said, “I just want to prove to the world that my father and mother did a lousy job of bringing me up.” He was a 50-year old man. You can’t go on forever blaming your parents for what they did or did not do for you. You just go on and do what you can do.
JPC Where did the title for the recent book of correspondences, Laughing Eyes, come from?
CW One of Dad’s letters to me begins, “Dear Laughing Eyes”. Laughing Eyes is a fascinating book. Dad talks a lot about his life. You should do your own thing. Don’t be pushed by somebody else. Do what you want to do. All of my letters were saved. Even when I scrawled “Daddy, come home.” he kept them. And there are pictures.
I’m not a letter writer. My son is a beautiful letter writer. He writes to tell me all these things that are wrong with me. I’m a lousy letter writer. Everything’s ruled by the internet. I don’t use that even. I phone. I just get on the phone. That’s the simplest way for me to talk.
JPC What was your experience growing up in a photographic family and then later becoming a photographer yourself?
CW Well, I didn’t set out to be a photographer. I graduated from high school and my father gave me a 45 pistol and somebody else gave me a bottle of whiskey. That’s what I graduated with in Los Angeles in 1935. Anyway, he said, “What do you want to do?” I said, “I don’t know, maybe the theater.” So he introduced me to Nellie Cornish from the Cornish Schools in Seattle. I ended up there. I had a working scholarship and I was there for three years, ’37 to ’40. I graduated in theater. I was in Cunningham, dancing with the famous dancer Arthur Graham – the best. He was my roommate. Although he was gay and I didn’t know it then. I don’t think he knew it then. I graduated in theater in ’40 and I had a chance to go under the Dashold Youth Theater. I was going to set the world on fire. My friends in LA said, “What’s the sense of doing that? You may as well go to work for Lockheed. There’s a war on. We’ll be in the war before ’40.” This was ’37. You weren’t even born then. So I went to work for Lockheed and became a rivetter, and went to work for Lockheed for 51 cents an hour. I thought to myself, “I’ve got to get to 75 cents an hour.” The rent was $20 a month. I was married then to Dorothy. She was a dancer. She married me instead of going and studying with Martha Graham. I went in the Navy and did theater all along. There’s a sort of avocation in the theater. But while I was in the Navy, I got myself into the photo lab. That was interesting because we had unlimited film and unlimited cameras. We were doing commercial work, but I was at least out working, and I was out photographing. I had a truck, a Navy truck. And that’s how I really got into it. When I was a kid and I learned real basic stuff. In the Navy I really got into it. When I came out of the Navy I went to New York to see dad in ’47 and he went to see Wilson Hicks, who was the head of Life. Hicks said, “You go back to Los Angeles and we’ll put you on a retainer.” So I went back to Los Angeles and went on retainer working for Life. I had a few things for Life. Then my father was in the middle of a divorce, had Parkinson’s disease, and he was up here in Carmel. He said, “Can you come and be my assistant? I said, “Sure.” That’s how I came into it. I had to develop and print my father’s work, which I did pretty much until ’88. So I had a chance to work with him before he got Parkinson’s disease too bad. See, I came here in ’46 and he died in ’58.
Although there was the big project printing that was done by Dick McGraw, involving nearly one thousand of dad’s negatives. Dick McGraw wanted Brett to print them. Brett was so much more of a photographer than I was and so he got the job at $15 an hour to print all of dad’s negatives. But by then, dad was suffering pretty badly with Parkinson’s. So actually I chose all the negatives with dad. We sat down and looked at each negative and said, “What do you think?” Over three thousand negatives, which I still own, were shipped down to the Center for Creative Photography. We ended up with about 800, and they made eight sets of those 800. It was a huge job. Brett did it very fast. Willard Van Dyke used to say, “Well, you know, Brett, all those prints are beautiful, but some of them are pretty shoddy.” He went too fast. He would do five 8 x 10 negatives, eight prints each, before noon. Because at noontime he wanted to go down and lie on the beach. He didn’t care about this job. It was good income. Until his dying day, we had arguments about this. I was there. I watched it. Brett would come out with a print, and dad would just look at it shaking, “I guess that’s all right.” And then Brett would go back and print. Brett was a wonderful photographer and a wonderful printer. But he printed a certain way, you know, his prints were very contrasty, much more so than dad. But Brett’s project prints sell for a lot of money, because he could say that dad was alive when they were printed.
JPC Brett’s work is very graphic and abstract. Your dad’s work is smoother tonally and volumetric. They’re both about form, but entirely different aspects of form.
JPC I’m sure going through that, looking at the work, being so involved, certainly must have been an influence on you and your vision.
CW You can’t help it.
JPC I don’t know if there’s any point in trying to help it. It might be a good thing. I mean, it certainly could be good thing.
CW Thank God I had the influence.
JPC Yes, exactly. I feel similarly. But there’s also the process of keeping your own vision developing in parallel. It’s the continuation of that and the personalization of that. At some point you possess some of the forces of that influence and disassociate from others. Rather than being possessed by them you possess them. How have you dealt with challenges of maintaining and clarifying your personal vision?
CW Well, it’s been tough. You know, people say, “Well, how does it feel to be the son of Edward Weston?” It’s tough.
JPC I’ve never heard a question like that.
CW Yeah. Oh, yeah. Well, sure, it’s tough for you.
JPC Because it has both positive and negative aspects, I prefer to think of it as a challenge.
CW It’s a challenge. It’s a constant battle with people. That’s why I took up color, because it was my own, period. Dad and Brett. I couldn’t compete with them. So color was perfect for me. Dad did just a little bit of it. Brett hated it. And so for me it was logical.
Eastman Kodak wrote to dad and they said, “We’d like you to photograph Point Lobos in color.” Dad wrote back and said, “Well, I don’t know anything about color, but I know Point Lobos better than any man alive.” And so they sent him Kodachrome and Ektachrome to work with. It was good stuff. I went with him. I was holding his hands. He’d say, “Well let’s look at it here.” And I did. He had all this leftover film. I said, “Well, God Almighty, if he’s not going to use it, I may as well go out and use it.” So I did. That’s how I got into it. When he saw the first few that I did dad said, “Gee, those are quite lovely.” He was very complimentary, to anybody. Beginners would come to show him work and he’d often say, “I wish I had done that.” He had a wonderful humility, which a lot of people don’t have. This man was very humble about his work. And so anyway, he encouraged me, and I went on.
JPC So you pretty much developed color from that point forward? Did you do black and white as well?
CW Oh, yeah, I do black and white. I have black and white negatives that I never print. I just have too much to do to print my own color. I’m a color photographer. That’s what I do. Whether you like it or not, that’s what I do. There is nothing wrong with black and white, but I am into color. And I like it!
Television, museums, workshops – oh, it’s too much. I don’t want any more. I don’t want to sell any more. I don’t care any more.
JPC What do you want to do now?
CW I want to be healthy. I want to be able to do the things that I physically used to be able to do and I can’t do them. I am a good director, and I’ve directed for fifty years at Forest Theater in Carmel. I don’t do that any more. I have three great loves in my life – theater, sailing and photography. I had to cut out something. I did my last play three years ago. I sold my boat. So I’m down to photography now. Which is okay. To be 80 and be able to decide what you want to do that’s okay. I don’t have the stability that I had when I was a young buck like you. That’s going to happen to you.
JPC You still have the eyes though.
CW Well, you have the eyes.
JPC Do you still enjoy working?
CW Yes. You have the eyes, but you don’t have the strength. I can’t carry the 8 x 10. I could, but I don’t. So I carry the 4 x 5, which is a beautiful camera. But I don’t really have the drive that I used to have. I just say, I’ve done a fair amount; nothing compared to my father. But I never tried to compete with my father or my brother. They did tremendous quantities of work. And I don’t want to try and beat that. When I get to work, I’m terribly excited about it.
JPC When did you know that photography was the thing for you?
CW Well, it was osmosis. It happened, you know. As I grew up, I had it around me all the time. The war changed my whole aspect because I stopped theater. Then my father asked me to come be his assistant, and I was constantly working with photography and doing my own. I did good portrait photography. I made a lot of money. Then I ran for Congress on the Progressive Party ticket. Things just evolve in your life. Then of course dad died and I had the whole thing dumped onto me. I kept his work going. I kept shows going all over the world. Books would come out because of me.
JPC So in a sense you’ve been the keeper of two careers, your own and your fathers.
CW Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. As a matter of fact I probably keep my father’s more than I do mine. People say, “How does it feel to be the son of Edward Weston?” Well, it has its great moments and it has its bad moments. You think, “What am I successful for? Because of my name, my father’s name? Or because of what I do? What do they want me there for?” Gradually I’m more or less on my own. I’m doing my own work. I have a tendency to negate me, because all my life I’ve negated it and put my father, who’s a great genius, in the forefront. Now people say, “We want to hear about you.” I want to talk about me and my work.
JPC What are a few of the good things, and what are a few of the difficult things about being your father’s son?
CW I have no problem seeing. I see with my own eyes and I, naturally, have a different sense of seeing. I photographed one pepper in my life and he photographed fifty peppers. I do things and he’s done similar things. Having looked at my father’s work all of my life, you can’t help that. But we’re different.
JPC It’s inevitable and inescapable.
CW Just do it. Photograph differently.
My father was a very quiet person, you know, he was only five foot five, and he was very quiet and I’m much more like my mother, very outgoing..
My youngest son is your age. I have six children. My oldest one, Ivor, read Laughing Eyes. I wrote to him and said, “You read this and then you will see why I am who I am, or have an idea.” We talked just yesterday, and he said, “You know, reading those letters I never realized how difficult your father was. He was always thinking of himself. He’s talking about you and your needs and then he goes immediately on himself.” I don’t think that at all when I read this. To me it’s a great deal of his own philosophizing and so forth. So we each have a different interpretation. My father, I thought, was a very loving and wonderful person, whenever I saw him. And fortunately, I had a chance to live with him quite a bit of time.
JPC So talent, do you think it’s inherited, learned, or earned?
CW Oh, I think you inherit a great deal. You can’t help but learn. It’s osmosis. It’s just being around it. You can’t help yourself.
JPC Was there a defining moment when you felt you had discovered your own vision?
CW Well, it’s still developing.
JPC Yes, it always does. But was there a moment when you felt, “This is mine.”
CW Well, I’ve done that almost ever since I got into color, because nobody else was into it in my family.
JPC So for you it was the revelation of color?
CW Yeah. It really just happened. I didn’t think about it.
JPC One of the things I still find most mysterious about photography is that while the world renders itself, in the hands of different people it renders itself differently. It’s a matter not only of where you look but also how you look. The placement of the edge of the picture frame, or how you crop, is often be the most important decision. “This!” is also, “Not this.”
CW I don’t crop.
JPC Well, you do with the edge of your camera.
CW Well, you crop with the camera. Actually, this image is cropped.
JPC There are times when I get frustrated by the border of the camera being so rigid. I’d like a camera that would let you change its proportions. Sometimes I wonder if we learn to look within a certain set of proportions in mind. We may be so used to working with them that we pass up an image that would work with another set of proportions.
CW Well, I have a perfect story on that. Dad and I were out at Point Lobos in the early years, ’46. I had a really tough time because I saw his images everywhere. Anyway, I was out on the north shore photographing this wall. A cypress up here and a cypress down there. I looked and looked at it. Dad was down below. He was very immobile. I finally said, “Come take a look at this dad.” So he clambered up the rocks, and he didn’t move the camera at all. He looked at it, converted the camera to horizontal and changed the vertical. That’s PO46, L of 1, which is one of his most famous photographs. What he did was pick up a round boulder right at the bottom. It made this beautiful picture. He always said, “You know, that should have really been signed Ed and Cole Weston. And I said “No, you saw it and I didn’t see it. I didn’t have the vision to see it. I didn’t have experience and maturity to see it, and you did.” That’s the way things go. So it was a perfect example. He said I should be able to look at my feet and see something good in that. And he did. He was able to. He could make something out of chaos. He had that tremendous ability.
JPC I’ve found myself shoulder to shoulder with my father. We use nearly the same equipment and photograph the same subject and it comes out entirely different. You must have had the same experience.
CW I have. We’ve also photographed the same thing. There’s an image of two rock forms. I don’t even remember him doing it or me doing it, when we did it. He must have done it at close to the same time because the shadows are pretty close. Mine is a very direct form, “Rrrrrr!” Just like that. And his is, “Mmmmm.” Something like that. I usually use this with my classes about how one person sees one thing one way and one sees another. I show them one and then I say, “All right, how many of you think that is my father’s?” And they all raise their hands. And then the next one I say, “How many?” And they all raise their hands. I say, “That’s okay. Don’t feel badly because what you thought was dad’s was mine. He said he liked mine better.”
CW Well, have I answered all your questions? I’ve told you my whole life. If I get going, I just don’t stop.
JPC I have a feeling we could go on for a life time.