Interview by Jim Kasson, for The Center For Photographic Art;
Fall Newsletter 2002
Kim Weston, Cole Weston’s son and Edward Weston’s grandson, creates exquisitely choreographed and emotionally complex studio nudes. Jim Kasson interviewed Kim in his Wildcat Hill home, once Edward Weston’s home and studio.
JK: I’ll start out with a simple question that may have a complicated answer: How’d you decide to become a photographer?
KW: I knew you were going to ask me that.
JK: You had to think twice about it; there was a lot to live up to.
KW: Not really. Growing up at Garrapata with Dad, there were always cameras around. I started when I was six. I was a shy child, and I loved going into the darkroom and helping my dad. I loved the darkness, the quiet. I’d sit in there for hours. He was doing portraits at that time so he was processing a lot of 4x5s, and it was my job to put them through the hypo. He never pushed me, but there were always cameras there, and film, and I just started doing it.
JK: Your brothers and sisters aren’t committed photographers, are they?
KW: They haven’t been until recently. My older brother, Ivor decided to photograph, and my younger sister Cara. Cara went a little further than Ivor, and built a darkroom.
JK: Is she doing it as a hobby?
KW: I guess. Why do any of us do it?
JK: But you made a serious commitment to photography.
KW: It’s more of a lifestyle. It’s what I do. I couldn’t live without doing it.
JK: In your family, you’re the only one of your generation to commit yourself to the medium.
KW: Yes. My cousin Mark, who lived in this house most of his adult life, was a photographer for quite a few years, but gave it up. No one can make a living at it, even with a great last name. It’s hard for me, but it’s a lifelong passion.
JK: What’s going to happen to the next generation?
KW: Hopefully, they’ll be bankers. My son does a little photography, but he’s not involved the way I was.
JK: When you were a kid, you probably didn’t think much about where it was all going, but at some point in your life, you must have decided to make a commitment to the medium. Did you feel the accomplishments of your uncle, your father, and your grandfather as a weight, as pressure, as good reasons to do something else?
KW: I always saw it as an asset. It opened more doors than it closed. Growing up, I didn’t give my grandfather’s photography a second thought. I wasn’t involved in his work, except that I helped my dad print his negatives. I never saw it as a threat. I was conscious of his breathtaking images. How wonderful that someone could create something like that. I knew that I could, too, and I could get the same enjoyment that he did. It was harder for my dad, being that generation right next to Edward. He distanced his work from his father’s by going to color. Uncle Brett had a definite vision that he was after, I don’t think having a famous father affected him much. I worked with Brett for fifteen years. Photographically, I was closer to him than my dad. Dad and I always butted heads photographically, because of my, I guess you’d say, arrogance. As an artist you have to have a certain amount of arrogance.
KW: That’s better. I was always confident in my art and in myself as an artist. It takes time to get there. It’s not something that you’re born with. You do it as long as I have and you have to have some confidence.
JK: Your current photographs are quite distinctive: heavily choreographed studio nudes – one-act plays in a single image. How did you find your style?
KW: When Dad and Brett would go out to photograph at Point Lobos and other places, I’d tag along and photograph outdoors. I liked it. I liked the physical act of photographing, but I was never truly happy with my results. Something was missing. When I was about 27, I had a studio in town, and I was photographing nudes. I had a model coming over, and we were going to go out and make photographs on the beach. Being a shy person, I always felt strange outside with my camera. It rained that day. I looked around the studio, and said, “This could work.” I went to Granite Rock and bought a truckload of sand, dumped it in my studio, and got to work. From there on, I knew how to create the type of work that I wanted to make. I didn’t want to go out and look for something; I wanted to set it up myself. I was better at it. I enjoyed that. That’s what I wanted from the process. I don’t have an eye like my uncle. He could go out and shrink things down from this huge universe into something so precise, so perfect. But that’s not me. For the last 20 years I’ve worked the same way. All nudes, all in the studio. Before that, I was floundering around looking for something, not looking to be different for its own sake, but looking for something that fulfilled my need.
JK: What did your father think of your leaving the landscape for the studio?
A; My father thought it was too cerebral, and that I shouldn’t arrange stuff. I argued with him about that. What are Edward’s most famous images? The peppers, the shells, all the nudes are arranged. They are perfectly legitimate photographic subjects. So are landscapes, in black and white or in color. It doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you’re fulfilling that inner need, and for me the need is more the process than the finished product. My photographs are stories of the process.
JK: It works for you on more than one level.
KW: A lot of my work comes from my life experiences. I didn’t want to travel. I didn’t want to leave my family. I heard all these stories from Dad about not having Edward around when he was young, and I didn’t want that to happen. The studio work helps me in two ways: I don’t have to go out with my camera and have people look at me, and I can be close to my family. I can be more productive, too. I don’t have to go and search for things, and I’m not dependent on the weather, at least not for most of my images. I just rely on the well of my imagination, which is extensive. That’s not to say that some day I won’t go outside again, but I’m having a great time working on this process.
JK: Tell me about the process itself.
KW: I come up with an idea. I spend hours drawing up a storyboard. Each scene has elements that interest me. I develop those parts, flesh them out. Then I make a set. I paint the sets in color.
JK: Even though the result is black & white?
KW: The color determines the black and white result.
JK: In a way that’s not obvious until you have a lot of photographic experience.
KW: Sure, but I have that experience, and I like to look at the color while I’m setting up the picture.
JK: You get an idea. You sketch it out. You make the set. The model shows up. You both go into the studio. Does your idea continue to evolve as you pose the model and expose the film, or does it work out the way you planned it at first?
KW: It’s pretty much as planned, but then there are surprises. I’m not photographing the model in the classic sense; the model is playing a part in my photographs. It’s more like theater. I always work with models I know, and I let them participate in deciding how to act their part. There are certain things that I want, and I work towards those, but sometimes the surprises are the best part. If you have the right environment, and your camera’s loaded and you know what you’re doing, then you can capture those surprises.
JK: The light is all from the windows and the skylight?
KW: It’s all natural lighting. The light affects my ideas. The scene I did of women wrestling I could only do at a certain time of year. Because that’s when the light was coming through and hitting the wall the way I wanted.
JK: And you work with the ideas over time?
KW: Sure. Sometimes a series is fifteen photographs, sometime there’s just one. There’s a curve. You start off with an idea, and you start making images, playing with it, getting more sophisticated. Often, the beginning is the best, the crispest and cleanest. You come to the top of the curve and the ideas are completely developed. On the way back down, you work on the details, and the images become very polished, sometime too polished. You start meddling and working on it too hard, and it comes through in the photograph. Everywhere on that curve, you have different input to the photograph and how it looks. Then the idea is over. But, there’s a wonderful thing about a studio: you can pick up things again. I’m working on a ballerina series – Degas is one of my favorite artists – I can work on that series my whole life. I get more different, sophisticated ideas. I can go back and rephotograph ballerinas in a different way. I see it differently. I can work with one model for a long time. It’s alive; it’s not a stagnant, one-time shot.
JK: Do you have ideas that you can’t do in the studio?
KW: There’s no limit to what you can do in the studio. Well, in a studio. I don’t think there’s an artist alive that doesn’t want a bigger studio. I want to bring in cars and trucks… But that’s a minor limitation.
JK: Why natural light?
KW: I’m not a technical person. I want to keep things as simple as possible. I had one lens for most of my career. It was a 240mm lens. I didn’t need another lens. If I wanted a bigger image, I’d move the camera closer. I just got some new lenses from my Dad, and I rarely use them. Your eye gets trained to one lens and I get confused when there are too many choices. People ask me what kind of lens I have. I don’t know, and I don’t really care, as long as there are no cracks in it. I don’t want to think about my equipment. It would be a hindrance to worry about it. There are so many little things that can stop you from being creative. It’s just a tool. Some people take the tool to extremes. That’s fine for them, but I don’t want to think about it. Not even that the image is upside down. Freedom is what you’re looking for.
JK: You mean when you look in the camera you see the image right side up?
KW: Oh yeah. I don’t see it as upside down. It’s right side up to me.
JK: You don’t find the intensity of the natural light limiting? In a small studio, working with people, you’re working at close range. Don’t you end up stopping down far enough to get the depth of field you need and finding that your exposures are too long and you’ve got visible subject motion?
KW: I can make fairly long exposures. A good model can hold a pose for four to six seconds. I need to keep it simple, and I can get the images I want by keeping it simple. My grandfather had a very simple process, and it served him well.
JK: Some studio photographers can get up in the morning and if they feel like making an image, they can walk into the studio and everything will be the way they left it. You can’t do that. You need a model. How do you work with models? Do you have a fixed schedule?
KW: I’m lucky. I have one model that I don’t have to plan in advance, and that’s my wife. Photographing Gina has always been an absolute treasure. She’s my main model. If I just have to make a picture that minute, she’s there. With everyone else, there is some time getting the models together, but I’ve been doing it long enough that it’s not a hindrance to me. Sometimes I need four or five models, and organizing that is a challenge, as is directing that many in the studio. With the 8x10 camera, you lose a certain spontaneity, but I love the formalness of it, and I love the size of the negative.
JK: Tell me about your process from a technical point of view. Film?
KW: Recently, I’ve changed to Ilford FP4; that’s a 125 speed film. In the past, I used Tri-X, then TMax 400, and then Ilford HP5, mainly because I thought I needed the speed. For the last workshop, I couldn’t get the HP5; all they had was a box of Ilford FP4, so that’s what I used. I was worried. If you use a film long enough, you get to know its characteristics. I don’t use a meter, I just know the light, and I was really worried that there wouldn’t be enough light. I ended up exposing the 125 film for the same time as the 400, and the scale of the 125 is much superior to the 400.
KW: I develop in pyro, by inspection.
KW: I don’t flash, I don’t bleach. I don’t need that complexity to get the print I want. I use Agfa paper. I wish they made paper like they used to when my grandfather was alive, like the old Haloid papers. The closest I can get to that look is Agfa. I develop it in [Ethol] LPD. Working with Brett on his last portfolios, that’s what we used, and I stuck with it. I like the warm tone of it. It’s not an oxidizing developer, so it’s very stable. I use a little bit of selenium toner, just for archival purposes.
JK: How long does it take you to get the first print of a session?
KW: If it’s a new negative, it takes me about an hour. I just love getting the first print. I still get goose bumps when I see the image come up. It’s magic.
JK: Do you then put prints up on the wall and walk around them for a while?
KW: Yes. There are two different prints that I need to do: contact 8x10s, and enlarged 20x24s. I see them differently, and they print differently. I find the bigger print easier to make. The smaller print is a little trickier to get what I want out of it. I’ll usually make the 8x10 first. That’s the best way to get to know the negative. My work doesn’t lend itself to exquisitely fine printing. With my work, it’s more getting the information off the negative. I’m not looking for the print quality to tell the story.
JK: But you don’t want the print quality to get in the way of the story.
KW: No, there’s a balance there. If I screw up, I can go back and reshoot. Watching Brett print was phenomenal. How he could see, and how he could pick something out and then watching him print it. When he stopped using the big cameras and went to the small cameras, he changed his approach to exposure and began to bracket. I remember seeing him sitting there with a Rollei: bam, bam, bam. I asked him, “What are you doing, Brett?” He looked up and said: “Film’s cheap. Somewhere on the roll there’s one good image.”
JK: You ever run out of ideas?
KW: There are times when it just stops. It’s like writer’s block. Everything I think of is no good. It always comes back, though.
JK: You’ve been though it enough that you know it will came back?
KW: Yes. It’s aggravating when it happens, but fighting it makes it worse. To do the work that I do takes a long time, and somewhere about the middle, you can start asking yourself, “What the hell am I doing?” It’s important to run through that to get to the other side.
JK: And on the other side, do you ever want to hang on to an idea too long?
KW: Longer than my audience, sometimes. It always surprises me. Why did that person buy that print? They may see something in it that I didn’t see, but I’m still working on it. I think: “That’s not the best I can do. Wait! I can do better than that.” It’s hard to let it go. I think that’s why some people never become artists. They have such a hard time saying a work is done. I remember preparing for big shows, looking at the work, and saying, “That’s me up there.”
JK: You say you were shy as a kid, and that’s kind of like being naked.
KW: It’s hard, but you get over it. It’s one of the few times when you can really get back and see your work as a whole. I have a bunch of close friends who are artists and we look at each others work, and the whole idea is to stimulate each other. It’s great, but it’s not the same as seeing a whole body of work up on the wall.
JK: You don’t like to make big editions.
KW: That probably goes back to my early experiences. I worked a lot with Dad, printing Edward’s work. We’d print 40 Peppers in a morning, like a machine. Then I’d help Brett print 60 Holland Canals, and it got to be just mechanical. Being young at the time, I complained that this wasn’t right, and my father would say that the ability to make many images from one negative was one of the great things about photography. I wasn’t convinced.
JK: You reacted in an interesting way.
KW: For ten years, I made only one print from each negative, mounted the negative on the back of the print, and let the image go. It proves to you that each image is not that precious. There’s always new work to do. My best photograph is the one I have yet to make.
JK: You do your own workshops now. I’m sure your students get a lot out of them. What do you get?
KW: I can’t teach my style, but what I hope to teach is a level of excitement. When I do it, it’s one of the most rewarding things. I don’t want to become a workshop photographer, where the only time you get to photograph is when you’re doing a workshop, but I miss my students when I have a long time away from them. I do ten workshops a year, and I look forward to them.
JK: Do you get to see work that students have done after leaving your workshops?
KW: Yes. I have many students come back and take the same workshop over. What I find interesting is to know the person, and if I can do that through the work, that’s great. In the workshops, I know the people, I know their work, and it all hangs together.
JK: How long have you been doing workshops?
KW: For the last three years that I’ve been doing my own workshops. I used to do workshops with Dad. What drives people to come to my workshops is the personal experience. I’m confident enough that they’ll like my work, they’ll like the process, and they’ll like me.
JK: Photography was a part-time pursuit for you until several years ago. What made you change, and how has the change affected your work?
KW: I was working in construction. I’d do my photography on weekends and in the early mornings. I’d get up at 3:30 in the morning and print before I’d go to work. There were problems doing things that way, but it enabled me to not compromise my work. I didn’t have to sell, I had a paycheck. I’d done a series on Calla Lilies. They sold well, but I was done with the series and ready to move on. When a gallery came to me wanting me to do more Calla Lilies, I didn’t have to. I didn’t have to go out and buy a bunch of Calla Lilies and make photographs when my heart wasn’t in it.
JK: It’s got to be less stressful concentrating on photography.
KW: When you’re working eight hours a day, you’ve got a lot less energy for your work. I work just as hard now, but it all goes into the photography. If it wasn’t for Gina, I couldn’t do it. She handles the business part of it, and I just make photographs. We have a web site, I do the workshops, and I make photographs. It was scary, but it’s been great.