1923-1927 | Journey to Mexico (Day Books)
In July 1923, Weston made a dramatic and decisive break with his life of the previous dozen years. He packed his bags and ventured to Mexico. This is a period that has been described as one of intense self-examination, self-criticism, and self-analysis.
Weston boarded the ship Colima with his photographic partner and lover Tina Modotti and his eldest son, Chandler. Setting sail, he looked forward with great anticipation, “Toward what unknown horizons? A night of suspended action – of delayed but imminent climaxes – anything might happen – nothing did.” The unknown horizons produced many opportunities to grow as a photographer. He was received with acclaim by some of the greatest artists in Mexico, including the renowned painter Diego Rivera, who would become a close and supportive friend for many years. He also exhibited widely and was able to establish a reasonably successful studio business.
However, personal conflicts raged within him. He was separated from his three youngest sons and estranged from his wife. His correspondence provides a telling commentary on his state of mind, especially his great passion for the boys and the decidedly bitter struggle to distance himself from Flora. Yet, there are moments when he reflected more softly: ” – For you Flora as the mother of my children and the only person that I could have lived with for some dozen years I have only admiration and love.” Weston tried to take solace in the support that Flora had given him, possibly to ease the pain of separation from his sons, or quite possibly to ease the pains of guilt for having left his family behind.
In his Daybooks, he recorded a letter from Margrethe Mather, his Glendale photography partner and former lover: “She (Flora) wept around here one A.M. after Edward’s first Stieglitz letter (from N.Y.) – blaming herself for holding Edward back – I told her – in front of Tina – that she was responsible for Edward’s success – without the balance of her and the children – the forced responsibility – Edward would have been like the rest of us – dreaming – living in attics – living a free life (O God!) etc. etc. not growing and producing as he had. Opinions to the contrary Edward as gregarious as anyone I know – Flora seemed grateful for my words but soon forgot them . . .”
Shortly thereafter, Edward wrote to Flora in an attempt to articulate his inner conflicts and provide them both with some degree of solace, “we are both in a pathological condition and need a fresh vision – I am willing to build on a new foundation turn under the old dirt – I have tried to – I have felt a great tenderness and love for you and the children – and I have worked as I never did before to make a new start – whether I succeed or not at least I have tried – and I know too well the struggle you have had there alone – and feel for you.”
Weston was not aiming for a reconciliation or end to the separation, a fact he noted in his Daybooks” “Yes, Flora, you are generous, and you mean so well, and you have written me so beautifully. But when I think of living in the same house with you or near you, my reactions are definite. It cannot be. Yet – I wish to be near my children – the desire is strong.” Possibly to placate his own conscience, or in all earnestness, Weston wrote Flora a strong retort to the accusation that his journey to Mexico was a desertion of his family, rather than a chance at self-fulfillment and professional growth as an artist. He exclaimed, “Did my departure and subsequent life have any of the ear-marks of a desertion? . . . When I reached Mexico City, my first move was to establish a business – why? To attempt to make money – why? For my family.” A few days later he writes again, “Dearest wife and boys – I am experimenting every spare moment – dong the best work of my career – approaching a clearer understanding of my medium than ever before – I have had heart rendering failures but that is part of my road!”
By July 1924, Weston was struggling with the urge to return to Glendale. He severely missed his other three sons and bore the weight of their separation.
A year ago yesterday we sailed from Los Angeles on the Colima. Until five o’clock last night I was undecided whether to leave Mexico tomorrow (on which day passes were to expire), or not. After a terrific inner struggle, both emotional and intellectual, I finally realized, and decided I must stay. From this decision, today, I am having violent reactions, but I still know that I have made the only possible and logical resolve.
Weston’s struggle, however, was not settled, and his resolve to stay melted away by the end of the year. “I felt myself a stranger, self-exiled in a strange land. My thoughts were of the North, of my sons, but I persisted . . . I knew finally the time had come to go.” He returned to Glendale, “the old home,” in early January 1925 and immediately acknowledged his mistake for returning:
Too bad for me to have returned to this! – this worn out spot, surrounded by my dead past, the once-blossoming fruit trees I cared for so tenderly, sapless, brittle, naked, the plow and garden tools rust, scattered, – the house with shattered window panes and sagging sides doomed to tumble soon unless new life and love comes to save it. But who is to bring that love? Not I!
The imagery of dead fruit trees and rusty tools was clearly a metaphor for the state of his mind. In little more than eighteen months, the house could have hardly crumbled and fallen into such a state of disrepair. In describing his studio, he looked with envy at the surrounding neighborhood, now populated with sturdy brick houses:
My little studio presents even a sadder, sorrier aspect, surrounded on all sides by brick blocks, business-like and efficient, which scorn the falling shack and seem to say, “Soon, soon we shall crush you, crowd you out, tear up your garden, cut down your trees, clean out this eye-sore to a wholesome, right-thinking community.
His return gave him moments of joy. While writing a journal entry in the early morning hours, Cole’s “little roguish face peeked out from under the covers, greeting me with, ‘I want to go with you Daddy.’ So here he is, to interrupt me as I write. He sings and chatters and is altogether delightful.”
Soon thereafter, Weston journeyed north, first to Carmel, California, then to San Francisco, where he spent much of his time for the remainder of 1925. His world was ever changing. Having left his family once again, he ended another chapter in his life when he received a letter from Margrethe Mather, at which he commented, “At last the end has come for Margrethe, and my old studio passes into alien and vulgar hands. A letter from her, ‘Today, my last Sunday in the Studio – raining softly – like tears – for you and for me – and for the willowed river we never walked to – a terrific nostalgia envelopes me.”
Writing from San Francisco, Weston once again tried to justify his separation from Flora and the children: “I came here to attempt making money as I have repeatedly stated I have absolutely no desire to make money – other than to fulfill my obligation and love for my family.” His time in San Francisco proved to be less than fruitful and productive. His exhibition at Gumps produced few sales, and his portrait business was virtually nonexistent. But a successful exhibition and sale at a Japanese club in Los Angeles gave Weston renewed confidence. He was especially pleased with a laundry worker who purchased “prints amounting to $52.00 – and he borrowed the money to buy with!”
Weston relented in a later letter, expressing openness to Flora’s interest in his return to Los Angeles and his Glendale studio, “-well – in spite of what you think – in spite of your attitude – I am willing to listen to any plan you think constructive and best all around.”
Despite his anxiety about being separated from his children, Weston was destined to return to Mexico. He justified his actions to Flora by claiming, “I was doing the first creative work of any importance of my life – I was just beginning to touch the spirit of Mexico.”
His close friend Jean Charlot implored him to return to Mexico: “What is the matter with you! You have to return . . . you would be the first to try the spirit of simpleness and primitiveness by this medium. Your last things (birds-horse) are full of promise.”
In late August 1925, Weston departed again for Mexico, this time with his second-oldest son, Brett. He reflected:
Eight months have passed since I left Mexico, unable after eighteen months’ separation to be longer parted from my boys. Leaving, I no more than half expected to return, and why I return, questioning myself, is not so simple to answer. Pages of reactions to people and places might be indulged in without conclusive reason. There might be more than one answer from more than one self.
Weston concluded this entry, “I simply packed my trunk and left before becoming once more too deeply involved in a mire of routine or imagined responsibilities.” His second trip to Mexico lasted nearly fifteen months. In November 1926, Weston left Mexico, never to return again. As he was leaving, he wrote, “On the train. The leaving of Mexico will be remembered for the leaving of Tina.” Following an “endless kiss,” Tina’s eyes filled with tears. He lamented, “This time, Mexico, it must be adios forever. And you, Tina? I feel it must be farewell forever too.”