In any examination of Edward Weston the man, one needs to look no further than the relationship he and his sister, Mary, maintained throughout their adult lives. That a bond of mutual admiration and respect existed would probably be an understatement. Surely, the notions of a dour, brooding lover are quickly and completely dispelled when one reads the words and actions of Edward Weston and his outpourings of love, affection, and selflessness.
So much of the Edward Weston we know today was influenced directly and indirectly by his sister. Her role as a surrogate mother and as the cupid who united him with her best friend, Flora Chandler, set the path for his move to California. It was Mary’s urging and financial support that allowed him his first sojourn to New York City. It was a trip that helped to mold Weston’s attitudes toward the world of photography, its acknowledged leaders, the art world, and the prominence of the East Coast in general. Throughout the remainder of their lives, the older, doting sister was Weston’s biggest fan. Her words were a source of encouragement. Mary rejoiced in her brother’s success and lifestyle, heaping adorations in his direction. One such example is typical: “I have always been in accord with you in the view that one needs little and you are my ideal of a successful man.” Under the approving shadow of his father and the adoring words of his sister, Weston could relish in the comforts of a life that he had worked so hard to carve out for himself against difficult odds.
Following her support of his venture to New York City in 1922, Mary was equally supportive of his decision to move to Mexico. She wrote him providing messages of “faith in my success” despite the fact he was leaving Flora and his marriage behind, a bond she had been so instrumental in forging. Little record exists between Mary and Edward during his various wanderings in Mexico, San Francisco, Glendale, and other places Weston called home during the remainder of the decade. There were times when the two siblings were separated by the distances of funds, time, and geography. In the spring of 1929, firmly ensconced in Carmel, Weston excitedly noted the arrival of a special guest – “my little sister! Not until this summer, but what an event – four years since we have been together.” They were separated physically, but their mutual love for each other endured. Weston continued to send her prints, often as birthday gifts. Recording his thoughts into his daybook on March 18, 1930, he noted, “Writing the date recalls that it is Sister’s birthday – – I must send her a print for greeting.”
Mary and her husband, John, had moved to Middletown, Ohio in the first years of the 1920s. They later moved to New York City before their return to Southern California in 1935. These moves were fortuitous since they allowed Edward his first contact with the East Coast art establishment and provided a direct, if somewhat biased, source of direct information from his successes in the gallery world.
The mailbox was set afire when Edward secured his first gallery exhibit in New York City in 1930 at the Delphic Studios. The enterprising proprietor Alma Reed had visited Weston earlier in the year in his studio along with the Mexican painter Jose Clemente Orozco, whom he knew from his Mexican days, and his friend and patron from San Francisco, Alfred Honigbaum. Wiring Weston, Reed exclaimed, “Opening real success – all your old friends and sister present – many new admirers – sold long slender shell – everything most promising.” Upon reading this telegram Weston reflected, “This brought me great joy. Especially ‘sister present!’ It seen, and is, a reunion with her – -.” Mary wrote, “Your exhibit is a knockout,” on which Edward reflected meekly, “She would be prejudiced – to a degree!”
The Art of Edward Weston was Edward’s first book, released in 1932. It was a critical and popular success and equally successful with Mary. She wrote, “Darling Buddie, Words and my limited time are not adequate to express to you my reaction upon receiving your wonderful book. The inscription moved me so deeply that I wept and my excitement literally prevented my eating or sleeping. Someday I may be able to tell you all I feel.” She closed her letter with the inscription, “My continued ‘love and loyalty’ until my death, Always, Sis.”
Living in New York, Mary became Edward’s most regular fan, attending his exhibits virtually daily. “Dearest Buddie,” she wrote. “Your exhibit opened yesterday and what a show! I must go to the exhibit again. I can’t keep away. How proud I am of you!” Edward relished her sisterly attention and admiration: “Sister has written to me almost every day. She has been a sort of assistant curator for my show.” Evidence of Mary’s role: “I stayed at the exhibit while Alma Reed went out yesterday afternoon. There was a crowd in. I wish you could have been here.”
Mary reported that in attendance was Ira Martin, the president of the Pictorialist Photographers of America, a strong nationwide group that promoted the tenets of photography to an eager group of amateurs and professionals through exhibitions and publications. Martin and his colleagues were quite enamored with the exhibit, having “stayed until 12:30 (they arrived at 9:15) and had such a fine time.” Ira Martin not only visited with his PPA colleagues, but also made the first purchase from the show. Adding to that impressive news, his sister was able to proudly report that Martin thought his work to be “great,” even in comparison to the renowned Alfred Stieglitz and an outstanding array of European photographers exhibiting elsewhere in Manhattan. Martin phoned Mary that afternoon at the gallery. She related to her brother that he had said “No one could touch you,” and that his work represented “the peak of photography.” Humbly, Weston demurely reflected, “It is futile to use the word ‘greatest.’ Each one of us must recognize that we are part of a whole and develop our part to the limit of our individual capabilities, stimulated and strengthened by the fine work of others.”
Mary continued her fervent patronage of the exhibition. She had “been on a brother debauch for the last two weeks! Quite sister-like she rose in wrath when some man viewing my show said it ‘lacked the dignity of Stieglitz,’ that I was ‘theatrical.'” Weston was stung by the criticism but averred, “Well – adverse comments can be more stimulating than praise . . . this is all to the good.” In a very older-sister-like tone she philosophized, “You must remember that your work is so startling that it invites comparison and if a critic wanted to call you the most creative of them all – who are we to contradict him – ‘not I said the little red hen!'”
The exhibit was a great success for Weston. The critical acclaim was positive, as were sales. Mary reported proudly, “Everyone had an opinion as to whether or not you should be in New York. Of course the money is here, and with the stir this exhibit has caused you are no longer a stranger.”
Following Weston’s success with Alma Reed at the Delphic Studio in New York, Mary busied herself in arranging an exhibit at the Increase Robinson Gallery in Chicago. “I owe this exhibit to my sister,” Weston recorded. “She made the contact and arrangements with Mrs. Robinson, whom, by the way, I like very much through our correspondence . . . To me [this is an] important event. It will be the first showing in my ‘old home-town,’ unless I wish to count the prints Alma and I sent to the Fort Dearborn Camera Club a couple of years ago. I don’t!” Mary attended the show and promptly reported, “Dearest Buddie, the show is a knockout.”
Mary and her family returned to Glendale in 1935 to live in a small bungalow tucked neatly on a quiet street. “The little house is most comfortable and complete and is a home for Jean – which is the main consideration.” In addition to Mary and her husband John, their tiny house was also home to daughter Jean and their Uncle Theodore. Mary, we recall, suffered a debilitating stroke in 1940 and struggled to regain her mobility and dexterity, including her ability to write. Her correspondence with Edward would become a major focal point of her daily life.
Reading the correspondence from Mary to Edward, one can easily understand how important she was as a source of moral support. Bolstering his confidence seemed to be a preoccupation with Mary, although it is clear from her letters that she was indeed deeply moved by her brother’s work. For instance, she wrote, “Your adventurous spirit can make its journey into the regions of shadow and light and bring back the exquisite things for our sight.” She was effusive with her praise, exclaiming another time, “Your work inspires me to struggle to keep on the back seat of the little wagon you have hitched so securely to a star.”
Her praises were many: “Wow, little brother, I think I have always said that you are one successful man. That you have stuck to it until you got what you wanted and all in a lifetime. More power to you.” Edward greatly appreciated his sister’s praise: “If all the reactions to Mex. Day Book are as vivid as yours, I’ll make a fortune! Thank you for them sweet words.” The bond between the two was tremendous. Their mutual admiration was taken to great heights, offering tremendous inspiration and hope to each. Mary wrote, “My heart cries out and begs you to come again to touch this tired life of mine with one more shock that I may feel the urge of life once more and contact with the things that are.” That they fed and nurtured each other is clear. Edward’s aspirations as an artist and a photographer were fulfilled with Mary’s response alone. Yet he knew that it was this vision that inspired and moved many.
Mary was equally grateful for the steady stream or correspondence and gifts of photographs that Edward sent to her. Writing to her brother, she exclaimed, “My heart is floating like a bubble . . . Two letters from you in two days and then the wonderful prints!” She overflowed with enthusiasm when she rejoiced, “I feel rich indeed today with my beautiful photographs – O how lovely they are!” in 1935, shortly after her return to Glendale, she gushed to him, “I have just been reading the Weston issue of the Cymbol and weeping with joy. What a wonderful tribute and how well deserved. I could die this minute and be perfectly happy.”
Mary reveled in her brother’s work. “It is so difficult to choose – I am letting them sink in – two I decided upon as my choice are the Shell & Rock and the cabbage sprout magnified . . . and isn’t the onion halved interesting. O dear, so is the orchid and the fungi.” In a later correspondence, she wrote, “I have marked a number and will let you choose which you want to send me. The cabbage sprout magnified I have held to from the first – the cypress root and succulents is very different from anything I have so I’d love to have that. We have three of your prints on our walls.” Years later, Mary experienced the tragedy of losing all of Edward’s earliest works. “I regret to tell you that all of my pictures were lost. All of that box that had the ones of Ramiel in his attic and Johann, etc. Flo lost them when I was in New York. I left them there and when I came back they were gone. Isn’t that just terrible!” When Mary had received them many years before, she had offered great praise to her brother: “They are the most wonderful things you have ever done. John [Seaman] said, ‘Well tell Ed he has arrived’ . . . The angles in the other prints are what give me the cold hard feeling. I never saw anything so fascinating in all my life! You know I was always intrigued by shadows, but these angles of light and shadow pass anything I ever saw.” One can only wonder and speculate how much of an influence Mary was on Edward’s vision and ability to see. Given her great influence over his life in so many ways and their continuing admiration and interaction, one could reasonable surmise that this bond and her nurturing were instrumental in his growth and maturity as an artist.
Weston continued his regular letter exchange with Mary upping the ante in 1941 when he and Charis departed on their cross-country journey to take photographs for the Leaves of Grass commission from the Limited Editions Club. Worried about their separation, Mary was consoled by Edward, who promised to write her every day in the hope that “It will be just like having you here, only more interesting.” Just how important this stream of postcards and letters was to his sister is evident in a letter Edward wrote to son Neil in 1942, shortly after his daily missives began: “I write May a p.card almost everyday. I just had a letter from her, which wrung my heart to quote: ‘I am very tired of sitting here all day long. Jean doesn’t drive the car anymore. I don’t have anyone to talk to. She doesn’t talk very much.'” This volume of correspondence is heartwarming and reflects on Edward’s garbing and nurturing side. Writing from Prescott, Arizona, during the initial leg of his Leaves of Grass sojourn, he thanked Mary for a recent letter and exclaimed, “Found your sweet note . . . made me weepy.” Thanking her for her sweet praise, Edward responded, “Sis Darling – When you write such fine things about me, it hurts – – – then I do feel inadequate, know how much more I might do. But keep on writing! I shall keep your letter always – Brother.”
Mary was an artist in her own right. She fashioned words into poetry. She shared these with her brother, who greatly appreciated them, and then with his urging, with others through public readings. These poems appear to be a result of her ever-increasing insulated life after her first stroke in 1940. Edward noted that the crippling stroke, which paralyzed her right side, was “almost worse than death” for “my only sister.” He boasted, “She has come through in heroic fashion, learning to write with left hand, learning to walk and talk.” Dealing with the challenges of her illness and the miles between her and Edward, she funneled her frustrations, worries, and concerns into words. One poem entitled “Dark Brother” evokes a glimmer of hope for her creative sibling, for whom this poem is, no doubt, written.
How you struggle, my dark brother,
That your deep voice may be heard.
Freighted with primeval wisdom,
Hope expectant-hope deferred
Heavy with its weight of sadness,
Beauty longs to labor through –
Symbol, form and tender cadence
From the yearning heart of you.
Patience learned from years of bondage
Tempers you to meet the strain,
Hold fast then a little longer
Fairness has an end to gain
Her other poems are darker and more somber and reflect her concerns about her own declining health.
Shall I Be Alive?
Shall I be alive when
Lilacs bloom next year?
The soft, pungent scent
Of purple blossoms near
Me, on the vivid lawn.
Wind blows them to me as I pass.
The honey-scented smell
Of lilacs on the grass.
Oh, shall I be alive when
Lilacs bloom again?
In response to her poem “Frustration,” Weston quickly replied to Mary that the poem was “very beautiful. Thank you for sending – It means much to me – Your typing is wonderful – so are you – yr Buddy -”
Expression chains me.
My hands are impotent to fashion
Fabrics and phrases into beauty rare
And yet within me glows a flame so radiant
Strange no one sees it shining there!
Will no heart call from mine
Its gift of grandeur,
No skill strike home
To make its spirit flare?
Then burst, my soul, and fling
Your glittering fragments –
Waste wonder on the heedless air.
Mary Weston Seaman
It is ironic to note that when Weston received this poem, he was probably already suffering from Parkinson’s but did not know it. Mary was relating the terrible frustrations of being held captive in a body racked by the effects of a stroke that left her paralyzed. Little could she know or anticipate that her words would shortly have an even closer and more personal meaning for her brother. In the decade to come, Edward was increasingly confined by the ravages of his disease, which left him with a flame still radiant inside, yet “no one sees it shining there.”
Edward and Charis’ passion for cats prompted a series that are both whimsical and beautiful. These photographs also resulted in another book, The Cats of Wildcat Hill, published in 1947. In response to a photograph of “Mary,” a cat clearly named in her honor, Edward’s sister gushed to Edward,
Well you must imagine what excitement the picture of “Mary” presented! Jean unwrapped the picture and we never saw such a kitten! And how did you get it to pose! It beats me! Well, we looked and looked and laughed and laughed and marveled, how did you get the downy fur and that expression! Well, I think she was well named. She sits there on the clock – defiant of the whole world – well – enough said – she looks like me.
When his book My Camera on Point Lobos was released in 1950, Mary wrote her brother in shaking, labored scrawl:
I never get tired hearing your praises sung. . . O that book! Words cannot express my delight in reading and [sic] well as looking at the pictures. Jean and I read every word in it. O what we learned from Dody’s introduction and the daybooks is just out of this world. Eloise said, “Uncle Ed is just the tops in his profession. You are and I’m glad that you had your praise at last. More later but I just wanted to get this out pronto.
Your adoring sister and niece,
Mazie and Jean
Despite their respective difficulties with health, Edward and Mary’s steady correspondence continues largely unabated until her death in 1952. She wrote, “There never lived a more devoted brother than you. Can you think of a brother who writes a card to his sister everyday? I can’t! I am waiting for the mailman everyday and he says, ‘another card addressed to Mary Weston Seaman.’ Well I know who it’s from. Your funniest little Sister.”
Nyerges, Alexander Lee. “Edward Weston: Lover of Life.” Edward Weston
A Photographer’s Love of Life. Dayton, Ohio: The Dayton Art Institute, 2004. 21-93. Print.