If you were to pick someone whose poetry had an affinity with the photography of Edward Weston would it be Walt Whitman? “Leaves of Grass” is operatic, sweeping and shaggy, a work of “terrible eyes and buffalo strength,” as Ralph Waldo Emerson put it. With Weston, it doesn’t matter whether the subject is a toilet or a pepper, a sand dune or his wife’s naked body. His images are sonatas for solo camera: lustrous, flawless, and tightly controlled. Elizabeth Bishop, now there’s a poet made to order for Weston.
George Macy thought otherwise. Macy, the director of the Limited Editions Club of New York, commissioned Weston in 1941 to take photographs for a pricey two-volume edition of “Leaves of Grass.” So over the course of nearly 10 months, Weston and his wife, Charis, drove more than 24,000 miles, through 24 states. Of the nearly 700 photographs he developed, he sent 74 to the publisher. Forty-nine appeared in the book.
Curator Karen Haas has been even more selective than Weston was. Forty-six photographs from that trip make up “Edward Weston: ‘Leaves of Grass’ ” (there’s a copy of the edition on display, too). The show, which runs at the Museum of Fine Arts through Dec. 31, is doubly engaging. Full of unfamiliar images, it’s a case study in artistic dislocation — which is what happens when a proudly perfectionist photographer goes in pursuit of a proudly imperfect country.
It’s a bit unnerving, in fact, how some of the pictures by such a distinctive stylist can recall the work of other photographers. A Manhattan cityscape could come from the series of images Alfred Stieglitz took from the Shelton Hotel in the ’30s. An architectural study of a Victorian house in Kennebunk, Maine, looks very Walker Evans, courtesy of its chastely frontal approach. There’s a touch of Charles Sheeler in two photos from Boulder Dam (as Hoover Dam was then known). Several New Orleans images are reminiscent of Clarence John Laughlin. That makes sense twice over. The Westons visited with Laughlin during their stay; and while the city and its environs intrigued Weston (he took 80 photographs over 10 days, which was a lot for him), Louisiana’s harum-scarum quality was alien to his finical sensibility.
The photographs all come from the Lane Collection, of which Haas is photography curator. The collection is on long-term loan to the museum. Difficult as it must have been to reduce the Westons’ travels to fewer than four dozen images, Haas has (characteristically) managed to find room for a little playfulness. Some fig trees in New Jersey, covered to protect them from winter’s cold, echo the junk-covered tree from an Ohio “bottle farm.” Two pictures recall earlier Westons. A photograph of the Armco Steel plant, in Ohio, pays homage to one he made in 1922, his first great image. A picture of a Mississippi roadside restaurant in the shape of an Aunt Jemima figure is jaw-droppingly racist — but also, far more happily, a vernacular counterpart to Weston’s famous image of a larger-than-life sign in the Mojave Desert in the shape of a coffee cup.
Weston was explicit about how he saw his photographs in relation to Whitman’s text. His images were meant to accompany the verse rather than illustrate it. Even with that distinction, it’s hard to see how the assignment could have suited him — beyond the fee and the opportunity to travel so extensively with someone else providing expenses. Weston wasn’t a man much given to assignments generally. Even something as straightforward as a portrait commission could frazzle him, as numerous passages in his “Daybooks” attest.
However uncomfortable Weston may have felt about the assignment, he still took many fine images. The interplay of the three crosses in “Yaqui Indian Church, Arizona” is quite marvelous. The desert, at once pared-down and sculptural, brought out something special in Weston. That’s the case with “White Sands, New Mexico.” “Winter Evening, Connecticut” manages the neat trick of paying tribute to the mystique of the road — but in such a snug, cozy way. The sight of an automobile parked between the columns of a portico’d facade in “Woodlawn Plantation House, Louisiana” manages to be both austere and comic. Given a sense of humor, Weston could have been the Buster Keaton of American photography. But that’s OK since, instead, he’s its Brancusi.