"Edward Weston: Mexico" isn't simply a collection of photographs hanging in a museum. The exhibit details a specific time in the influential 20th-century photographer's life.
"We hung the show roughly in chronological order," says Becky Senf of the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona in Tucson, which organized the event as part of their partnership with the Phoenix Art Museum and owns a full archive of Edward Weston's work. "There's this story to tell. We wanted to convey a beginning, middle and end - a change that happens over a period of time."
The story is of the roughly three years the California-based Weston spent in Mexico, starting in 1923, with his model-turned-lover, Italian actress Tina Modotti. Photographs from this era are presented with facsimile documents - a series of journals chronicling the experience and letters to colleagues and his sons (whom Weston left behind, along with his wife).
"It gives you a sense of Weston as a person," Senf says, "not just as a hugely influential photographer."
Senf says that the documents provide important context to the work displayed in the exhibit. Unlike the sweeping landscapes of contemporary Ansel Adams, Weston's work concentrated more on portraits and close-ups of unlikely objects such as, in one instance, a toilet ("Excusado," 1925, on display with the exhibit). And the documents often relate directly to the pieces on display, down to explaining technical aspects of how he set up certain shots.
"His work can feel a little distant," Senf says. "It's tighter, more formal. I think having this access to the artist helps. Art isn't created in a vacuum; this didn't spring out of nowhere. The more we can bring this to life, the more meaningful it is to the audience."
Modotti accompanied Weston to Mexico in part to serve as his apprentice. They operated a portrait studio there, doing commercial work as a means to support their high art tendencies. Modotti, the more outgoing of the two, helped them integrate into the bohemian, intellectual elite of Mexico City, which at the time included artists like Diego Rivera. Thus, the exhibit not only showcases the work of Weston, but also gives insight into a key period in Mexico's history, which was still feeling aftershocks from the Mexican Revolution.
"Even if you feel like you have a clear picture of Mexico now, this historical perspective provides a new point of view," Senf says, noting that the exhibit should be of particular interest given the Valley's proximity to Mexico.
Mexico is as much a character in the exhibit as Weston and Modotti. "Edward Weston: Mexico" includes photographs of pulquer�!3, cantinas that served pulque, a beerlike alcoholic beverage. Weston was charmed by the art that adorned the exteriors of these buildings because it displayed, according to Senf, an "authenticity" he didn't find in California.
"The quality of his work just wouldn't be the same if he went to Paris," Senf says.