Edward Weston


1927, printed later

In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Edward Weston 1886–1958
Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper
Image: 238 x 180 mm
Accepted by HM Government in lieu of inheritance tax from the Estate of Barbara Lloyd and allocated to Tate 2009


Shells is a medium-size black and white photograph taken by the American photographer Edward Weston in 1927. The image features a nautilus shell balanced within an abalone shell that rests upon a semi-reflective surface. The combined shells are set against a plain, dark background, and their pale tones mean that they shine brightly against it. Their curves appear to blend into one abstract form, although at the top of the composition the nautilus shell curves forward, giving the overall shape a seahorse-like, organic quality. The bottom of the form is also curved and the surface on which it rests is slightly convex, such that the shell shape appears precariously balanced.

Weston took this photograph in his studio in Glendale, California, in 1927. To do so, he carefully placed the two shells into position and photographed them using a long exposure time of several hours, a process that lead to the intense contrast between light and shadow in the image. In the photograph’s title, Shells, the plural prompts the viewers to look closely and identify the divisions between the carefully placed objects, which may be mistaken for one single shell.

Weston created Shells after his return to America from two extended stays in Mexico between 1923 and 1927. Throughout 1927 he took twenty-six still life images of shells, including Nautilus 1927 (Museum of Modern Art, New York). His interest in nautilus shells was prompted by a 1927 meeting with the Californian painter Henrietta Shore, for whom Weston was a sitter at the time and who often featured shells in her paintings. Weston wrote in his diary of seeing these shells in her studio, stating that that he ‘never saw a Chambered Nautilus before. If I had, my response would have been immediate!’ (Weston 1966, p.21). Several months later he wrote of how his subsequent exploration of these forms had begun to consume his practice:

I worked all Sunday with the shells – literally all day. Only three negatives made and two of them were done as records of movement to repeat again when I can find suitable backgrounds. I wore myself out trying every conceivable texture and tone for grounds: glass, tin, cardboard – wool, velvet, even my rubber coat!
(Weston 1966, p.21.)

Shells is an example of the ‘pure’ or ‘straight’ style that characterised Weston’s still life photographs. These terms first emerged in the 1880s to refer to a photographic approach that prioritised high contrast, sharp focus and an emphasis on the formal qualities of the subject, as opposed to the pictorialist tradition, in which subjects were photographically manipulated through soft focus, cropping and composite image techniques.

Partly inspired by works such as Shells, in 1932 Weston’s apprentice Willard van Dyke and fellow photographer Ansel Adams formed Group f/64, which Weston joined that same year. The Group issued a manifesto in 1932 in which they championed a ‘pure photography’ that would possess ‘no qualities of technique, composition or idea derivative of any other art form’ (quoted in Mia Fineman (ed.), Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop, exhibition catalogue, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 2012, p.32). They named themselves Group f/64 after the aperture setting of a large-format camera that widens the depth of field considerably, enabling both foreground and background to be photographed in sharp focus. The group aimed to produce images of natural forms, landscapes and found objects that utilised long exposures and an f/64 aperture setting, with stylistic effects that are similar to those seen in Shells. According to the curator Mia Fineman, ‘the pristine beauty and fine-tuned technical perfection’ of Weston’s still-life and landscape photography during the late 1920s and 1930s ‘would define the look of “pure” photography for generations to come’ (Fineman 2012, p.32).

Further reading
Edward Weston, The Daybooks of Edward Weston: California, vol. II, edited by Nancy Newhall, New York 1966, pp.21–2, 31–2.
Paul Martineau, Still Life in Photography, collection catalogue, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles 2010, pp.11–12, reproduced p.53.
Formes Simples, exhibition catalogue, Centre Pompidou-Metz, Paris 2014, reproduced p.271.

Michal Goldschmidt
December 2014

Supported by Christie’s.

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