As America awaited the declaration of war in the spring of 1941, photographer Edward Weston set out on a cross-country photographic expedition. Now through April 21, the Arkansas Arts Center is playing host to an exhibit of his photos from that expedition. Edward Weston: Leaves of Grass was organized by the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
Weston, one of America’s leading modernist photographers, was making photographs for a new edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. The Limited Editions Club of New York commissioned these images to bring together the great nineteenth-century poet’s verbal celebration of America with the great twentieth-century photographer’s visual odyssey.
In accepting the assignment, Weston declined to literally illustrate Whitman’s words, yet the two portraits of America echo one another. Where Whitman’s nineteenth-century verse was shaped by the Civil War, Weston’s images anticipated World War II.
Weston’s trip lasted almost ten months, covering 24 states and nearly 25,000 miles. Weston and his wife, Charis Wilson, drove their trusty Ford, “Walt,” throughout the South, the Mid-Atlantic, New England, and back home to California after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor brought about America’s entry into the war. Weston’s photographs include studies of decaying southern mansions, the Boulder Dam, a homely display of old bottles, the Grand Canyon, New Orleans cemeteries, and haunting portraits of people the photographer met along the way.
Weston’s images form no detached national survey; rather they embody an idiosyncratic personal meditation on selected American places, objects, and people. Edward Weston: Leaves of Grass includes 53 photographs chosen from the approximately 700 negatives Weston developed from the trip.