Saturday, March 30, 2013

Personalities in Photography

I am midway through yet another book about Edward Weston, Artful Lives, by Beth Gates Warren.  It is a rather rambling account of his early, formative professional period around the time of the First World War.  Some of the same ground is covered in Weston's memoirs and in the book by Charis Wilson, but Warren's account provides some of the missing links needed to explain Weston, who went to considerable lengths to expunge crucial details of his early professional and personal life.

The thing that seems the most difficult to understand about Weston is his capacity to attract the affections of a string of extraordinary women coupled with an inability to to sustain a commitment to those relationships.  It appears that Weston learned a lot about life and photography from what he described as his first significant relationship with Margrethe Mather.  Weston then went on to teach photography to Tina Modotti who accompanied him in his fruitful developing years in Mexico.  Finally, he consolidated his photographic style  and his reputation as an artist with the assistance of Charis Wilson who was his model as well as an extraordinary writer, editor and publicist.  All of these relationships ended in shipwrecks on the shoals of Weston's egotistical competitiveness.

The subtitle of Warren's book provides an important clue to an analysis of Weston's life and personality: ...Edward Weston, Margrethe Mather, and the Bohemians of Los Angeles.  What that is pointing to is the fact that, while Weston nurtured a public image of domestic rectitude, his circle of friends was made up of a cast of characters for whom social non-conformity was the norm.  They were politically radical, promiscuous, assertive, and often very talented as artists, performers and writers.  A personality profile which seems a good fit with many of them can be found in some well-publicized recent psychology studies which focused on the attitudes and character traits of porn actors.

Of course, any discussion of porn actors is going to place a primary emphasis on sexuality, or more exactly sociosexuality which refers to a person's willingness to engage in sexual relations outside of a committed relationship.  However, there is a constellation of traits which accompany sociosexuality that is relevant to both the porn actor group and the early-Twentieth-Century cohort of Los Angeles Bohemians.

In a Psychology Today blog article, Scott McGreal says:

"A number of studies have also linked high sociosexuality and having a large number of sexual partners to certain antisocial traits in both men and women.  For example, people high in sociosexuality tend to rate themselves lower in the traits of honesty, humility, and agreeableness... Additionally, sociosexuality has also been linked to a group of traits known collectively as the "dark triad", namely psychopathy, Machiavellianism, and narcissism... Briefly, psychopathy refers to willingness to violate the rights of others, Machiavellianism to willingness to manipulate and use others, and narcissism to an inflated sense of one's own importance and superiority."

McGreal goes on to point out that the picture is not so black as it initially looks as there is actually a range of interpersonal warmth exhibited by the groups being examined which attenuates the antisocial aspects of the personality profile subsumed by sociosexulity.  It is not clear where Weston was to be found on the continuum of warmth, but he does seem to have had a talent for selecting partners who were at the warm end of the scale.

The psychological studies do not make a link to artistic creativity, though they may point to the propensity for self-promotion which is certainly a useful skill for people wanting to make a living from their art.  There is also another mystery in regard to Weston, which is how he made the leap from being a skillful hack to a sublime artist with the camera.  Perhaps I'll find some clues to solving that mystery from the second half of Warren's book.


Vitaly said...

Edward Weston:

1) No photographer worked harder. The dedication and passion and actual hours in a day he devoted to the practice of photography was constant and all-consuming, and somewhat belies the "bohemian" label with which he is often simplistically labeled.

2) His commitment to the practice of photography exceeded his commitment to his relationships. Such commitment would inevitably be problematic for his partners, who could exist only in the context of subjegating their own needs to those demanded by Weston's work.

Weston's relationships were deep and passionate, and not actually that numerous. Sorry Mike, but when trying to understand Weston's underlying dynamic, assigning him to some categorization as "porn star" is really barking up the wrong tree.

Mike said...

I don't disagree with your first two points in any significant way. I'm also a great admirer of his work, if not of his character.

Regarding the porn star analogy, what some of the recent studies seem to show is that the people in the trade are not the hapless victims they are usually portrayed to be. Quite a few, it seems exhibit high self-esteem, self-confidence, resilience, positive self-regard, and a high level of life satisfaction.

So the point of the comparison is not to besmirch the character of Weston and his circle of friends. A more important conclusion is that the two groups likely have been judged in a similar negative, unfair and inaccurate manner by the larger society as a result of ignorance and prejudice.

The real issue of importance, I think, is not Weston's general personality type or the circles he traveled in, but rather the choices he made as an individual. He chose to live off his wife's money while betraying her serially. He professed the same beliefs as his radical friends, but he seemed to lack the courage and integrity to make his beliefs known, and he offered no real support to his friends when they were persecuted by the State. He took advantage of the talents and character strength of his partners and then discarded them when he felt their accomplishments were somehow threatening regard for his own.