A December day in Nashville
Seventy three years ago today, on December 30, 1941, William Edmondson focused his penetrating gaze into the lens of photographer Edward Weston, artist-to-artist. Arms crossed, confident, William’s callused hands rested lightly on his sleeves. A slight, knowing smile formed at the corners of his lips as Edmondson leaned against the stone foundation of his back porch in Edgehill, one of Nashville’s segregated “Negro neighborhoods”. Edmondson was dressed for work on this cold December day, as he was nearly every day. Worn leather work boots over heavy woolen socks. A heavy canvas smock covered denim work pants and long sleeved shirt. An old felt fedora perched on his bald head, and a pair of safety goggles sat askew on his forehead.
Edward Weston’s cross-country quest to “find America”
Edward Weston was a celebrated photographer, known as one of the founders of the Modernist “straight photography” school that rejected attempts to mimic oil paintings, in favor of an unfussy directness that relied on the subject and composition to carry the artistic ambitions of the image. Traveling with his wife, who also served as his ghostwriter, bookkeeper and muse, Weston was in the midst of a cross-country from California on a commission to illustrate a book of Walt Whitman verse with images intended to evoke “real America”.
Weston hunched under the black cloth hood of his massive wooden view camera opposite Edmondson, peered through the 8×10 inch groundglass, and adjusted his focus and shutter settings. The image was projected on the groundglass like a slide projector, but upside down; a characteristic of this type of camera, which was already considered “antique” technology by this time. All amateur photographers and most professionals had already switched to much more compact and practical roll-film cameras, which also didn’t require the mental gymnastics to reverse the upside down image in their brain.
But, for all it’s practical shortcomings, the view camera, with its iconic hood and bellows, was uniquely capable of creating extremely detailed images that could be printed directly from the large sheet negative. It also required a great deal of discipline and pre-planning by the photographer to imagine the shot, choose the desired lens, and then wrangle the bulky camera and tripod into the exact position. When photographing a person, it also required an ability to put the subject at ease and relaxed, despite the looming presence of the large, strange contraption.
Satisfied with his choice of background and Edmondson’s position within the frame, Weston slid a carrier, resembling a picture frame that held a single sheet of 8 x 10 inch negative film into position. He emerged from under the cloth hood, and began to converse with Edmondson, waiting for the exact moment to press the shutter and immortalize him with a single, perfectly-timed exposure.
A lifetime of labor, a divine instruction, and surprising fame
By 1941, the retired janitor Edmondson had chipped away at limestone in his backyard workshop day in and day out, dawn to dusk in all weather, for over ten years. He created hundreds of sculptures, a vast and varied array of figures that ranged from angels and religious figures, to friends and neighbors, birds, squirrels, and other “critters”. By a series of happy coincidences, his work came to the attention of curators at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, where he became the first African American to be given a solo exhibition, in 1937.
But by late 1941, it had been four long years since Edmondson’s show at MoMA (or “The Modern”, as it was known at the time). Four years since his work had been exhibited at the very same groundbreaking institution that introduced the art world to Picasso and Dali. Four years since critics and tastemakers offered tepid praise or outright dismissal of his work as the “unconscious”, “childlike”, “charming” but ultimately unimportant noodlings of an untutored Negro folk artist.
None of this seemed to matter much to Edmondson. Perhaps he expected it, based on a lifetime of having to navigate the South’s harsh and rigid racial codes. Though he appreciated and needed the income his sculptural work provided, he was indifferent to — even suspicious of — fame. He became an artist because of a strong voice, he said, that came from God. His motivation was not fame, but to live in harmony with God’s plan for his life. His deeper goal was to honor the departed with his tombstones, beautify gardens and homes, and as he put it, spread God’s wisdom.
A fateful introduction
Alfred Starr, a prominent local arts patron who owned a chain of theatres catering to African American audiences, had helped arrange William’s 1937 show at MoMA and continued to act as his patron and supporter. Starr introduced Edmondson to a succession of white artists and customers over the next several years, and remained close to Edmondson for the rest of the artist’s life.
When Edward and Charis arrived in Nashville on the lookout for unique, evocative, arresting subjects to photograph, a mutual friend introduced them to Alfred Starr. Starr then promptly drove the photographer to Edmondson’s home to meet the sculptor. Thus, on what would become the first of two visits to Nashville on their cross-country trek, Weston took several photos of Edmondson and his sculptures in September of 1941, before continuing eastward.
A sudden change of plans
On December 6, 1941, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. America was suddenly thrust into war, and Weston and his wife Charis cut their trip short to return to their home along the vulnerable Pacific coast. As Charis wrote years later in her memoir, “Racing against weather and the expected shortage of tires and fuel, we didn’t linger for long once we headed west.” However, they “couldn’t resist” stopping in Nashville to visit Edmondson one more time.
It was a rare moment: two world-class artists at the peak of their creative powers, face to face. Each working in a medium that, despite surface differences, required great patience, physical ability, and the ability to “see” the finished product before manifesting it in physical form. Despite their differences in age, education, social class, and race, here was a moment of wordless communication and understanding between two visionary creators, two artists who shared an astute understanding of form and abstraction, two revealers of beauty and meaning.
Two artists, meeting across an almost-inconceivably wide social and cultural gulf. Two artists, meeting each others’ gaze with respect and mutual understanding, meeting as collaborators and partners in creating a powerful and enduring portrait.