University of Oregon

Department of the History of Art and Architecture

Laura Barton (B.Art. ’11)

Student’s art history Honors thesis reveals new perspectives of Edward Weston
Exploration of gender, natural and corporeal forms form basis of research findings

EUGENE, Ore. -- (June 13, 2011) –What began as a minor interest in American photographer Edward Weston by a University of Oregon undergraduate student evolved into a full-fledged research undertaking resulting in new interpretations of his work.

For her Honors thesis, “Interdependent Parts of the Whole: Edward Weston Studio Nudes and Still Lifes 1925-1933,” art history undergraduate Laura Barton delved into a critique of Weston’s work that focused on form in place of content, the interrelation of natural forms and the “quintessence” of the subjects in Weston’s photographs. Consequently, her paper passed with distinction, the highest level a paper from the Robert D. Clark’s Honors College can receive.

Art History assistant professor Kate Mondloch recommended Barton’s paper for the Honors College thesis award.

“Her innovative and rigorous treatment of the subject easily rivals that of our best graduate students in the Department of Art History and I support her candidacy without reservation,” says Mondloch. “This analysis stands to overturn decades of writing about the artist and offers a new approach to thinking about the status of the human body in Inter-war photography. The thesis is of publishable quality.” Inter-war photography encompassed the 1918-1939 era.

Barton, however, remains modest about her work and insists that her research sprang naturally from her interest in Weston’s photography.

“It was definitely an intense research experience,” says Barton. “I became interested in his work in high school when I saw his prints in the Oakland Art Museum, and later at UO I did a paper on him for an art history class. This thesis paper expands on that previous study and I ended up really enjoying writing it.”

Weston’s photography is considered some of the most innovative and influential of the twentieth century. His soft-focus pictorialism championed extremely detailed images that included a variety of subjects, from still lifes and nudes to portraits and landscapes. Some of his most popular photographs are the curves of a pepper, the leaves of a cabbage or the backside of a nude woman.

“I started off thinking that, instead of accepting what other scholars thought and what he wrote in his biography as fact, I wanted to challenge and critique it through a new perspective,” explains Barton. “I concluded that both humans and natural objects are presented along this horizontal plane. They’re level and interconnected with each other.”

Barton’s exploration of Weston’s studio nudes introduced a new idea of gender in the way he disrupted the usual ways of seeing the human body. By shying away from formal portraits of nude subjects, Weston instead de-personalized and de-individualized the body by only photographing parts of the body, such as a torso or a backside. Barton contended that this way of photographing nudes leads to de-sexualization. Nudes didn’t function as whole corporeal bodies, but instead resembled a white organic shape of flesh. In this way, nudes simply resembled generic shapes and not overt eroticism.

“Just because the subject is nude doesn’t mean it’s sexualized,” explains Barton. “I really wanted to challenge that idea from previous feminist theory scholars. This body of his work didn’t objectify women as seen through the male gaze or whatever; it introduces the interrelation between natural forms.”

In contrast, Barton noticed how his still life images of vegetables and shells removed each object from its usual utility. By disassociating the objects from their usual relation and context with humans, Weston’s photography leads to a new idea of body versus object. For example, in the image of the pepper, unlike the de-individualized nudes, great emphasis is placed on each minute detail of the pepper, almost like a formal portrait of the vegetable. This interplay between natural forms (nude and still lifes) helped to define the progression of Barton’s work.

“It’s very satisfying to finish this paper,” says Barton. “I fell in love with Weston’s work a while ago, but doing such in-depth research gives me a greater understanding of his ideas. It’s nice to know that the hard work has paid off.”

About the University of Oregon
The University of Oregon is a world-class teaching and research institution and Oregon's flagship public university. The UO is a member of the Association of American Universities (AAU), an organization made up of the 63 leading public and private research institutions in the United States and Canada. The University of Oregon is one of only two AAU members in the Pacific Northwest.

Contact: Karen Johnson, AAA Communications, (541) 346-3603, karenjj@uoregon.edu

Source: Laura Barton, Undergraduate Art History, (541) 207-2560, lbarton@uoregon.edu

Story by Emily Wilson