Portrait of a Friendship

Portrait of a Friendship

by Richard C. Miller

Brett was my best friend for over 50 years. I miss him. He’s been gone for a while now, but we were friends for life, so I still think about him. Funny, but I always thought he’d outlive me because of his diet and lifestyle.

I met Edward first, in 1936. I visited him when he was living in Santa Monica Canyon with Charis. I knew of his work and admired it, so I just thought I’d drop by and introduce myself. I bought a few prints for $10, which was a lot of money to me in those days. They’re worth something more than that now, but over the following years I bought what few prints I could afford, and I only bought what appealed to me. I never regretted supporting an artist like Edward.

Brett was born the year before me, in 1911. Before we met, we led completely different lives. He said that in school he was a troublemaker. He liked to get into fights, while I ended up as the boxing champion at Stanford.

When World War II began I needed a job because I was married and had a child. I was hired by the photo department at North American Aviation. It meant a steady income—I could support my family and not get drafted into the military. Brett was also hired by North American, along with Peter Gowland, and that’s where we met. We hit it off right away. All we ever talked about was photography. He was obsessed with it.

During our time together at North American, we began to form a great friendship. Brett and I found a way to pursue our own photographic interests on the side. In 1941 gas was being rationed, and the government issued gas coupons to defense industry employees. We ended up with extra coupons. It was Brett’s idea that we could add up some of our coupons, and between the two of us we would have enough to go out on a photo trip.

Brett said, “Let’s go out into the desert.”

So we took these driving expeditions out to the California deserts and other locations with my wife Margaret (everyone called her Dudsie, because her maiden name was Dudley) and other friends, shooting pictures and having picnics. We had a beautiful feeling of being free—we were doing something we weren’t supposed to be doing, getting away with something by using our gas rations—which were supposed to be reserved for the war effort—for making photographs. Far more important.

We went all over, from Deadman’s Point in Victorville and Joshua Tree down to Irvine and San Juan Capistrano. Out in the open country outside of LA, we just wandered around in my old Plymouth. Nobody was there at the time. Unless you lived there, you didn’t get there. Then we’d take our film back to North American and process it. I was taking mostly color photographs, while, of course, Brett was working in black and white. It was an exciting time.

We continued to take photo trips; when you are sitting in a car together, interested in the same thing, you get pretty well acquainted. So I got to know Brett real well. He was the closest friend I ever had. We just hit it off so well when we were together, either talking or not talking. Just being together we were very, very comfortable. We could talk about anything, and we could go for miles without saying a word and be perfectly content and happy. We talked about photography a lot, of course, because that’s what we both knew. One thing we didn’t discuss much was politics because Brett wasn’t much interested in the world outside of his own photography.

That’s how I got involved with the Westons, because it was convenient for him to have somebody else with coupons. I liked what he was doing and I enjoyed photography, so through that we began to travel together. Certainly our educational backgrounds were very different. He hadn’t gone to college; he went through the eighth grade. His mother never made him go back to school. He was not an intellectual in any sense, but he was bright. I never pushed him about anything; I thought that was the best way to get along with him, and I was right. But I liked photography, and he was a photographer—he was photography—so I was very comfortable with what he was. He was a good companion. He was willing to go out on trips nobody else I knew wanted to go on.

After Brett could no longer stand working at North American, he went to Lockheed for a short time and then worked briefly at 20th Century Fox. Before too long he enlisted in the Army and was sent to New York City. He got the perfect job in the Signal Corps—he lucked out. He took the night shift, slept all night, and then did his own work during the day. That was during the war years when everyone was being so careful about taking pictures, and here he was, right in the middle of everything, with his 8×10 and 11×14 cameras, wandering around New York City taking pictures of all this vital stuff that people weren’t supposed to be photographing, and in detail. It was kind of funny; I never thought he’d get away with it. But Brett looked like he was supposed be taking them with his big camera and uniform, so no one ever bothered him.

I was lucky too. You had two weeks where you could fuss around a little bit and then had to land a defense job or be drafted. One day I was leaving an interview at one of the studios and saw a sign, “Printer Wanted,” in the window of a photographic shop. It turned out to be the studio of Dr. Bela Gaspar, who had a contract with the military to make film and prints of aerial views of Japan. They were planning to bomb and needed high-resolution prints. I could see that Gaspar had prints on the wall as samples, but they were awful pictures and faded prints. He hired me and I replaced them with my own prints. He was developing Gasparcolor, which is what interested the army. Years later, in the 60’s, it became Cibachrome. The Gasparcolor project was considered vital to the war effort, and that made me exempt from the draft. But all this time Brett and I stayed in contact, in spite of the war.

Near the end of the war, Brett was sent to Camp Crowder in Missouri. Crowder was a frostbitten place, very remote. But the Ozarks had rolling hills with white oaks. “My photographic senses are really dormant in spite of fine material,” he wrote us. “A resume of my five months of army life would be utterly dreary.” The Army tried to find something he could do; they didn’t realize they had one of the great photographers in their midst. I was amazed they used him as a truck driver instead of as a photographer. He wrote me, “They have decided to make me a truck driver, service and maintenance (six wheelers). I have learned not to count on a thing in the army. Look forward to our fine reunion and trips, and study negs and prints.”

He would send other post cards to Dudsie and me telling us about his plans when got home. “Dick, EW says to save him some boxes. Any 8×10 boxes.” When Brett came home after the war, he got a Guggenheim (in 1946). He was shooting pictures in the East while I was taking pictures of Marilyn Monroe. Then he came back to Carmel to pursue fine art work. He wrote us all the time: “Dad is progressing well after (hernia) operation and sends greetings. Home with Erica in June then we have grand reunion.” It was about this time that Brett first showed me his wood sculptures. They were abstract forms, like his photographs.

In the years following the war our friendship deepened. We often made trips back and forth, visiting one another, sharing pictures and going on “photo safaris.” One of the trips was in November 1947, after Brett had bought his first “camera car.” He installed folding beds on either side of the truck’s interior and drove it from Carmel to Hollywoodland to show me. The next morning we packed up and went to the Oceano dunes to take pictures. At that time the place was empty, and we could spend many days looking for pictures.

I visited Brett many times during the forties and fifties when he lived in Santa Monica and then in Carmel. Our families were close, and Brett would bring his daughter Erica along to play with my three daughters. She later told me that my eldest, Linda, was her best friend growing up. Up in Carmel, I shot a lot of portraits of Edward, and I knew the rest of family quite well. We had family outings and dinners together. Dudsie and I visited often with Brett, Cole, Neil, and Edward in Carmel when Brett and Neil were building the adobe at Garapata.

We would have dinner at Edward’s, and sometimes there were parties where we drank and danced until late at night. The parties were bohemian; they weren’t any different than anyone else’s parties, but they were supposed to be wilder. Edward would wear these fancy coats and rakish hats and dance with the girls. Margaret was the love of my life, but she was a terrible dancer, and I got to dance with some of the girls who were really very good.

When the light was good I took pictures. Sometimes I used my 5×7 one-shot color camera. I had been photographing Brett for years—mostly black and white. But when Brett lived in Santa Monica Canyon, I took several one-shots of him on his front porch and later made carbro prints of them. The best one is now owned by the Getty. I also took pictures of Edward, using 4×5 Kodachrome and the one-shot. I photographed Brett and Edward together during the time that Brett spent a year printing Edward’s project prints. Brett gave up that year of his life to help his father. I used 120 mm roll film.

I also took photographs of Brett, Dody Warren, and Edward when they were working on EW’s fiftieth anniversary portfolio. Brett printed in the darkroom, and he and Dody and Edward would talk about the results. Dody had come to work as Edward’s last assistant and later assisted Ansel. Brett and Dody traveled between San Francisco and Carmel while they were courting before finally marrying. I still have Brett and Dody’s wedding invitation: “Announcement: Dody and Brett to be married Dec 6th at Garpata Beach.”

In 1956 Brett and I drove out to visit Merle Armitage at Manzanita Press. Merle was going to publish Brett’s first book, Brett Weston: Photographs. He later wrote me, “I can say with conviction he has exceeded his father Edward. He is now top photographer of our time.”

I did not go with Brett in 1959 when he went on his first trip to Glen Canyon. That was where he used some the color 8×10 Ektachrome that Kodak sent him. He would take the same image in black and white and then color, but he never really used the color version for anything.

People often joked that Brett was color-blind. One day Dudsie was trying to show Brett a red flower and realized that he simply couldn’t see it. We knew he was color blind, and I always assumed that was one of the reasons he shot primarily black and white. It was probably one of the reasons he was so good at it. But he knew I printed color—carbro and Gasparcolor—and when he experimented with Ektachrome, he asked me to print Cibachromes of them, like the ones at Glen Canyon and the Garapata Bridge. I think I was the only one he ever allowed to print some of his negatives, black and white and color. I still have some of his 8×10 Ektachromes around here somewhere, including an identical image in color of the frontispiece in Voyage of the Eye.

I’m the opposite of Brett in that I like to stay up till the wee hours and sleep late into the morning, When Brett came to the house, I’d sleep in, and he’d be wandering around here with a camera, taking close-ups of stuff. By the time I woke up, he’d have developed the negatives and he’d have a group of prints in the wash. Through these years Brett often came to our home, first the one in Hollywoodland, then in Sherman Oaks, Encino and finally Calabasas. He always brought prints of his newest work. I organized showings of Brett’s pictures at informal gatherings at our home. We would set up a simple easel and some lights just like Edward did. I suppose it was kind of a Weston tradition; the work was always of paramount importance. We did this from the forties on, for the next fifty years.

I remember in 1963 Brett was offering four different bundles of signed EW prints for sale. Each pile of fifty was bound with string and covered all of Edward’s different periods. The price was a “modest” $1000 for fifty prints. I wish I could have afforded a stack. It certainly seems like a bargain now.

I must say that Brett never showed much interest in other photographer’s work, except Edward’s. He thought highly of Wynn Bullock as a person and called him “a fine photographer” but never bought into any of the metaphysical mumbo-jumbo.

Brett liked to greet Ansel, whom he called “Pasha” and “an old family friend,” by tugging on his beard and goosing him. He would tease Ansel over drinks by telling him he should burn his negatives as Brett planned to do. Ansel was horrified by the idea and refused to consider it. Then Brett would say, “If you don’t have the balls to do it, I’ll do it for you.” He used to refer to Ansel’s “near-far” compositional technique as the “gee-whiz” effect. Brett almost never used a wide angle. Both men made fine work but couldn’t have been more different in approach and disposition.

He never did ask to see any of my images. In the beginning I tried to show them to him, but he never commented on them. I was never a photographic acolyte of Brett’s. I had my own vision, my own style and career. My career meant I had to make money to take care of my family. We were never competitors. We just took a deep pleasure in being together on photographic expeditions—shooting the same territory, each with his own individual vision. But we were always talking photography, images and chemistry, and the darkroom and processes.

Brett had a limited capacity for human relations. But despite his insularity, he was hugely satisfied with his artistic life. His view of the world was abstract, and he was primarily interested in form. When humans did appear in his images, such as in the nudes, they appear as black-and-white abstractions. When he bought the house in Carmel Valley with a pool, he said he wanted to photograph underwater nudes. I suggested to him that he should paint his swimming pool black to better emphasize the human form and to put a window in the side so he could work comfortably.

Brett rarely photographed me, and when he did it was mostly with one of my cameras. There is one 4×5 snapshot taken by Brett, with a black horse and a woman named Kathy in the Oceano dunes. After I took a similar picture of Brett with the horse and Kathy, Brett made one of me using my camera. Using a self timer, I took one of the two us together, standing on the hillside above the house at Garapata with the camera car in the background. This is my favorite photograph of us together.

I was a people person. I sometimes regretted my inability to freely pursue my artistic interests as he did, but I was greatly satisfied with my personal relationships. I loved to photograph people, including the Westons but also celebrities, family, friends, and others. Dudsie always said Brett went through so many women because he could only talk about photography. He was a monomaniacal artist. Dudsie believed that women wanted more than that, and Brett just didn’t have it in him to give. I always appreciated Brett’s simplified life and all the women he dated. I am pretty sure that Brett appreciated my life as a settled guy with a family. We respected each other’s lifestyle, but we never were tempted to trade places. I guess between us we had it all.

After 1968 Brett took a trip to Europe and he began to use the new Rollei SL66. I had one that my young friend Michael Andrews left for me while he was in Vietnam; I showed it to Brett, and he liked it enough to go to the factory in Germany. They just gave him two cameras and a set of lenses. Later, when he had switched to the Mamyia, he gave them to me. Using smaller cameras was a major turning point in his later career. The flexibility, speed, and economy of them were perfectly suited to his continuing fascination with detail. He made some of his first abstractions of distortions in mirrored window glass just down the hill from our home in Calabasas, at Warner Center.

In 1970 I was beginning to get interested in doing my own photography again. Brett wrote “Glad you are back in photography Dick. Let’s have camera trip this winter.” But it was in the early 70’s that he first started having health problems. In October 1972 he wrote “Same old chest pain. Got $5000 grant for Alaska. First to Europe to supervise book in March or April 73.” He made a couple of trips to Alaska. He used a new film, H&W Control, with the Rollie on the first trip and when he came home and processed it, he found most of them to be underexposed and too contrasty. H&W was just re-packaged Agfa microfilm sold with a very soft developer. It was very sharp and had superfine grain, but it was hard to control. He made a second trip to replace the lost images, and out of those trips came his Alaska portfolio, which he kindly dedicated to Dudsie and me. He made me a 16×20 print of Mendenhal Glacier. I’ve always felt that was one of his true masterpieces.

His first big money was for his portfolio Twenty Photographs. It was an edition of 35, and he got $3500 a copy. He was quite excited about getting so much money. He always loved cars and he began to indulge this passion vigorously.

Around that time he bought a house in Hawaii. He was there when he was bitten by brown recluse spider. He was photographing outdoors and thought he was having a heart attack, some kind of angina with stiff joints. His arm swelled to three times its normal size, and the surgeons had to open it up and remove muscle. After that he wasn’t able to carry the 8×10 and rarely used anything but his roll-film cameras.

I made my first trip to Hawaii to visit him in 1980. The following year, Brett and Bob Byers drove down to stay with us. Later I got a note from Erica: “Brett is no longer smoking or drinking coffee.” Doctor’s orders. I remember when he bought his first Corvette in Hawaii. He really loved it, but it had come with a manual transmission. He had trouble shifting it with his bad arm, so the next day he went back to the dealership and bought another one with an automatic. For a while he had two Corvettes in the garage.

I had some kind of health problem in 1990, and Brett wrote: “Glad you’re feeling better. Wish I could say the same. Drove 400 miles yesterday, from Oregon on Camera Trip. Leaving for Santa Fe May 15th. Let’s get together after and I can sign prints.” Brett was always generous with his work, and he had given us many prints over the years. I remember he once showed some EW prints to the son of a friend. When the fellow remarked on how much he admired one of the images, Brett just gave him the print. It was a vintage Pepper 30.

Brett called one day in 1991 and wanted us to come up for his 80th birthday. He wrote: “Looking forward to your arrival before 16th. Leave for Hawaii on 17th.” So we drove up to Carmel for his 80th birthday party, where he destroyed a lifetime of negatives. He had always said he would burn his negatives when he turned 80, and being Brett, he wanted an audience. He tried to light them up in the fireplace, but they wouldn’t burn. I went to bed, and in the morning I walked out the front door and found all his negatives just thrown into the trash cans. He poured water over them to destroy the emulsion.

All my life I kept a diary, and in 1993, when Brett was dying in Hawaii these were my entries:

M 1-18-93
SAD NEWS! Dody called and told us Brett had had another stroke and was in the Kona hospital. She had talked to Bob Byers. I decided to try to reach Neil at Brett’s old Hawaii house and get the latest news. I tried several times during the afternoon, but finally reached Neil about 10 here (7 there). He said it was two weeks ago today that Brett had the attack. Neil and Jean had him staying with them at the Waikaloa house with a bed in the old darkroom. They were eating dinner when Brett said he had to go to the toilet and started down the hall. Neil heard a “thump” and found Brett had fallen. Neil managed to get him back up and he was able to “shuffle” on to the bathroom and back to the dinner table. After he started to eat his left arm began to go numb and he couldn’t swallow. At that point Brett said they had better get him to the hospital, so Neil called 911, and the medics got Brett and took him to the Kona Hospital. Neil said he followed in his car in a heavy rain and doesn’t know how he made it there and back home later.

So Brett had been in the hospital since and has had intravenous feeding until today(?). Neil said he has regained a little speech but couldn’t stand the hospital food, so Neil + Jean (and Erica) have been taking food down for him. Neil indicated the doctor didn’t have much hope, but they have done a bone scan, which I think, Neil said showed the cancer had metastasized (or maybe the results were coming?)

Neil said the new place that Brett just bought was on an estate that had needed a couple of gardeners, and it had really gone to seed. Apparently Kim is there now trying to clean it up so they can try to sell it.

I guess I can only hope Brett dies quickly now, so he doesn’t have to suffer and/or live a vegetable-like life, which he would hate. Neil did say that today Brett asked him to bring him his camera, so he could photograph some flowers in his room!

F 1-22-93
Dick Garrod phoned to say that Brett died this morning! I cried. It’s the end of an era both for photography and personally. Later Mathias also phoned to sympathize on our loss.

Dick said that Brett did get his camera at the hospital yesterday, and with the help of his sculptor friend, shot the picture he wanted of a flower in his room. What a fitting moment (on) the last day of his life. Now I wonder who will develop the film?

M 1-25-93
Yesterday I began to feel the loss from Brett’s death more acutely. He has been a center of inspiration for me, and the times I’ve spent with him have been some of the most important in my life. He was the one person whom I felt I could visit at any time and be welcome. Not to look forward to more photo trips with him is such a terrible loss for me personally.

W 1-27-93
Got a nice note from Cole explaining he had tried to reach me by phone, using our old number, to tell me of Brett’s death. I wrote him a return note this evening.

Su 3-14-93
I also phoned Bob Byers for the first time since Brett’s death and had a nice long talk. He said he had been over with Brett several weeks during December—and it rained 10” there one day. Dianne was there when Brett died (I guess) and said that while they did bring Brett’s camera to the hospital that last day, he wasn’t able to take a picture of the flower with it.

Brett and the Westons—that’s a whole part of my life, a separate sort of existence. Gone now. Brett was unique, completely absorbed by photography. Edward started it, and Brett just grew up with it. He started taking pictures and never stopped. He was just an inveterate photographer. Wherever you put him, that’s what he did. He took pictures. I wouldn’t even call it a passion; it was just his way of life. And he did it. He didn’t do anything else.

Brett’s images: They were a way of seeing. I grew up thinking photography should record everything full scale. I remember when I first saw his images I was so startled by them; Brett’s use of blacks was something I had never seen before. Here was this “bad” photography, but the moment I saw them I realized they had achieved something beyond full-scale representation. So it was a real eye-opener to me.

I kept printing my own work pretty much full scale, but I knew this could be done and be very effective. It was my introduction to this kind of photography. I never would have imagined it or done it on my own. Brett was doing it.

These days I don’t get around much. I’m almost 97 and living in New York with my daughter Jan. She takes good care of me. I have three large windows in front of my table that look out on a red barn and the countryside. It is beautiful, but it’s not California. I was able to make the trip back to California in March to be present at the opening of an exhibit of my photographs at the Getty Museum. I would have loved it if Brett could have been there. But I’m surrounded by my photographs and Brett’s and his sculpture, so I think of him often. I was fortunate to have Brett as my friend.

I guess I was just lucky that way.