Edward Weston's 'Excusado'
A work which had particularly a strong effect on me is a photograph with the title 'Excusado' by Edward Weston, taken with a large-format camera in 1925. I saw the 7 by 9 inch print in early March at the National Gallery in Ottawa. 'Excusado' was exhibited among other photographs and paintings originating from or dealing with Mexico. Because I was aware of the popularity of this particular work of Weston's, I took my time to study it. I still reflect on what it means for me, and also on what makes this image so extraordinary.
'Excusado' is a photograph of Weston's toilet in his house near Mexico City. It is a photograph of an everyday object, which makes it obscure but also familiar grabbing the viewer's attention. Everyone knows his famous minimalist macro shots of vegetables. 'Excusado' does not seem to fit in the beginning of a series of amazing photographs which gave Weston his international reputation and recognition. So what is it that makes the picture of a toilet one of his most famous works? I want to discuss this question further and try to give a valid answer.
Excusado, Edward Weston 1925
To understand this work it is important to know at which stage Weston was in his life. From sixteen years on he was strongly involved with photography and visited the Illinois College of Photography in the beginning of the 20th century. He had moved a couple of times between his birth town of Chicago and California, where he later opened a portrait studio. He was married and had four children at a time when he was already considered a successful photographer. But this work was not fulfilling, which led him to search for new role models and opportunities.
Meeting Tina Modotti, who was the wife of a political radical in Mexico, changed his life completely. He more and more often visited Mexico with his new love and ended up separating from his wife. After meeting Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand and Georgia O'Keefe in New York he got newly inspired and found himself after a period of transition, self-analysis and self-discipline. He finally moved to Mexico City with his oldest son and Tina Modotti and lived there from 1923 to 1927. In this period, which many people call ground breaking, Weston took the picture 'Excusado'.
As far the biographical context is concerned, there is a strong relationship between the title of the work and Weston's years in Mexico. He purposely picked a word, which has a variety of meanings in Spanish. Literally translated 'Excusado' means excused. It can also mean unnecessary, reserved and private. Just very rarely the term 'Excusado' is used to describe a toilet and can only be considered as slang. This reflects his knowledge and growing enthusiasm for the Mexican language and culture. Through Tina Modotti, Weston has found access to the new environment and was soon a recognized artist in Mexico.
'Excusado' also foreshadows his later works on close ups of small objects and shows his talent for dealing with the available light. The rare glimmer coming through the bathroom window is reflected in the ceramic of the toilet. To give the image its great depth of field, he probably shot it under a long exposure, which adds to the clarity of the print. By using a large format camera one could blow up this print without losing any detail or quality.
By shooting the toilet from a 'Froschperspektive' (German expression: looking at it from a frog's perspective) Weston literally brings the object closer to us. The low angle makes it difficult to identify the object at first. But as he does in a portrait, he chooses to go on 'eye level' with the object. In this case this is remarkably low. The picture taken from a higher level would have a totally different effect on the viewer. Shooting from the most common angle we have towards a toilet would keep us back from appreciating the aesthetics of the object. The angle from which we look at a toilet through 'Excusado' makes it able to look at it more objectively.
Weston demands this objectivity from the viewer of 'Excusado' because he wants to redefine the object as we know it. He wanted to send a message to people who where used to seeing a toilet as a mundane part of life. With 'Excusado' Weston transforms the perception of a toilet. This reveals the real skill Weston proved to the viewer. The display of this banal object goes away from anything mechanical to something almost natural, which slightly provokes but also comforts the viewer. It is an object of intimacy he photographed in such a way that our eye is not distracted by this intimacy.
'Excusado' can be better understood and appreciated when seen in historical context. The first time I saw the image a couple of years ago it didn't work for me at all. Every now and then it reappeared in books and magazines. Now, as I dealt with Weston's work in detail and saw the original, I changed my point of view. It is in a way revolutionary to the world of photography because it approaches the viewer by presenting him with something really simple and then leaving him alone with questions. Because of this, 'Excusado' evokes interest in people who want to look beyond the visual information and leave space for the concept.
By excluding the surrounding of the toilet and closing up on just the ceramic part, Weston deals with it like with a nude photograph. He gets as close as possible to the essential part where the environment is just carrying the object and not distracting from it. The form and shape give the object its beauty, not the room it happens to be in. With this approach, unusual for his time, he captured the toilet as a sensual, even erotic, symbol. The shiny shape of the ceramic loses its industrial touch and grows to something natural. This clearly fits into Weston's message to look at things from another perspective. Just like Marcel Duchamp eight years earlier, although this stands in a completely different context, he gave character to a toilet with his own recognizable 'handwriting'. Duchamp had said that the perception of his urinal instillation was transformed by putting it in a gallery and calling it art. Weston transformed the perception of a toilet by capturing its pure aesthetic value in his defined style.
Weston's style was also to confuse the viewer with the multiple meaning of 'Excusado'. He was aware of the fact that the most obvious translation to the most viewers would be close to excuse. As a part of the artist's intend, this double meaning of the title goes further than the visual content. There are many ways to look at the title 'Excusado': "Excuse me for taking a picture of a toilet." or "Excuse me for making it so beautiful." or "Excuse me if you don't understand my message." The title is probably just underlining the image but it could also be filled with pure irony and humor. However this is the choice of the photographer himself. Just as the image speaks for itself it is the photographer freedom of choice which make images like this so extraordinary. Weston once said that "the photographer can depart from the literal recording to whatever extent he chooses as long as the methods remain photographic". 'Excusado' is the perfect example for this statement.
In my personal work as an artist, Edward Weston's 'Excusado' has had a deep impact on me. It taught me some essential lessons, which I keep in mind when I go out to take pictures. 'Excusado' means to look at your object from different perspectives. For me it also means to get closer to the center of interest. It means that the light shapes the form and the form shapes the light. 'Excusado' means that there is no excuse for not making a beautiful picture even if it is toilet.
Marco Bohr, March 2000
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