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Weston-Wilson attraction is clear to see

Posted by Teresa Hanafin  December 13, 2008 06:05 PM

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Charis Wilson
Charis Wilson as captured by the lens of Edward Weston.
(Courtesy of Creative Photography)

Eloquent Nude: The Love and Legacy of Edward Weston and Charis Wilson
Film at the Museum of Fine Arts next Saturday (Dec. 20) at 10:30 a.m.

By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff

She was preposterously beautiful, their story intensely romantic. But Charis Wilson, who was once the lover, model, and collaborator of photographer Edward Weston, wants you to know above all how to pronounce her name. It's "Karis," folks.

Wilson was about to turn 91 when she was interviewed for the remarkable "Eloquent Nude: The Love and Legacy of Edward Weston and Charis Wilson" (she's 94 now). More than anything else, she grounds the documentary with her straightforward and unguarded manner of speaking.

She may be getting on, but you can see why the film's 35-year-old director, Ian McCluskey, went for her. And looking at Weston's photographs of her in the 1930s, you can certainly see why he went for her.

He was the photographer who moved away from the emotional approximations of the blurry Pictorialist style and embraced modernist clarity and sunlight. All this had happened before he met Wilson, but she, in her own way, brought something bracing, sharply lit, and liberating to his life.

She was a precocious teenager when they met. He was in his 40s, trailing marriage, children, and numerous love affairs in his wake. The daughter of distant parents, Charis's life had gone off the rails after a reneged promise to send her to a progressive college.

"We were all taking terrible risks," she says of a year she spent in bohemian circles in San Francisco. "I was always getting drunk and throwing up. . . . I was sexually pretty advanced for my years."

She met Weston at a local music concert in Carmel, Calif., , and, at his invitation, came by his studio to see his photographs. He was involved at the time with Sonya Noskowiak, another model, lover, and studio assistant who must have seen the writing on the wall and seen no point resisting: She straightaway suggested Charis start modeling for Weston.

Weston was unusually slow to make any romantic move. Dazzled by her boldness, her beauty, her lack of inhibition (a front, she acknowledges now), he started photographing her nude. His account from the time, heard in a voiceover, is as vivid as any:

"I made some 18 negatives, delaying, always delaying," he says, "until at least she lay there below me waiting, holding my eyes with hers, and I was lost and have been ever since."

With Weston, Wilson realized that lovemaking "wasn't just an indoor sport. It was a real exchange of feeling between people like nothing I had experienced in my life."

The ties between them strengthened during a year of road travel prompted by Weston winning a Guggenheim Fellowship. Charis wrote a travelogue as they went, her typewriter propped on the car.

But things went sour on the next extended road trip, when money pressures, a hectic schedule, and breaches of trust on both sides broke the beautiful thing between them.

The film makes use of evocative and unobtrusive reconstructions, which help to set the scene. Weston's spellbinding photographs of Charis feature liberally throughout.

Charis and a select trio of experts do most of the talking. Arthur Ollman, author of "The Model Wife," notes that when Weston, formally a "great master at coming in close," started to photograph Charis, "he moved his camera back to include a little bit of environment, but mostly her personality."

As Charis herself has it: "It took me a long time to realize that was me I was looking at - to slide myself into place when I looked at the picture. . . . Eventually I realized they really were pictures of me, and I did have something to do with them."

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.

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