July 21, 2019

Naked Bodies, Raw Vegetables and a Woman in a Wimple

My very first experiment in the deconstruction and interpretation of sexual imagery took place when I found my way to a book called “California and the West.” Among the scenic photographs by Edward Weston was the image of a beautiful young woman who sits against a rock and stares into the camera with a beguiling expression on her face.  Still only a child, I recognized immediately that something powerful and even disturbing was being depicted in that photograph, and I fell in love with it.  Today, framed prints of the same photograph hang on the wall of my law office and my writing room at home.

The woman in the photograph is fully clothed.  Indeed, her head is wrapped in a kind of nun-like wimple, and every inch of her torso is primly covered by shirt, pants and hiking boots.  But her knees are spread wide open — a position that is called an “offering attitude” by art historians and is understood to indicate sexual availability — and her hands are delicately crossed over her crotch in a mannered and provocative gesture.

That woman is Charis Wilson, and the photograph is titled “Charis, Lake Ediza, 1937.”  She was Weston’s lover, later his wife, and always his muse and favorite model —  he photographed her naked body many times, although her face is averted and her figure is somehow desexualized in the nude shots. Indeed, Weston had a way of photographing vegetables to look like naked women and photographing naked women to look like vegetables, and Charis was no exception.

But “Charis, Lake Ediza, 1937” is something unique in Weston’s body of work. As a child, I could not have articulated the reasons why the image is so erotic, but I did not fail to perceive it. Later, as I studied the iconography of religious art while doing research for books of my own, I came to understand that the image expresses both the sexuality and the fecundity of the female form.  But it is also an expression of a woman’s power over her own body—- the open knees and the crossed hands seem to suggest a tantalizing invitation and, at the same time, a firm refusal.

Wilson herself debunked the efforts of overheated iconographers, amateur and professional alike. At the moment when Weston snapped the shutter, her face showed exhaustion rather than sensuality, she insisted in her own memoir, “Through Another Lens,” and the curious head-covering was her improvised effort to keep away the annoying mosquitoes.  But she was powerless to change the way we perceive the photograph itself, which helps to explain why it is such an enduring and unsettling work of art. 

Charis Wilson died in Santa Cruz, California, on November 20, 2009, at the age of 95.  She told her own story in “Through Another Lens:  My Years With Edward Weston” (co-written with Wendy Madar), and she figures importantly in various biographies of Edward Weston, including Ben Maddow’s “Edward Weston: His Life.”  But the book that remains my favorite is “California and the West,” which features Weston’s photographs and Wilson’s prose, and not only because it includes the enchanting photo that he took at Lake Ediza.  The dog-eared copy that I scrutinized in childhood is still on my bookshelf, a relic of childhood and a source of pleasure and inspiration to this day. In that sense, Charis herself has survived her mortal death and survives as that enchanting young woman whose image was fixed on film more than 70 years ago.

Jonathan Kirsch, book editor of The Jewish Journal and author of “King David: The Real Life of the Man Who Ruled Israel,” will give a talk on the scandalous life story of King David as preserved in the Book of Samuel at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, California, on Wednesday, December 2, 2009.  The program opens at 7:00 p.m. with an historical overview by Rabbi Ed Feinstein, and Kirsch’s talk begins at 8:00 p.m.  Go to http://www.vbs.org/flyers/VBSCollegeJewish09-10.pdf for more information about the lecture series, “Cover to Cover…Opening Up the Hebrew Bible,” a presentation of the VBS College of Jewish Studies.