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Charis Wilson, Model and Muse

Matt Schudel

Charis Wilson's name may not have been familiar to many people, but the rest of her certainly was. Ms. Wilson, who died Nov. 20 at age 95, was the model and muse to Edward Weston, one of the greatest photographers of the 20th century.

They met in 1934, when Weston was 48 and Charis (pronounced Karras) was 19. Here's a photo by Weston of what she looked like when they first met. Weston was the married father of four sons -- two of whom were older than Charis -- but they were drawn to each other, and she promptly replaced another young female assistant who had been working with Weston. (In the 1920s, Weston's chief model had been the memorably photogenic Tina Modotti.) When Charis began posing for Weston, casually disrobing in front of him, never self-conscious about nudity. "I'd whip off my clothes whenever possible," she said.

"I was sexually pretty advanced for my years," Ms. Wilson said two years ago, making it clear that she made the first moves toward intimacy. In her 1998 autobiography, she wrote: "I realized that his reputation as a Lothario was wildly exaggerated. I would have to take the first step. I did so, and even though it was only a compelling look, it soon brought photography to a halt."

She chose her own posing positions, without being directed by Weston. He would then would capture her in photographs that were intimate and subtly erotic. She recalled in later years that he had pince-nez on a cord around his neck and would peer at her through the lenses of the glasses. When he looked through his camera, he would toss the pince-nez over his shoulder.

In 1937, Ms. Wilson wrote much of the entry that won Weston the first Guggenheim grant ever awarded to a photographer. They traveled throughout the West photographing landscapes. (One of their best friends at the time was a still-undiscovered Ansel Adams.) At Lake Ediza in California's High Sierra, where Weston snapped this memorable shot of Charis, sitting against a rock face.

This is one of my favorite photographic portraits ever. Charis gazes directly at the camera, wearing knee-high lace-up boots and with her knees splayed apart apart. Only her face and hands are exposed. Later, when she was asked about the erotic undercurrents of the shot, she professed ignorance. She was merely exhausted at the end of a long day, she maintained. All she had energy to do was to sit down and stare impassively at the camera.

Still, Ms. Wilson was conscious of her effect on Weston, that she was something of a muse inspiring him to reach new artistic heights. "It opened up a new vision for him," she said in 1998, describing their meeting in 1934. "The romantic view washed away completely. The world just opened up anew for him, and he figured he'd never run out of things to photograph. It was endlessly exciting for him."

It was also exciting for her. In a 2007 documentary, In the film, she said her meeting Weston "changed my life almost immediately, because I realized that everything I had been after and was looking for was right here, and all I had to do was reach out and go, and grow with him."

Their life together lasted just 11 years. Ms. Wilson left Weston in 1945 and married union organizer Noel Harris one day after her divorced was final in 1946. She had two daughters with Harris and was divorced again in 1967. Weston died in 1958 at age 71.

Charis Wilson was almost 91 when she was interviewed for "Eloquent Nude: The Love and Legacy of Edward Weston and Charis Wilson," an excellent documentary released in 2007:

By Matt Schudel  |  November 25, 2009; 11:05 AM ET
Categories:  Matt Schudel  
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