Saturday, January 27, 2007

Dashiell Hammett and Edward Weston

Edward Weston is one of my favorite photographers. He died in 1958, but his model and wife during his peak creative period in the 30s and 40s, Charis Wilson, is still alive and co-wrote a book called Through Another Lens: My Years with Edward Weston that describes their time together.

Here, from the Edward Weston web site, is one of the more famous pictures Weston took of Wilson.

That's all very fine and good, Mark, you may say, but what's that got to do with mystery and detective fiction, which is the stated focus of your blog? Well, it turns out that Weston could not make his living doing fine art photography alone, and at least in the early to middle years of his career, would also do portraits to supplement his income. Charis describes one such portrait session in her book:

The silliest celebrity sitting during the Santa Monica period came when an acquaintance of Edward's, Marcella Burke, insisted that he should make a portrait of Dashiell Hammett, who, seven years before, had introduced Sam Spade to the world in The Maltese Falcon. Hammett appreciated good photography, said Marcella, and badly needed publicity pictures. The order was sure to be lucrative.
She then goes on to recount, in the form of a comic three act play, what happened during the session. In ACT I, Weston and Wilson arrive at the appointed time in the midafternoon at Hammett's "swank" home, only to discover that he is sleeping off a bender. They set up for a shoot on the patio anyway, and eventually Hammett makes his way out to pose. As she says, "Obviously, hours of sleep were too many or too few ... Hammett sits in chair. Big man. Handsome? Hard to tell; not really there. Edward fakes a few, makes a few. Decides to call it a day. We all know glazed eyes won't publicize, or do for anything else."

In ACT II, Hammett decides to play host and insists that they stay for dinner. They have pre-dinner drinks and then sit down for food, but Hammett excuses himself and wanders off. When he is absent too long, they begin a search. Wilson continues, "Find Hammett peacefully passed out in wet flower bed under fig tree. [We] ... have muddy, heavy transplanting job--flower bed to house bed."

ACT III begins with Marcella Burke trying to mollify Weston and Wilson by providing dessert, coffee and a tray of liqueurs. Hammett wakes up from his latest nap, joins the group and Marcella suggests that he should eat something. The suggestion falls on deaf ears. "'Somma that.' Hammett points to the bottle. Marcella pours liqueur-glassful. Hammett tips it down; throws glass against fireplace bricks. Seems to enjoy sound of tinkling glass. Repeats performance. Visitors feel must exit. Do."

It's a bit distressing to have a hero of one's portrayed so, but it is well known that Hammett was a drinker--especially during his time in Hollywood--although he gave it up entirely on doctor's orders in the latter years of his life.

Wilson never says if Weston developed or printed the pictures of Hammett he did take. My next blog post describes my search for any existing Weston negatives or prints of Hammett.

P.S. Speaking of photography, click here to see a photo by me that I've entered in the JPG Magazine "elegance" theme. Please vote yeah if you like it!


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