PORTLAND — In early 1941, Edward Weston was asked by the Limited Editions Club of New York to take photographs to illustrate its deluxe edition of Walt Whitman’s epic poem “Leaves of Grass.”

Although he balked at first, Weston was drawn by the opportunity the project offered to travel cross-country and visit parts of the United States he had never seen.

Fifty-three black-and-white photographs taken by Weston along the route of his cross-country trip will be displayed in the “Weston: Leaves of Grass” exhibit on view at the Portland Museum of Art beginning Dec. 30.

The photographs are wide-ranging with particular emphasis on the man-altered landscape rather than images of untouched nature.

Weston’s concern was how to capture Whitman’s spirit without slavishly depicting his words. Since it was first published in 1855, Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” has appeared in many editions and increased in size. The first volume contained only 12 poems, but by the time of Whitman’s death in 1892, it had grown to more than 400 lyric poems that touch on all aspects of American life — the landscape, the variety and energy of its people, the Civil War, racial and sexual relations and Whitman’s expansive personality.

The “Leaves of Grass” trip lasted almost 10 months, covering 24 states and nearly 25,000 miles. Organized to reflect the route that Weston and his wife, Charis Wilson, took when they drove cross country, the exhibition will begin with photographs of California and end with works taken on the East Coast that include two Maine images taken in Kennebunkport — one of the Wedding Cake House and the other of a schooner docked in the harbor.

The majority of the photographs, however, cover Southern states as they drove from Boulder Dam in Nevada through Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and the Appalachian chain.

References to America as a great industrial giant will be shown as well as the homes of humble artisans.

In addition to landscapes, Weston took portraits of native Americans and Hispanics, and photographed the architecture of elaborate Catholic cemeteries in New Orleans and simple Baptist churches in the Louisiana countryside.

Over the course of the project Weston managed to produce some of the most compelling images of his later career that took his photography in a new and important direction. Like Whitman’s epic poems, they draw us into the history of this nation, the beauty of its landscape and the forthrightness of its ordinary citizens.

Before undertaking the Limited Editions commision, Weston wrote of the Whitman project to a friend: “I do believe … I can and will do the best work of my life. Of course, I will never please everyone with my America — wouldn’t try to.”

This exhibition, organized by the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, will be up through March 13, 2011.


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