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"A revelation": Leigh Wiener's portraits of Robinson Jeffers.


One fall day in 1956, the photographer Leigh Wiener (1929-1993) knocked on Jeffers' Tor House door requesting to photograph him. He emerged three days later with more than 300 photographs of the poet whose work he had read and admired. As Wiener described the photo session years later, Jeffers must have found the explanation of Wiener's request sufficient ("Because I think you will probably be the most important American poet of the 20th century") and Wiener's opinion of Jeffers' poetry satisfactory ("Well, there was a lot that I didn't understand"), because he welcomed the photographer into his house and into his world. (1)

Leigh Wiener's photographs, made six years before Jeffers' death, bring an authentic visual dimension and an enduring bequest to Jeffers studies. Robert Brophy traces the "first introduction many of us had to Leigh Wiener and his work" to Ann Ridgeway's The Selected Letters of Robinson Jeffers (1968), describing it as "a wondrous experience, thirty photos of portraits and landscapes with a unique style and authoritative focus." (2)

Over the years, Wiener's photographs have toured California galleries, libraries, and universities. A number enhance the archives of organizations and institutions with significant Jeffers collections, such as the Robinson Jeffers Tor House Foundation in Carmel and Occidental College in Los Angeles. (3)

In Wiener's candid and revealing portraits, Jeffers' daily events are memorialized as a sample portfolio of his waning years--writing, cavorting with his grandchildren, climbing Hawk Tower, observing the ocean, walking on the sandy beach.

As Brophy observed, "They capture him in his whole environment.... The three days of photographing focus on a man of sixty-nine and immerse him in his familiar domestic world, which includes declining health and diminished powers. He is looking forward to death, looking backward over the life of letters exactly in these environs and no others." (4)

Wiener's images also do much more: they offer an insightful glimpse into the relationship between two artists, one at the start of his career, the other near its closing stage. Indeed, Wiener proposed publishing his portraits with selected Jeffers verses in The Beginning and the End and Other Poems (1963), published posthumously. (5)

Leigh Wiener, who made more photographs of Jeffers than any other subject of his portraiture, and probably more than any other photographer, believed that "a portrait is not a duplication of an image; it should be a revelation"--a maxim the photographer as artist and documentarian demonstrated profoundly through the images that follow. (6)




(1) Leigh Wiener, "Portraits: L.A.'s Literary Elite," Los Angeles magazine (Dec. 1985): 278-93.

(2) "Selected Works Related to Jeffers Containing Photographs by Leigh Wiener," in Robert Brophy, "Leigh Wiener: An Appreciation," Jeffers Studies 9, no. 1-2 (Spring and Fall 2005), 37; quote on 33.

(3) For an account of the Leigh Wiener Collection at the Robinson Jeffers Tor House Foundation, see Constance C. Weissmuller, "The Leigh Wiener Collection," Jeffers Studies 1, no. 1 (Winter 1997): 25-27.

(4) Brophy, "Leigh Wiener: An Appreciation," 355

(5) "Leigh A. Wiener: Photographer Extraordinaire," Robinson Jeffers Newsletter 87 (Summer 1993): 3-4.

(6) Interviews with Devik Wiener, Dec. 2009, Los Angeles, California.


Images [C] Leigh Wiener; courtesy of Devik Wiener
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Publication:California History
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1U9CA
Date:Mar 22, 2010
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