Charis Wilson

The model who inspired Edward Weston

Charis Wilson


When renowned photographer Edward Weston met 19-year-old Charis Wilson in 1934, he fell for what he called her “finely proportioned body, intelligent face,” and “golden brown hair to shoulders.” Within weeks, she was posing for him, and they were eventually married. As Weston’s model, muse, and wife, Wilson was the subject of many of his best-known nude portraits and supported his work in many other ways as well.

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Helen Charis Wilson’s father was Harry Leon Wilson, who wrote the humorous Western novel Ruggles of Red Gap, said The Washington Post. Early on, “she dropped her first name and went by Charis,” the Greek word for “grace.” When her father said he couldn’t afford to send her to Sarah Lawrence College, she left Portland, Ore., and moved to San Francisco, where she “led a bohemian life before meeting Weston.” He was 28 years her senior, and married with four sons. But Wilson soon became his lover and proved integral to his life and art. Besides posing, she “wrote much of the application that won Weston a Guggenheim fellowship in 1937, the first awarded to a photographer.” After Weston divorced his wife and married Wilson in 1939, “she wrote many of the essays that bore Weston’s name.”

“Wilson’s entry into Weston’s life led to a change in his formalist style,” said the Los Angeles Times. Known for his sharp focus and vivid contrasts, he had previously cultivated a carefully posed aesthetic, often emphasizing close-ups of body parts. But shooting the “uninhibited” Wilson freed him up. “Photographs of her rolling down a sand dune (Dunes, Oceano, 1936)” and “floating in a swimming pool in Carmel (Floating Nude, 1939) are unlike nudes Weston had been known for.” For most of their relationship, Weston emphasized her beauty. “That changed toward the end of their 11 years together. In Civilian Defense of 1942, Wilson reclines on a couch, wearing only a gas mask.” She later wrote that she and Weston had lost “that strong bond of love and understanding that keeps daily life from turning stale and deadly.”

In 1946, one day after her divorce from Weston was finalized, Wilson married Noel Harris, a labor activist. For decades she taught writing, did secretarial work, and wrote and spoke about Weston, who died in 1958. She is survived by her daughter, Rachel.

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