One of the most influential photographers of the 20th century, Edward Weston, was once inspired by the poet Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Glass when he sought to capture the “real American faces and the real American places. The unusual collaboration camera about in 1941, when Weston was approached by the Limited Editions Book Club to illustrate a deluxe edition of Whitman’s work. Soon after, Weston and his wife Charis Wilson ventured on a cross-country trip traveling from California to the northeast to visit landscapes that represented middle America.
An exhibition featuring Weston’s images, is on now at The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, Calif.
The 25 images on display, some including Woodlawn Plantation House, Louisiana (1941), White Sands, New Mexico (1941) and The Brooklyn Bridge (1941), were taken on a large, 8×10 camera in black and white. Although Weston was satisfied with the photographs as a whole, the final result culminating in the book Leaves of Grass was a “failure,” at least in his eyes. According to Jennifer Watts, the Huntington’s curator of photography, the pages in the book were tinted green and surrounded by a minty green border that took away from the elegance of the black-and-white photographs. To add insult to injury, his images were placed with text directly taken from Whitman; something she mentions undermined Weston’s view of America.
Still, Watts mentions that despite these mishaps, the project is something worth taking another look at. “This is an important body of work that has been unjustly overlooked and clearly deserves its due,” she says. “There are masterpieces in the mix, every bit the equal of Weston’s best work. How could it be otherwise? The Whitman effort came after a lifetime of honing a prodigious talent. The challenges of the project withstanding, Weston’s mastery shines brilliantly through.”
Real American Places: Edward Weston and Leaves of Grass is on show until March 20, 2017 in the Chandler Wing of the Virginia Steele Scott Galleries of American Art in San Marino, Calif.
Myles Little, who edited this photo essay, is a senior photo editor at TIME.
Bianca Silva is a writer and contributor to TIME LightBox. Follow her on Twitter.