It was a May day in 1925; the place, San Francisco. A distraught Edward Weston was holed up in an apartment belonging to fellow photographer Dorothea Lange.
Weston had every reason to be upset. His romance with photographer Tina Modotti was deteriorating; his relationship with his wife was impossible; his former business partner, Margrethe Mather, had apparently made a mess of their studio business in Glendale. Suddenly, Weston picked up all the journals in which he'd meticulously recorded some 10 years of his life in Los Angeles and pitched them into a fire.
Up in smoke went all the details of the early progress and development of one of the 20th century's landmark photographers. And similarly turned to ash were pages and pages about Mather, a photographer who had been Weston's mentor, model, lover and partner. So much the worse for Mather, an early experimental photographer who has been almost erased from history.
A few months later, Weston lamented that impulsive bonfire.
"I even regret destroying my day book prior to Mexico: É It recorded a vital period, all my life with M.M., the first important person in my life; and perhaps even now, though personal contact has gone, the most important. ÉIt was a mad but beautiful life and love!"
That single tantalizing remark has long intrigued scholars and curators, including Beth Gates Warren, co-curator of the traveling exhibition Margrethe Mather and Edward Weston: A Passionate Collaboration, now at the Center for Creative Photography. For years, Gates Warren headed the photography department at Sotheby's, and from time to time, she would come across a Mather photo. The writer Nancy Newhall had extracted small bits of Mather memories from Weston, but what she got was sketchy. Gates Warren finally undertook intensive research of Mather's life and work, and her show, co-curated by Karen Sinsheimer of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, does a marvelous job of restoring Mather to her rightful place in photographic history.
The show exhibits some 80 photographs, most of them sepia-toned palladium platinum prints by Mather. A dozen or so pictures are by Weston; seven are photographic collaborations between the pair, signed by both. The curators present Mather's work as groundbreaking in its own right. A self-trained photographer, she was at first a Pictorialist, and her earliest photos in the show are dreamy pictures of women in white. "Miss Maude Emily," of 1916, her first acclaimed work, is an homage to the painter Whistler, its female subject seated on a chair and shot in soft-edged profile. But Mather soon gave up the popular Pictorialist style and moved toward a more austere and disciplined modernism.
Especially in her portraits, she pioneered dramatic empty space and startling asymmetrical compositions. She would stand her subjects full-bodied against a wall and bathe them in strong light; the shadows cast on the wall echoed the figure, essentially duplicating it. (Many of those pictured were the poets, actors and revolutionaries she met in Los Angeles' bohemian circles.) In 1917, she photographed the poet Alfred Kreymborg in profile; the dark shadow he throws onto the wall is like a second self. By 1918, Mather started her dramatic portraits of a Chinese poet and friend, Moon Kwan. Strongly influenced by Japanese woodblock prints, the Kwan compositions looked strange to American eyes accustomed to classical balance. Kwan doesn't dominate the picture plane; in "Player on the Yit-Kim," he's set low, left of center, his lower body cropped off. The empty space behind him is starkly broken up, by shadows and an off-center scroll of Chinese characters pinned to the wall.
The curators argue more controversially that Mather dramatically influenced Weston. She jolted him intellectually by introducing him to L.A.'s radical thinkers at the same time that she introduced him to modernism and taught him to pare down his somewhat florid aesthetic. (The catalog pictures "Sunbeams," a surprisingly sentimental Weston work from 1915 of a woman in ruffled dress lighted up by the sun's twinkling rays.) They've set up the exhibition to demonstrate these cross-pollinations. For instance, the year after Mather did her pioneering Kwan series, we find Weston posing Mather, a favorite model, in a pose very similar to Kwan's. In "Epilogue," she's in the lower right corner of the picture, set against a blank wall, and the dramatic shadows cast by an unseen vase table dominated the composition.
By 1921, the photographers so closely agreed on aesthetics that they actually collaborated on images, with marvelous results. Portraits of Carl Sandburg and Max Eastman, both in outdoor settings--the beach, a canyon bridge in L.A. --are triumphs of the difficult art of the figure in the landscape.
But by 1923, the "passionate collaboration" broke down. Weston went off to Mexico with Modotti. Mather continued to labor in Los Angeles, but her health was already being eroded by multiple sclerosis, as yet undiagnosed. She continued to make stunning work up until the early 1930s, and her images of isolated body parts, repeated patterns of objects, even a kimono tumbling from a nude body, continued to find echoes in Weston's work.
Born in 1886, Weston and Mather were the same age, but Mather began to burn out by her early 40s--the time that the talented and driven Weston went on to his greatest successes. Mather began to be known simply as Weston's model. His early portraits of her, included in the show, are certainly luminous, but it's a pity that a cutting-edge photographer of her caliber has been reduced to the familiar stereotype of female model and lover of the great man.
For whatever reason, late in life, she seemed unwilling or unable to stake out her own reputation. In 1950, Weston wrote to her at the behest of Nancy Newhall, who was editing Weston's diaries. But the ailing Mather was unwilling to share her old memories. Writes Gates Warren, "She stubbornly but poignantly resisted the scrutiny of history by asking him to leave her unremembered."
She is no longer unremembered, thanks to this show and Gates Warren's catalog, which includes a prodigiously researched biography.
The second exhibition, Edward Weston: A Vision Conserved, gives an inside glimpse into the workings of the CCP. The Weston archive is one of the center's most popular, and three years ago, the estimable staff secured a National Endowment for the Arts grant to help conserve the prints and duplicate some 2,500 negatives. This show exhibits some of Weston's most famous images, including his stunning nudes and still lifes of peppers, and it details the laborious techniques the pros deploy to keep them in good shape. Co-curated by Dianne Nilsen of the Center and Laura Downey Staneff, who worked on the conservation project, the show celebrates the behind-the-scenes work (and workers) whose labors are so crucial to the CCP's success.