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Book review: West Coast photo icons developed in Glendale

June 11, 2012|By Kirk Silsbee
  • The cover image for "Artful Lives: Edward Weston, Margrethe Mather, and the Bohemians of Los Angeles," by Beth Gates Warren.
The cover image for "Artful Lives: Edward Weston,… (Courtesy of Getty…)

One of the more hidebound notions about American art is that modern art photography was strictly an East Coast phenomenon, and that Los Angeles represented a cultural backwater. Last fall's publication of “Artful Lives,” Beth Gates Warren's groundbreaking study of modernist photo icons Edward Weston and Margrethe Mather, thoroughly debunks this falsehood.

Warren's exhaustively researched tome reveals how Weston's work greatly matured during the 1920s in the semi-rural Tropico, now southern Glendale. (His first breakthrough images — of figure studies, still lifes and portraits — were from Weston's L. A. period.) Before he shot textural nude studies in sand dunes, sea-etched rock formations, sensual bell peppers, fiery-eyed Mexican revolutionaries and became the first photographer to win a Guggenheim, Weston operated a commercial photo studio on Brand Boulevard.

Weston (1886-1958) and Mather (1886-1952) moved among the cream of L.A.'s bohemian crop that included architect Rudolph Schindler, anarchist Emma Goldman, filmmaker Charlie Chaplin, photographer Imogen Cunningham, dancers Vaslav Nijinsky and Martha Graham, actress/photographer Tina Modotti and poet Carl Sandburg.

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“Artful Lives” (Getty Publications) also lifts the veil on the seminal relationship between Weston and the well-connected Mather who, through his encouragement, blossomed into a fine photographer before sinking into obscurity. Her own study of an opened patterned kimono — revealing a woman's abdomen — is as refined an example of early modernist photography as anything by Steiglitz, Steichen or Strand.

This Thursday, Warren will deliver a free lecture on Weston and Mather at the Glendale Public Library Auditorium, followed by a book signing. From her home in Anaheim, she explained her thesis and what drew her to this near-obsessional subject.

“What motivated me,” Warren said, “was that this was an untold story. Weston kept scrupulous journals, saving almost every scrap of paper. But he burned 10 years of journals, so his published daybooks don't begin until 1923; he didn't want people to know about his earliest work. And Weston changed and obscured some of the facts to suit himself.”

Weston was a husband and a father before his affair with Mather.

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