Book review: West Coast photo icons developed in Glendale

Arts and CulturePhotographyArtMexicoMartha GrahamVaslav NijinskyImogen Cunningham

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.

“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.

“She introduced him to some very interesting people,” Warren pointed out. “He came to L.A. from Chicago at 20 and saw this place as the Wild West. She also had an inherent sense of design and composition. His early photos were pretty ordinary, though they were popular with the local camera club crowd. She taught him to compose an image and refine it down to its essence. She taught him how to see. Prior to meeting Margrethe, Weston never thought of himself as an artist.”

What was Mather's take from their relationship? “He taught her discipline; she was pretty flighty when they met. She learned a lot from his work ethic in his studio. He also pushed her to send her work out to competitions. They complemented each other.”

Tina Modotti, a sad-eyed Sicilian beauty, was injected into this personal and professional dynamic. “She immediately became his model,” Warren points out, “and she was a beautiful one. He was infatuated with her; he was most attracted to her, of all the women in his life. They went to Mexico together and that's where her serious photography began.”

In the end, Warren saw Weston as a complex figure, with as many shortcomings as lasting creative triumphs. “I admire his work tremendously,” she said, “but he could be duplicitous and manipulative. He was extremely ambitious and driven. He had to support a family, after all.”

KIRK SILSBEE writes about jazz and culture for Marquee.

Beth Gates Warren discusses "Artful Lives"

When: Thursday, 7 p.m.

Where: Glendale Public Library Auditorium, 222 E. Harvard Ave., Glendale

More info: (818) 548-2024; www.associatesofbrand.org

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