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PHOTOGRAPHY : On the Outside Looking In : An Edmund Teske retrospective at the Getty comes late in the life of an artist who has long been long been respected by art-world insiders for his visionary photographs. Now 82, Teske has mentored many noted artists

June 06, 1993|BARBARA ISENBERG | Barbara Isenberg is a Times staff writer

On two Sunday afternoons each year, photographer Edmund Teske would open his studio to his students and models, their families and friends. Beer and wine flowed freely, the place was packed, and for $35 or less, you could walk away with one of Teske's photographs.

Sometimes the images would be traditional, sometimes far more mysterious. You never knew what you were getting, since Teske would hide each print in tissue. And it could be a long, long wait before the artist would finish reciting his poetry and telling stories and get around to the photographs.

Teske, now 82, stopped holding his "photo grabs" about 10 years ago, but he remains far outside the mainstream art world. His Hollywood storefront studio looks frozen in time, and so does its owner. With his shoulder-length white hair, silk dressing gown and cowboy boots, the legendary photographer inhabits a space as otherworldly as many of his images.

Teske's work spans several styles and subjects, involving both nature and portraits. Some are traditional black-and-white studies, such as his documentation of Frank Lloyd Wright architecture. But others are collages, composites or one-of-a-kind "duotone solarizations" altered by a combination of chemicals and light to look painterly or romantic.

Teske has always danced to his own music. He experimented with the photographic process at a time when people were barely acknowledging it as an art form, and he took photographs of male nudes as early as the '30s. His bohemian lifestyle swept in a stay at Wright's Taliesin Fellowship, minor roles onstage and friendships with avant-garde filmmakers and others.

The photographer's work has been exhibited at and bought by major museums in Los Angeles, New York and elsewhere over the years. Yet Teske remains largely unknown outside photography circles, in part because of his fierce independence and disdain for the marketplace. A Teske retrospective at the J. Paul Getty Museum, opening Tuesday for two months, comes at a time when he is still as obscure in his hometown as he is elsewhere.

Yet such prominent photographers as Robert Heinecken and Leland Rice readily acknowledge their debt to and affection for Teske, a man both have known for decades.

"He was one of the few people I ran into in photography who allowed me to see photography as something larger and more expansive than what I thought it was," Heinecken says. "I was struck by the idea that the photograph could be manipulated and superimposed with other images. It could be poetic and not limited to reality."

Teske has long seen himself as a poet with a camera, an artist in the tradition of Man Ray, Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Weston, Paul Strand, Berenice Abbott--people he worked with or learned from. His conversation is peppered with references to or quotations from such inspirational sources as Wright and Walt Whitman.

"As a young man, Teske clearly admitted identifying himself with Byron, Shelley and Keats," says Getty photography curator Weston Naef. "He came to Los Angeles thinking he might be an actor. But instead of becoming a hero on screen, he quietly lived out his life following the heroic model.

"After I came out here (in 1984), I felt strongly that he was the most important photographer of the senior generation and perhaps of any generation working out here--west of Chicago--because of his originality, persistence and stylistic continuity. I felt he was important then, and today I feel he is even more important."


The drapes are off, and you can see straight into Teske's Hollywood studio from the street. His mounted photographs are stacked against the wall like so many record albums, and the room is dotted with worn-out, unmatched chairs whose bedspreads-cum-cushions hide protruding springs. Old magazines lie here and there, and so do old Christmas trees.

Rice, 52, who first contacted Teske in the '60s after seeing his photographs at a local exhibition, still recalls his initial visit to the older artist's studio: "I felt like I walked into a place to have my fortune told, like I was attending a seance. It was a very strange, very wonderful, very mysterious experience."

It still is. Teske's front room and photography lab both have the calm and flavor of period stage sets. A spider falls from a web as a guest reaches up to turn on a light, and one senses that little has changed since Teske moved into sculptor Tony Smith's former studio in 1968.

One colleague pegs Teske as a Buffalo Bill look-alike, while another says that he seems to have stepped out of a Byron poem. Visitors are fewer these days, and obviously pleased at the attention, Teske spins tale after tale, a beatific smile on his face as he dips into memory.

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