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Images of immateriality

With their spiritual themes and experimental techniques, Edmund Teske's photographs were too raw for some but visual poetry to others.

June 13, 2004|Leah Ollman | Special to The Times

Ambivalence was something photographer Edmund Teske embodied during his lifetime but rarely elicited in others. Deeply introspective, he was also outrageously flamboyant. A sensitive and caring friend, he was also famously self-absorbed. Those who knew him or his work didn't straddle the fence. He had his detractors, and he had his champions -- both products, perhaps, of a lifetime spent casting off convention.

Preeminent photo historian Beaumont Newhall once responded to a portfolio of Teske's work by calling his printing methods "perverse

But by the 1960s and '70s, Teske (1911-96) had been the subject of several exhibitions, and his work had been collected by major institutions, such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. He had been published too, even by White in the photography journal Aperture a few years after that disparaging letter. Numerous artists considered Teske an inspiration. Gallery owner Craig Krull came to know him in the '80s and staged the last few commercial shows Teske had during his lifetime. Krull's voice exudes affection when he recalls, "He had a sense of the shaman. He was an artist 24 hours a day -- he lived and breathed his work. He was a poet in the ultimate sense, not just a person who writes poetry but lives a lifestyle in a poetic way."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday June 14, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 56 words Type of Material: Correction
Edmund Teske -- An article in Sunday's Calendar section about photographer Edmund Teske included a photo of an L.A. newspaper vendor that Teske took in 1943. The caption incorrectly stated that the photo recalls the work of earlier New Objectivity photographers. The photograph actually is more typical of Teske's social documentary work, done mostly in Chicago.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday June 20, 2004 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 56 words Type of Material: Correction
Edmund Teske -- An article in last Sunday's Calendar about photographer Edmund Teske included a photo of an L.A. newspaper vendor that Teske took in 1943. The caption incorrectly stated that the photo recalls the work of earlier New Objectivity photographers. The photograph actually is more typical of Teske's social documentary work, done mostly in Chicago.

Teske may have loved attention, but he also stood in his own way of getting it through his aggressive independence and resistance to practical career demands. Bolstered early on by the poetry and example of Walt Whitman, Teske lived as though Whitman's "Song of Myself" were his personal anthem: "I exist as I am, that is enough, / If no other in the world be aware I sit content, / And if each and all be aware I sit content."

He would no doubt be sitting quite content this week as a solo show of his work opens at the J. Paul Getty Museum. "Spirit Into Matter: The Photographs of Edmund Teske" opens Tuesday, accompanied by a well-executed catalog. Eleven years ago, the Getty staged a small Teske show, a sampling. This one, with about 120 prints, offers a full retrospective of the photographer and his character of extremes.

Born in Chicago, Teske became involved in photography, theater and music as a young man. He dropped out of high school just shy of graduating and pursued a patchy course in self-education, including evening classes and jobs assisting commercial photographers. His close-up portraits of family and friends are akin in intensity to the work of New Objectivity photographers of the '20s and '30s.

In 1936, Teske met Frank Lloyd Wright and fell under the great architect's spell, photographing him and several of his buildings and serving as an honorary fellow at Taliesin North, Wright's estate near Spring Green, Wis. Teske gleaned from this contact an acute concern for aesthetic detail in presentation that he maintained his entire life. Back in Chicago, he embarked on an extended photographic portrait of the city, its textures, motion and human and material residue.

Drawn by the dream of work in cinematography -- he had earlier shot some footage for Paul Strand -- Teske moved to Los Angeles in 1943. Although the film career didn't pan out, California worked its wonders on Teske, triggering radical reinventions of both his personal life and photographic art.

He settled first in Hollywood, in one of the Wright-designed studio residences commissioned by Aline Barnsdall, and later in Topanga Canyon, mixing with other artists, writers, actors and filmmakers. His work became more inventive, deviating from the social documentation of his Chicago years to encompass personal memories, homoerotic attractions and spiritual beliefs. He began combining negatives and experimenting with unusual printing techniques. For the rest of his working life, he added to and drew from a reservoir of images -- portraits, Mono Lake landscapes and studies of found objects.

Widening his audience

Julian COX, associate curator of photographs at the Getty Museum, organized "Spirit Into Matter," hoping the show would broaden Teske's audience and expand understanding of the photographer among those familiar with his work. Teske is best known -- nearly exclusively so -- for his "duotone solarizations," prints with reversed positive/negative values and chance stains and streaks in tones of slate and rust. He refined the darkroom process in the '50s, decades after meeting Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and admiring his solarized prints. It was these pioneering manipulations of Teske's that Beaumont Newhall found perverse.

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