HISTORIAN: Beth Gates Warren writes of photographer Edward Weston's… (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles…)
Beth Gates Warren, a former director of Sotheby's photographs department, exhumes details about Edward Weston's lost years in Los Angeles from 1906 to 1923 and his relationship with a highly influential model, muse, photographer and lover in her new book, "Artful Lives: Edward Weston, Margrethe Mather and the Bohemians of Los Angeles" (J. Paul Getty Museum).
Why was so little known about Edward Weston's early years in Los Angeles?
He basically wanted it that way. He destroyed virtually all of his autobiographical writing prior to 1923 when he departed L.A. for Mexico. And most historians took their cue from him and began writing about his career as though he really began working in Mexico. And that was not the case at all. He actually spent a decade here in Los Angeles building his early career.
What piqued your interest in this?
I had read his daybook, which is what unpublished journals were called, and I learned that they had been heavily edited and that he'd destroyed a portion of them. And I became curious about why he had done that. And I also learned that a woman named Margrethe Mather had been his model in many of his early photographs, and yet he barely mentioned her in his journal. And I just found that strange. There was only one important mention of her in his journal and that was that she was the most important person in his life. And yet he made no effort to explain what he meant by that. And so that statement in combination with the fact that she appeared in so many of his photographs and the fact that he had destroyed so much of his own writing made me curious. I wanted to know why.
Who was Margrethe Mather?
She came to Los Angeles around the same time he did. She later told a friend of hers that she'd been a child prostitute and that she had to leave Salt Lake City because there were people who'd found out about her activities. In later years, she was a prostitute, but I doubt that's why she left Salt Lake City. A friend of hers tried to find out more about her early life and couldn't, but that was because Margrethe Mather wasn't her real name, and I was able to track down several of her distant relatives and they told me her name was actually Emma Caroline Youngren.
When she came to Los Angeles, she became a member of the Los Angeles Camera Club and an amateur photographer. And she had an inherent talent for design and composition, so she very quickly became known because she showed some of her photographs in photographic salons, which were the only way photographers could get their work seen because photography wasn't exhibited in museums in those days.
And so she met Edward Weston in 1913 through a friend and they very quickly became involved romantically, although Weston was already married and had two children. And she worked with him for an entire decade until he left for Mexico in 1923.
I had the sense from your book that you were at times more impressed with Mather because she was more focused on advancing her artistry and he his career.
Yes, that's true. She was not a self-promoter. She did not need the kind of attention that Weston seemed to need, and of course he was trying to support a family and needed to build his reputation. She was on her own, but she was also less interested in fame and more interested in the art itself. And I think she was responsible for changing Weston's attitude, because when she walked into his studio in what is now Glendale — it was an area called Tropico then — he was a very conventional photographer. And once he became more involved with Mather, he began to become an artist.
Did she influence his work more specifically?
I think her eye was in some ways more critical than his. She introduced him to the concept of arranging sitters in less conventional poses, and she encouraged him to utilize composition and line and texture to create a mood — in short, to think like an artist rather than a commercial photographer. And she was an excellent printer herself. And she influenced the way he looked at the world. She brought people from the literary world onto Weston's horizons, and she was also a friend of Charlie Chaplin's. She introduced him to dancers and actors.
Can you talk a little more about their circle of artists and bohemians?