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Edward Weston’s Women

In 1975 I wrote a review of a retrospective of Edward Weston’s photographs at the Museum of Modern Art for The New York Times. I was allowed an illustration, but the one I chose—the well-known pear-shaped nude, a starkly abstract study of a woman’s bottom—was considered too racy by the Times of that time, and I was obliged to accept a staid substitute: a seated female nude in which the model had so arranged her body that nothing of it showed but bent legs and thighs and arms and the top of an inclined head. A few years later, I had occasion to look at that staid picture again and to see with amusement something I and obviously the Times had not noticed in 1975: if you look very closely at the intersection of the woman’s thighs, a few wisps of pubic hair are visible. I had been led to this discovery by the photograph’s model, Charis Wilson, Weston’s second wife, who wrote a remembrance of Weston in a book of his nudes published in 1977, and recalled of the picture that

he was never happy with the shadow on the right arm, and I was never happy with the crooked hair part and the bobby pins. But when I see the picture unexpectedly, I remember most vividly Edward examining the print with a magnifying glass to decide if the few visible pubic hairs would prevent him from shipping it through the mails.

The photograph was taken in 1936. In 1946, when the Modern gave Weston his first retrospective, it was still against the law to send nudes showing pubic hair through the mail, and the museum seriously debated whether to show any of Weston’s nudes at all. (It finally took its life in its hands and showed them. Nothing happened.) Weston’s biographer, Ben Maddow, quotes Weston’s satiric letter to Nancy and Beaumont Newhall of the Modern’s photography department, “re ‘public hair’” (as he liked to call it):

By all means tell your Board that P.H. has been definitely a part of my development as an artist, tell them it has been the most important part, that I like it brown, black, red or golden, curly or straight, all sizes and shapes. If that does not move them let me know.1

Weston’s bitter jest contains a truth evident to anyone familiar with his history. Weston’s erotic and artistic activities are so tightly interwoven that it is impossible to write of one without the other. It is known (from Weston’s journals) that most of the women who posed for his nudes and portraits—arguably his best work—slept with him (usually after the sitting) and were sources for him of enormous creative energy.

Margrethe Mather, the first of these all-important models, was, as Maddow writes of her, “a small, very pretty, and exceptionally intelligent woman… mostly, though not wholly, a lesbian,” and a mysterious, elusive object of desire:

Edward Weston fell desperately in love with her. The sons [by his then wife Flora] remember barging noisily into the studio darkroom in search of dad, to find him locked in embrace with Margrethe; but she would let things go no further, and this semi-platonic relationship tormented him for nearly ten years.

Weston was then living in the Los Angeles suburb of Tropico, earning his living as a studio portrait photographer and striving, with his after-hours work, to make a name for himself in the world of art photography. Mather’s delicate Garboesque beauty and ineradicably sad expression made her an ideal subject for the soft-focus, painterly style in which Weston then worked. Weston’s longing for Mather—which was finally and rather mystifyingly fulfilled on the eve of his two-year-long trip to Mexico with another love—has been a fixture of writing about Weston, as has the question of her influence on his work. (“It is… difficult to ascertain the undoubtedly strong influence on Edward Weston’s photographic ideas of a very bright and neurotic woman, whom he not only photographed, but eventually made his partner at the studio,” Maddow writes of Mather.) Unfortunately, the document that might have cleared these matters up—a journal kept by Weston during the years of his association with Mather—was destroyed by him in 1923 in a moment of self-disgust. A few months later, Weston repented of his act, writing in a new journal:

I…regret destroying my day book prior to Mexico: if badly written, it recorded a vital period, all my life with M.M., the first important person in my life, and perhaps even now, though personal contact has gone, the most important. Can I ever write in retrospect? Or will there be someday a renewed contact? It was a mad but beautiful life and love!2

When Mather met Weston, she was a Pictorialist photographer herself, at least on the same level of achievement as he was. But whereas Weston went on taking pictures—and experimenting with new forms and styles—to become one of the great figures of photography, Mather stopped photo-graphing in the Thirties, and thus became a mere character in the story of Weston’s artistic innovations and heroic encounters with P.H. Margrethe Mather and Edward Weston: A Passionate Collaboration is a mournful reminder of the short attention span of the gods of reputation. If an artist doesn’t keep producing, if he remains out of sight too long, he falls by the wayside. The book’s illustrations demonstrate the excellence of Mather’s work—twenty-two plates by Weston are interspersed with sixty-six plates by Mather, and the work of the obscure photographer by no means suffers from the comparison. As a Pictorialist, Mather serenely holds her own. Leafing through the book without looking at the captions, one can confidently identify the Westons only when Mather appears in them. Each photographer masterfully executes the program of early-twentieth-century art photography, with its love of mist and murk and shadow and all things Japanese. But after 1930 (there was a single brief flurry of renewed activity in 1931), Mather allowed the flame of her talent to subside and then to go out.

Mather’s early history, a tale out of Dreiser, as Beth Gates Warren tells it in her book’s short text, causes one to wonder how the flame ever got lit. She was born Emma Caroline Youngren in Salt Lake City and at the age of three—following the death of her mother—was sent to live with an aunt who was a housekeeper for a man named Joseph Cole Mather. When Emma came of age, she adopted the name Margrethe Mather, moved to California, and became a prostitute. Even after becoming a photographer and bohemian and political activist (she moved in a circle of Emma Goldman disciples), she continued turning tricks to supplement her income. The source of this arresting information is an extremely rum memoir by a man named William Justema, a pattern designer, whose unreliability Warren acknowledges (“recent research has now qualified a good deal of the information in Justema’s casually recorded, undocumented, and highly readable telling of her story”), but whose narrative she cannot resist. Under Gresham’s law of biography, good stories drive out true ones. The true story here is that we don’t know whether Mather was actually a prostitute or whether Justema (or Mather herself) mischievously invented the story.3

Mather and Justema met around 1921 when he was sixteen and she was thirty-five and soon thereafter began what he calls “a joint existence of quite exceptional austerity and decadence.” (He moved into a room across the street from her studio where he slept, but spent days and evenings with her.) She was “our breadwinner and my surrogate mother,” and he was who knows what. At this time Mather was working as Weston’s partner in his Tropico studio, but from Justema’s (and Warren’s) account her movements between Weston and Justema are hard to figure out, no less to imagine. She and Justema went on strange drastic diets, frequented the Chinese theater, sold pornographic drawings made by Justema, and in 1931 collaborated on a remarkable exhibit of pictures of objects arranged in patterns by Justema and photographed by Mather. What Mather did as Weston’s partner and collaborator remains tantalizingly unclear. Mather spent the last twenty years of her life with, as Warren characterizes him, “a garrulous, hard-drinking man named George Lipton,” helping him run his struggling antiques business. She died of multiple sclerosis in 1952 at the age of sixty-six.

Warren’s research led her to the many awards Mather received between 1915 and 1925 in the Pictorialist salons, and to the camera clubs with which she was associated (she founded one called the Camera Pictorialists of Los Angeles), but not to the beginnings of her engagement with photography—to the moment when the girl who picked up businessmen in hotel lobbies picked up a camera. This remains part of the mist in which Mather remains obscured. Warren is preparing a full-scale biography of Mather and Weston and perhaps she will eventually penetrate the mist. From her interim report—as from Justema’s crazy memoir—we receive a clear impression of the disorder of Mather’s life but only a hazy and confusing idea of Mather herself. A rare and most appealing glimpse of her—and of poor Flora Weston—emerges from a letter she wrote in 1922 (quoted by Maddow):

She [Flora] wept around here one a.m….blaming herself for holding Edward back—I told her…that she was responsible for Edward’s success—without the balance of her and the children—the forced responsibility—Edward would have been like the rest of us—dreaming—living in attics—living a free life (Oh God!) etc. etc. not growing and producing as he had…. Flora seemed grateful for my words but soon forgot them.

Charis Wilson, in Through Another Lens: My Years with Edward Weston, writes of a chance encounter with Mather in 1937, when she and Weston were walking down the street in Glendale, California. Wilson, who was twenty-eight years younger than Weston, and the subject of some of his most brilliant nudes, was curious about the first of her predecessors:

We approached a middle-aged woman who had stopped in front of a secondhand furniture store…. While she and Edward talked, I looked for some trace of the young woman Edward had known since 1912 and made portraits and nudes of in the early 1920s—that woman of mystery and romance who had cast such a spell over young Edward Henry Weston.

But, she concludes, “I could not detect evidence of that past.” What Wilson delicately refrains from saying, a crueler person—the photographer Willard Van Dyke—(quoted by Maddow) has no compunction about waspishly reporting:

I met Margrethe Mather just once. At that time she was fat and not very attractive, and was living with a homosexual…. She had none of that beauty left, and her mind was not at all attractive.

But even the kindlier writer, then a beautiful young woman in her twenties, cannot break free (and who of us can?) of the idea that exceptional beauty in youth is a defining characteristic, whose loss is a diminishment of the inner as well as the outer person. And thus, for all of Warren’s efforts to secure Mather’s reputation as a photographer, and to invest her vague, sad life story with meaning, Mather’s exceptional beauty—immortalized by Weston’s photographs (as well as by Imogen Cunningham’s)—will probably continue to be what she is known for. What Helen of Troy did in her spare time and what she was “really like” are not questions that torture us. I said earlier that Mather’s Pictorialist photographs do not suffer in comparison with Weston’s; but in one respect they do: none of her photographs portray a person as beautiful as herself.

Edward Weston’s grandly eclectic taste in P.H. did not extend to other parts of the anatomy; he was as picky about the faces and forms of his female models as he was about the skins and shapes of his peppers and cabbages. (In his commercial work he could not, of course, be picky, and his daybooks are full of remarks about the “obese and wrinkled hags” who came to his studio and whose portraits he contemptuously retouched.) Weston’s daybooks are also stuffed with references to his conquests. “Why this tide of women? Why do they all come at once? Here I am, isolated, hardly leaving my work rooms, but they come, they seek me out,—and yield (or do I yield?),” he writes in an entry of February 10, 1927, and, again, on April 24,

What have I, that brings these many women to offer themselves to me? I do not go out of my way seeking them,—I am not a stalwart virile male, exuding sex, nor am I the romantic, mooning poet type some love, nor the dashing Don Juan bent on conquest. Now it is B.4

But though he evidently serviced all the women who came to him, he by no means photographed them all. The nudes for which Weston is known portray a small and select company, from which most of his lovers are excluded. His nudes can indeed be characterized as “passionate collaborations,” in which Weston’s passion for a certain kind of beauty and a woman embodying that beauty come together with an almost audible bang.

Charis Wilson is the foremost of these collaborators and, unlike Mather, she comes to us very well described, making a dashing first appearance in Maddow’s biography. “Charis was a new sort of a person,” Maddow writes, “common in Europe at the time, but just beginning to flourish in America: well-to-do, well-educated, quick, frank, aristocratic, but coarse and open about sex and the less interesting functions.” Wilson and Weston met at a concert in Carmel, California, in 1934, when she was twenty and he was forty-eight. In his journal of December 9, 1934, Weston writes of the encounter, “I saw this tall, beautiful girl, with finely proportioned body, intelligent face well-freckled, blue eyes, golden brown hair to shoulders,—and had to meet.” Wilson was soon posing for him and sleeping with him. Weston writes thus of the transition from one activity to the other:

The first nudes of C. were easily amongst the finest I had done, perhaps the finest. I was definitely interested now, and knew that she knew I was. I felt a response. But I am slow, even when I feel sure, especially if I am deeply moved. I did not wait long before making the second series which was made on April 22, a day to always remember. I knew now what was coming; eyes don’t lie and she wore no mask. Even so I opened a bottle of wine to help build up my ego. You see I really wanted C. hence my hesitation.

And I worked with hesitation; photography had a bad second place. I made some eighteen negatives, delaying always delaying, until at last she lay there below me waiting, holding my eyes with hers. And I was lost and have been ever since. A new and important chapter in my life opened on Sunday afternoon, April 22, 1934.

After eight months we are closer together than ever. Perhaps C. will be remembered as the great love of my life. Already I have achieved certain heights reached with no other love.

In her memoir, Wilson reverently reprints (as Maddow before her had done) this farrago of male conceit and girls-book bathos. She is content to be remembered as Weston’s great love. She was passionately in love with him herself. The impulse to write a memoir came from the “painful jolt” she received on reading Maddow’s biography, which, she felt, “makes Edward out to be something of a fanatic—humorless and egotistic.” Whereas “the truth is that Edward loved jokes, spoofs, and general rigmarole, and cared nothing for conventional notions of dignity.” (Maddow had by no means made Weston as unsympathetic as Wilson believed he had; his portrait is complex—and thus unacceptable to an intimate.) Wilson began making notes for a corrective memoir of her fun-loving ex (she and Weston were divorced in 1945), but it wasn’t until the Nineties, when she was in her eighties, and a younger friend offered her assistance, that the memoir finally got written. It therefore isn’t what it would have been if written by Wilson in her prime and unaided, though the voice that emerges from it is by no means feeble or unappealing.

Wilson believes that much of the trouble with Maddow’s portrait of Weston is that he relied too heavily on Weston’s surviving journal, which Weston himself felt to be unreliable. “I find far too many bellyaches; it is too personal, and a record of a not so nice person,” he wrote to Nancy Newhall in 1948. “I usually wrote to let off steam so the diary gives a one-sided picture which I do not like.” But Wilson’s own journal—the log she kept during her travels with Weston on two successive Guggenheim grants—puts another obstacle in the way of our understanding of Weston. Wilson is not a boring writer, but her dogged dependence on the log makes her one. For a good half of the book she relentlessly reports the day-by-day progress of the trips—every wilderness area reached, every person stayed with, every tree or mountain photographed, every inconvenience suffered. Weston recedes from view as the mass of flor-idly uninteresting information grows.

For all that, Wilson achieves at least some of her aim of portraying Weston as lovable and of conveying the pleasure and excitement of her life with him. It was a life of both deliberate and (because of the Depression) imposed simplicity. Weston made a fetish of living in opposition to bourgeois custom, and Wilson, who had had an unhappy childhood in a mansion, was glad to join him in his California dreaming life of meals of raw vegetables and fruits and nuts and living quarters furnished only with a bed covered with a red serape. She was as solemn about sex as he was. People were in those days.

Her belief in Weston’s greatness was absolute, and the selflessness of her dedication to his career is moving. It is also surprising—it contradicts Maddow’s description of her as “a new sort of a person” and doesn’t accord with the impression of her we receive from Weston’s photographs. In them she has a bodily ease, almost a languor, and a drop-dead expression on her face that are hardly the characteristics of a put-upon artist’s wife. Like his photographs of Mather, Weston’s photographs of Wilson take much of their special sparkle from the subject’s stunning beauty and presence. The 1977 book of Weston’s nudes, many of them of Wilson, brought, she writes, “a rush of attention in my direction.”

…Suddenly I was a prime source—and a prime subject. It seemed that everywhere I turned I would see another image of myself, sitting in the doorway or stretched on the sand or perched on a model stand. I once emerged from a New York subway to face a soiled city wall plastered with posters of myself as I had looked fifty years earlier, sitting against a boulder in the High Sierra, my head swathed against mosquito attack, with a look of exhaustion on my face—since identified regularly by critics as “sensuality.”

This photograph, however Wilson remembers the circumstances of its making, is indeed sensual, probably the sexiest of all of Weston’s pictures of her. She sits with her legs spread and her hands crossed over the inner thighs. That she is wearing trousers and high lace-up boots only adds to the sexiness, you could even say dirtiness, of the picture. The face, wrapped in a scarf as a Bedouin might wrap it, stares at the viewer and beyond him. It is a very young face, perhaps a little sullen, certainly not unaware of the provocativeness of the pose, but refusing to register it. One’s eye goes back and forth between the hands and the face; alternating between the hands’ downward direction and the face’s straight-ahead one. I don’t know of another photograph that puts the eye through such paces.

It was taken in 1937, at Lake Ediza in the Yosemite wilderness, during the first Guggenheim trip. In Through Another Lens, Wilson writes of how Weston almost didn’t get the Guggenheim. After working for days on his grant proposal, he threw out everything he had written and confined himself to this terse statement:

I wish to continue an epic series of photographs of the West, begun about 1929; this will include a range from satires on advertising to ranch life, from beach kelp to the mountains. The publication of the above seems assured.

Weston was given to know by a per-son at the Guggenheim Foundation who wished him well that the committee of judges would be put off, possibly even insulted, by his Cordelia esque terseness, and told to mend his speech. He did so. Like other desperately needy Depression artists, he could not afford to be willful. With Wilson’s help he wrote the five-page essay, full of hot air, that these occasions require. But before applying himself to the task, by way of explaining his original reticence, he wonderfully justifies it:

I felt the need for brevity and simplicity because I realized that any analysis I could give in words, of my viewpoint, aims, way of work,—must of necessity be incomplete—because it is these very things that I can only express fully through my work,—in other words that is why I am a photographer.

The Lake Ediza picture turns out to be one of the few memorable images to come out of the Guggenheim trip. As one regrets Wilson’s Guggenheim journal, so one wonders whether the Guggenheim trip itself wasn’t a mistake—whether Weston wouldn’t have been better off staying home and taking modest but entrancing pictures of Wilson instead of grandiloquent but often uninteresting ones of nature. But then again, if he had stayed home, we wouldn’t have the Lake Ediza photograph, and surely one extraordinary photograph is worth a thousand negligible ones.

  1. 1

    Ben Maddow, Edward Weston: Fifty Years (Aperture, 1973), p. 272.

  2. 2

    The Daybooks of Edward Weston: Volume I. Mexico, edited by Nancy Newhall (Aperture, 1973), p. 145.

  3. 3

    Justema’s memoir appears in a catalog of 123 photographs by Mather published in 1979 by the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona.

  4. 4

    The Daybooks of Edward Weston: Volume II. California, edited by Nancy Newhall (Aperture, 1973), pp. 4 and 18.

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