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Lesser-known Weston muse led a full life.

Byline: Book review by Bob Keefer The Register-Guard

MARGRETHE MATHER & EDWARD WESTON: A PASSIONATE COLLABORATION

By Beth Gates Warren (W.W. Norton & Co./Santa Barbara Museum of Art, 153 pages, $39.95)

Just about everyone knows of the photographer Edward Weston, creator of sensuous peppers and cool, almost passionless nudes, the inspirer of Ansel Adams and the poster child of photography as a stark, modernist art form.

Practically no one, on the other hand, has heard of Margrethe Mather, except perhaps for a few dedicated students of Weston's life. She was, by most accounts, just another one of the several women who served him as muse, model and lover.

Now we have a new book, "Margrethe Mather & Edward Weston: A Passionate Collaboration," that makes - or at least tries to make - the case for Mather as a significant photographer in her own right.

Noting that Mather is "one of the most forgotten" photographers of the 20th century, photo historian Beth Gates Warren, a veteran of Sotheby's, would "remedy that oversight in photographic history." Her book sets out Mather's quite fascinating story and collects a number of her photographs, as well as some of Weston's and some that they signed jointly.

Born into a Mormon family in Utah in 1886, Mather by 1910 was working officially as a manicurist in Los Angeles and, unofficially, as a prostitute - a calling that may explain the obfuscation thrown over much of her life's story. (She was born with another name, for example, and Weston burned most of his diary entries about her before he died.)

When Weston met her early in that decade - she was an amateur photographer and a member of the Los Angeles Camera Club - he found her exotically appealing from the point of view of his rather strait-laced, middle-class life.

By 1921, their romance had cooled, but a professional collaboration had begun.

The two photographers signed about a dozen photographs together that year, including a portrait of Carl Sandburg leaning on a bridge rail and several others of the poet Max Eastman. They did a series of nude photographs of dancers from the Marion Morgan company.

It would be the only time in his career that Weston co-signed work with another photographer.

Soon enough, though, their careers begin to part. Weston headed for Mexico and another, better-known photographic romance, this one with actress and photographer Tina Modotti.

Mather stayed in Los Angeles and began slowly to abandon her cameras. Although she continued shooting pictures into the 1930s, when she died in 1952 her occupation was listed as "housewife."

As the middle of the century approached, Weston's work ascended and Mather's stalemated. There's good reason we may have heard of him and not of her: He simply did more and more significant photography than she did.

The photographs in Warren's book bear this out. The period from 1915 to 1930 was a time of great change for Weston, who moved from the soft-focus pictorialism popular at the turn of the century to the sharp-focus modernism for which he would become best known, struggling along the way with formal issues of composition and pattern.

Not surprisingly, some of the best work in the book is his. A 1923 series of nudes taken of Mather shows the ferociously sharp eroticism he would later bring to his better known studies of Modotti.

The earlier work by both photographers looks a little adrift in soft romanticism: Theatrical and dreamy, it was left over from photography's early attempt to emulate painting and establish itself as a legitimate art form.

Near the end of her career, Mather's work includes a few hard-edged attempts at modernism - an intriguing study of dozens of Camel cigarettes, for example - but much is stilted and forced. One of the best is an understated photograph of a decorated shower stall.

Whether or not she meant to, though, Mather shed some harsh light - even through her soft lens - on her lover and mentor. Weston was not an altogether likeable character, having walked out on his wife and children for Gauguinesque adventures in Mexico.

Mather's portraits of him in 1921 and 1922 - with his half-dreamy eyes, his pince-nez and his cape - capture his studied affectation perfectly.

Features reporter Bob Keefer can be reached by phone at 338-2325 and by e-mail at bkeefer@guardnet.com.

CAPTION(S):

Edward Weston's `Margrethe in Garden,' a platinum-palladium print circa 1915.
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Title Annotation:Review; Reviews
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Nov 18, 2001
Words:729
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