WHEN EDWARD WESTON and Margrethe Mather met, in his Los Angeles studio in 1913, he was supporting his young family with portrait sittings and she worked as a prostitute or so she later told a confidante. The ambitious and energetic Weston had already developed a more than local reputation from the exhibition of his misty, romantic images in artistic venues beyond California, and their publication in photography magazines. Mather had taken up photography a year or two earlier and achieved remarkably rapid recognition, exhibiting a figure study in two prestigious salons, at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Institute and Ghent’s Palais des Beaux-Arts. Weston and Mather, both in their mid-twenties, soon became lovers according to Beth Gates Warren, whose Artful Lives is a joint biography of them through 1923, as well as a survey of the Los Angeles Bohemian circles with which the two photographers came into contact during those ten years. After their relationship ended in 1923, Weston expatriated himself to Mexico, where he wrote in his diary that Mather had been “the first important person in my life.” But he also destroyed its pages recording his Los Angeles life and her letters to him, thus obscuring whatever lay behind his encomium. Warren sees Weston’s “shroud of opacity” as his effort to conceal Mather’s influence, and she undertakes to recreate the details of their relationship and of the cultural milieu of early twentieth-century Los Angeles in order to establish Mather’s rightful place in photographic and cultural history.
Mather has been a cipher in these histories, and Warren succeeds in bringing her out of obscurity and making a persuasive case for her photographic talent. To accomplish the former, Warren had to penetrate Mather’s own shroud of opacity, for as a young woman she effectively fabricated a new identity and substantially fictitious past. She was born in 1886 to Danish Mormon parents after their emigration to Salt Lake City. When Mather, who was born Emma Youngren, was three years old her mother died, and following her father’s remarriage she was sent to live with her mother’s sister, also a Mormon convert living with a Salt Lake City widower as his housekeeper and possibly his mistress. After a dismal performance in high school and work as a physician’s assistant, Emma left Utah for California, going first to San Francisco and then Los Angeles, where she moved not later than mid-1912. By that date she had already metamorphosed into Margrethe Mather, shaving three years from her actual age of 26 and claiming that she had spent most of her childhood in an orphanage before becoming a sex worker as an adolescent. Her mythomania and lifelong penchant for secretiveness make her history a confounding one to reconstruct. To plumb Mather’s esthetic sensibility, Warren offers formal readings of her photographs — of the twenty reprinted, most are portraits — and through intrepid archival research creates a credible portrait of her young adulthood, although with one significant equivocation.
About Weston, and his relationship with Mather, Warren is less successful, in part because of that equivocation. She asserts that they began a “full-blown love affair” within weeks of meeting, and that it continued until he left Los Angeles, although with ebbing intensity after he became infatuated with photographer Tina Modotti around 1921. While this conclusion seems possible in light of Weston’s later history...read more