Margrethe Mather – Mentor, not Muse
When I was an audiobook publisher I published Sherwood Anderson’s “Winesburg, Ohio”, for my American Voices series. I had never heard of him until someone mentioned his work in the mid-90′s and I consider myself really literate. In fact, Sherwood Anderson was the author who broke through the barrier of the Victorian novel - good vs. evil, hero either reforms or is lost forever. Real life? Forget it. Too gritty. Who cares about what really goes on under the rock?
Well, Sherwood Anderson changed all that with his seminal novel “Winesburg, Ohio” and in so doing changed the course of American 20th century literature. Without him, we would not have William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway. These iconic American authors followed in Anderson’s footsteps as he led the way to realist fiction, real people, real towns, real life issues besides whether an action was sin or not. But Anderson faded out of sight while everyone else took flight. But without him, there would be no launching pad, or at least not for a long time.
So what has this got to do with photography? Okay, everyone knows Edward Weston’s work and life story. But do you know everything there is to know about… Margrethe Mather? WHO?
When Edward Weston met Margrethe Mather (1912-13), he was middle America, married, two kids, studio that advertised portraits of kids. He was well though of as a studio photographer. Mather was a radical, a foster child, got cash selling her body among other livelihoods, and belonged to a newly formed anarchist political group. And without her, Weston probably would be not even a footnote in the annals of the history of photography. Sometimes I wonder if she taught him everything he needed to launch himself into his life’s work.
She certainly loosened him up. Within a few years of meeting Mather, Weston was trying to live the bohemian life complete with serial lovers, trips to all kinds of places, but most importantly, experimenting with his camera. Yes, Mather was his model many times. But she was a breathtaking, ground-breaking photographer in her own right who deserves much and most credit for getting Weston on a totally new track of photography. She used radical new ideas of composition, printing methods and subject matter breaking through the pictorialist era into a whole new way of seeing.
Mather is one of my favorite photographers. There is only one book on her work and it also deals with her relationship with Weston. The book is called “Margrethe Mather and Edward Weston – A Passionate Collaboration”. I finally bought the book two weeks ago at Emerson Books on Exchange St. in Portland and read it from cover to cover today. When Weston copies her ideas his images are nowhere near as good as Mather’s. Each image of hers is a show-stopper and I challenge you to think otherwise. It took endless courage and brilliance to produce such a seminal and important and original body of work over a period of 15 peripatetic years. She was the first one to fill the entire frame with a subject’s face – see her image Edward Weston, 1921 in the book, p. 90. It’s truly heartstopingly perfect and original, as is her totally ground-breaking and seminal portrait of Weston and their friend Johan Hagemeyer, a fabulous photographer in his own right about whom little is known. This latter portrait is considered by all experts as one of the most important portraits ever made.
Unfortunately, Weston burned his journals from the years of his life loving and working with Mather and what is known about her is truly scant. But “A Passionate Collaboration” has pulled out all the stops to find as much verifiable detail as possible and the essay on Mather, and Mather + Weston is very satisfying. The plates are beautiful. Lose yourself in them and honor this little-known photographer who made the road Edward Weston walked on to fame and glory. She made some of the most iconic portraits of the 20th century and needs your attention.
Margrethe Mather, Pierrot, 1920, platinum/palladium print.
Margrethe Mather, Florence Deshon with Fan, 1921, platinum/palladium print.