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June 15 - September 26, 2004 at the J. Paul Getty Museum, West Los Angeles
July 8 - August 28, 2004 at Stephen Cohen Gallery, West Hollywood

by Diane Calder

City of Metaphor, A Usable Past, The Shapes of L.A., and Inventing Arcadia could easily be appropriated as delineations of aspects of Edmund Teske’s photographic output. They are actually chapter headings from William Alexander McClung’s historiography, Landscapes of Desire, Anglo Mythologies of Los Angeles. In it, the author cites as one of the major cultural forces that shaped L.A. between 1850 and 1980 its appropriation by English-speaking immigrants seeking utopia. A cursory look at Edmund Teske’s bio, (born in 1911 in Chicago of blue collar, German immigrant parents, migrated to L.A. in 1943), would place the photographer squarely in the center of McClung’s demographics. But Spirit into Matter, the retrospective of Edmund Teske’s work mounted at the Getty Museum, the exhibition’s comprehensive catalogue, and a carefully culled group of Teske’s photos concurrently at the Stephen Cohen Gallery all suggest that the artist is more often the marginalized “odd man out” than the central component of any readily definable group.

The black and white photograph on exhibit at both venues, Mannequins, State Street, Chicago (1938), features Teske’s skewed view of a trio of female clothes dummies, artfully arranged, immaculately groomed, and clad in filmy formal gowns. A transparent pane of glass insulates the staged figures from the crowd of passersby, bundled in coarse, drab attire against the cold sting of wind and the Depression. Teske chose not to crop out the spotlights that illuminate this window display, perhaps in acknowledgement of his long history of involvement with theater. A handsome figure, Teske enjoyed posing for the camera even as a child. The photographer’s attraction to acting was fanned by his involvement in Hull House, where he gained experience in set design and photography. Hope of stardom was one of the lures that drew Teske from the bleak Midwest to Los Angeles. “I had read in movie magazines how Garbo walked in the rain all alone at the ocean’s edge and I only wanted one thing: to walk with her or somewhere near her.” Teske did capture a bit roll in the quasi biopic film about Vincent Van Gogh, Lust for Life. He worked briefly at Paramount studios in the photographic stills department, augmenting his meager income by producing headshots of actors, and eventually reached his largest audience with composite portraits featuring celebrities such as Jim Morrison and The Doors.

“Mannequins, State Street,
Chicago,” 1938, photograph.

“Frank Lloyd Wright, Chicago,"
1938-72, composite photograph.

“Bill Allard & Vicky Palermo,"
c. 1970, composite photograph.

“Jim Morrison & Doors Composite
with Abstraction," 1968,
composite photograph.

Photos courtesy Stephen Cohen Gallery

Teske was not shy about pursuing contacts with actors, artists, writers, or others he admired who were in positions of power. From his earliest perceptions of himself as special and separate from the rest of his family, he sought out role models among those who seemed to validate his values. Teske consumed the writings of Walt Whitman and poured out his heart in poetry and prose modeled after his hero’s writings. The young Teske obtained a fellowship with Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin North and was inspired by Wright’s blend of organic architecture, Asian interests and dedication to craftsmanship, learning and experimentation. Teske amassed a body of photos of Wright, his fellow apprentices and Taliesin North. This set him to thinking about how he might sequence these images and eventually produce a composite work in homage to the architect. Wright continued to influence Teske even after the photographer moved to Los Angeles, where he came to live on the Olive Hill estate commissioned by Aline Barnsdall. There Teske created hauntingly beautiful photographs of his residence, Studio B, Hollyhock House.

Several views of that site are sandwiched into composite photos, multiple images of the type that were to become Teske’s visual signature. Some incorporate nude shots of male friends posed as Shiva, the Hindu god of creation and destruction. Although Teske had focused on male nudes all of his life, anything deemed “queer imagery” was dangerous to exhibit openly in those days. Personal pictures normally hidden from public view began to surface in Teske’s work as he found ways to use creative synthesis to mask them. His studies of Vedantic thought (inspired by his associations with Christopher Isherwood and Swami Prabhavananda) brought him back to earlier readings of Jungian theory, while positing an immortal divinity in which all aspects of life and nature are connected and there is no annihilation of matter. As Teske recycled images and embraced the worship of Shiva and the phallus he proclaimed: “I show the beauty and the wonder of the male nude and I show him in terms of his position as lord of the lingam.” But unless they were clothed, most of the objects of Teske’s desire were artfully screened with shimmering duotone solarization, superimposed with a camouflage of vegetation, disguised as Hindu gods, and neutralized by adjacent images of women.

Among the exceptions are two stunning photographs on exhibit at the Getty. One is a languid study entitled Mineral Baths, Big Sur, California (1967). In it a head, foretelling Joel-Peter Witkin’s imagery, drifts over the suggestion of a Mapplethorpe wet dream. The second photograph, Ramon, Los Angeles (1943), features the arresting image of an adolescent boy in tee shirt and jeans. The letters “US” hover over his slumping shoulder, printed on a window glass that reflects and enhances the sensuality of his boyish, athletic form. Ramon symbolizes the pride and resilience of young Chicanos at a time when wartime patriotism and racial prejudice were so strong that marginalized “zoot-suiters” were being clubbed and mangled. It also personifies Teske’s fears and longings.