Today a little-known photographer, Margrethe Mather was in fact the greatest influence on the development of Edward Weston’s early career.
They first met in 1913, in Los Angeles, working together as artistic partners and even co-signing the photographs they produced. Lovers for eight years or so, they were associated professionally for twelve years. A rebel, romantic, secretive and unpredictable, yet kind and generous, Mather was not only Weston’s model and muse: she was also his teacher. She influenced his vision and broadening his outlook, artistically and socially, introducing him to radical new ideas about politics, aesthetics, sexual mores and life in general.
Apart from this, Mather was an inventive artist in her own right. Beginning as an uncommitted amateur, she quickly developed into a highly respected professional She was meticulous, with a strong and demanding sense of proportion and design. “If it doesn’t look right, it isn’t right,” she became famous for saying to her artist friends.
“If it doesn’t look right, it isn’t right.” – Margrethe Mather
Mather opened her own studio in 1916, working then in a traditional pictorialist style, and taking portraits. A couple of years later she refined her style to one of extreme simplicity, reducing detail, and playing with composition, negative space and tonal variation to create interest.
In 1928, after the failure of a proposal to the newly formed Guggenheim Foundation that she made with Billy Justema, Mather put down her camera for a couple of years. In 1930 she picked it up again to create a series of images of repetitive patterns made from everyday objects: chains, shells, fans, combs, glass eyes, ticker tape, broken china and cigarettes. They were to be prototypes for textiles and interior design components.
When they were exhibited at the M H de Young Memorial Museum the following July, reviewers referred to her as ‘Margrethe Mather, San Francisco Modernist’. It was to be her last contribution to photography – apart from a few magazine assignments – and she died twenty years later on Christmas Day, 1952, aged sixty-six.
Mather, in her fear that she would be remembered merely as Weston’s lover and muse, had begged him to pretend that she didn’t exist. She would have been all but forgotten by historians as she had hoped were it not for the scattered mentions of her in Weston’s diaries. Fortunately for us, her innovative, spare and elegant work has stood the test of time, and she is remembered.
Images from the book Margrethe Mather & Edward Weston – A Passionate Collaboration, by Beth Gates Warren