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"Spirit into Matter: The Photographs of Edmund Teske"
2004-06-15 until 2004-09-26
J. Paul Getty Center
Los Angeles, CA, USA

One of the unheralded alchemists of 20th-century American photography, Edmund Teske (1911–1996) created photographs with an almost magical touch, transforming our perception and understanding of the visual world. The new exhibition Spirit into Matter: The Photographs of Edmund Teske, at the Getty Center from June 15–September 26, 2004, introduces today’s audience to Teske’s inventive eye in this first comprehensive retrospective of his work, surveying the entire range of the photographer’s career.

Drawn chiefly from the Museum’s collection, Spirit into Matter includes a large body of prints recently acquired from Teske’s heirs. Many of the roughly 128 works on view have never been published or exhibited, including several exquisitely crafted prints from the 1930s that offer a glimpse of Teske’s artistic origins as a social documentarian. Also on view are richly evocative figure studies, rhapsodies on nature, views of Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture, studies in abstraction, and portraits of Hollywood actors and musicians including Jim Morrison and his partner Pamela Courson. The exhibition is complemented with significant loans from the collections of Laurence Bump, Nils Vidstrand, and Leland Rice and Susan Ehrens. 

The exhibition is accompanied by a 180-page catalogue by Julian Cox, associate curator of photographs at the J. Paul Getty Museum and curator of the exhibition. Containing approximately 127 illustrations, it is a dynamic source of information on the artist.

Born in Chicago, Teske moved to Los Angeles in 1943 and influenced two generations of artist-photographers active in the area. Over a 60-year period, he created a diverse body of work that revealed his systematic pursuit of artistic freedom. He experimented with darkroom chemistry, sometimes abandoning documentary realism in his quest to explore the more elusive and mysterious aspects of the medium. For Teske, the negative was a resource to be pushed to the limits of its creative potential. His inventive images blurred the lines of reality, evoking the emotional and the spiritual. 

In 1953, Teske devised the technique of duotone solarization.  Prints made in this way are one-of-a-kind creations that rely on the chance behavior of photochemicals when interacting with light in the darkroom. By carefully manipulating his materials, which included exposing the photographic paper to a blast of intense light during development, Teske was able to produce a remarkable palette of spontaneous color effects and dramatic stains and streaks on the surface of the print.    Teske also experimented with composite printing, in which two or more negatives are combined, either under the enlarger or through successive cycles of copying. Working in this way, he hoped to dispel fixed notions of time and space and reconfigure them into a new reality. This approach grew out of Teske’s interest in the philosophy of Vedanta, a branch of Hinduism, which proposes that all aspects of life and nature are connected. Teske began to see that a single, unadulterated image could not sufficiently express his artistic message.  In one of his composite prints, he depicts a figure of Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction and creation, as a powerful foreground element in combination with a landscape of jagged volcanic tufa formations.  These newly married visual elements become a potent symbol of universal nature, and a meditation on the duality of death and rebirth. 

Teske’s adventurous philosophy was shaped early in his career when he was invited to be an honorary fellow at Taliesin, Frank Lloyd Wright’s residence near Spring Green in Wisconsin. He photographed the architect, the buildings and grounds of Taliesin, and the activities of Wright’s fellowship of apprentices. Teske developed a deep understanding of and affinity for Wright’s architectural theories, and his photographs echo the architect’s desire to integrate interior and exterior forms with the surrounding landscape. His sojourn at Taliesin confirmed his love of experimentation that would mark his life’s work.

Spirit into Matter includes photographs from a series Teske called Portrait of My City. These images of Chicago are among his earliest subjects, and include street scenes, industrial and commercial buildings, residences, storefronts, workers, and children. The exhibition also examines Teske’s later work that reveals his repeated investigation of the mythology of Shiva and the volcanic landscape of Mono Lake in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California. Throughout his long career, Teske would also revisit certain themes such as family portraiture, theater and the performing arts, and the self-portrait. 

Edmund Teske
American, Chicago, negative 1939; print 1970s
Gelatin silver duotone solarized print
11 x 13 15/16 in.

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