PRINT February 1964

Edmund Teske: The Camera as Reliquary

THE CAMERA IS a reliquary for Edmund Teske, a box preserving vestiges of what the eye venerates. Fragments of tactile experience are focused through the psychological aperture of homage, and the outsider, observing Teske’s results, asks himself why these particular photographs hold so much wonder. It is Teske’s love for the secret clues profusely scattered in life, those shadowings which lead men to trace themselves within alien contours until they come to sites of their own initiation. A romantic among direct-print photographers, and an inventor among those manipulating development procedures for unique effects, Teske’s special position among American master photographers since the Thirties is due to the consistently reflective spirit of his work. In a medium given to analysis, his vision has always sought synthesis.

William Carlos Williams once wrote that culture “is the realization of the qualities of a place in relation to the life which occupies it.” Photography has contributed enormously to the style of our culture while the medium itself has been redesigned by men with new subjects to explore. Despite his admiration for the French photographer Atget’s straightforwardness, the qualities of place and life captured by Teske come to us upon a pedestal. His Mid-West and West Coast cities, heroes, dreamers, splendor and decay seem apostrophized, as if the poet-photographer were addressing himself to pure abstract ideas. Aching with idealism, Teske romances his subjects on the highest esthetic level of that all-American weakness. He does this not by altering the facts but through emphasis and association.

A unique subjectivity underlies Teske’s production, one which makes it necessary to examine the important events in his life. The eldest son in a middle-class home, his father had a milk route and spent his leisure at cards. From his mother, Teske seems to have inherited a certain capacity for nostalgia. Oppressed by her lot she would read Cinderella in German to her three children, identifying herself with the poor heroine of the story’s first portion. Mrs. Teske enjoyed taking snapshots of the family at picnics and birthdays and young Edmund took his first photos with her Eastman Box Scout. Delighted at watching the world in small, he carried it about as a viewing machine. When he was seven, sun-pictures of movie stars were the schoolyard craze. The favorites’ negative, backed by a piece of glass, was purchased along with some printing paper. Arms outstretched for the sun’s magic, the kids paced the playground pressing the paper to the glass. Edmund grasped the practical implication of the toy and rushed home to get his mother’s snapshot negatives. Holding one against the paper in the bright sunlight, he savored the pleasures of intelligence and technology at the same time.

The teacher’s role is one of Teske’s favorite topics. He is a gifted instructor, having taught as a young man in Chicago at Hull House and Moholy-Nagy’s New Bauhaus, and in 1962 at the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles. But he came to know the impact a fine teacher can have upon another’s life when as a fidgety twelve-year-old he met Madison Grammar School’s marvelous Mrs. Morehouse. She introduced her pupils to the silkworm’s life-cycle by having the larvae mature in class and just as naturally taught them something of poetry and painting. An amateur photographer, Mrs. Morehouse rigged a darkroom in the school basement. There Teske began to print his own film. In later life he would meet Alfred Stieglitz and Frank Lloyd Wright, but he honors Mrs. Morehouse as the most creative influence in his formative years.

By 1933 Teske had been given a Goerz-Dagor lens for his 4 x 5 view camera and was acquiring a small following after his photos of the dancer, Vincenzo Celli, were exhibited in the foyer of the Blackstone Theater. For the next two years he worked for George Miller’s commercial and industrial advertising studio, using professional equipment for the first time. By his own admission “an assiduous worker,” Teske applied himself to the business of posing models and photographing the numerous items which comprise Ward, Sears and Spiegel catalogs. He was Miller’s right-hand man in the darkroom. When he finally tired of this apprenticeship, he had completely mastered the techniques of commercial photography.

Resuming his efforts with the Federal Art Theater in 1936 on the Schifferes-Breen production of Faust, Teske accidentally discovered solarization. During the development of a negative, he mistakenly switched on the light before the film was fixed. Instead of discarding the shot, he printed it. Teske recognized in the strange handsome image resulting from the combined negative and positive impressions the very technique he had so admired in Man Ray’s work. For during his matter-of-fact job at the Miller Studio, and even before then, Teske leavened his life by studying avant-garde art and camera periodicals. He immediately began to experiment with controlled solarization to tame this fortunate accident. The mechanical aspects of photography and Teske’s pleasure in the esthetic merits of chance happenings returned him to the question every serious photographer encounters: whether or not photography is or can be an art. Edmund Teske’s answer is that art lies in the quality of the attitude which pervades what a man does, giving it order and harmony. There is nothing intrinsic to photography that would exclude such expression and nothing inherent in painting that makes it inevitable.

In the spring of 1936, Teske left Chicago for New York. He was on a pilgrimage to the art capital of his country and to Alfred Stieglitz’s An American Place

Stieglitz’s significance to Teske and young aspirants throughout the States was that of a brilliant visionary who believed in continuous experiment and hard thinking, and whose eloquent personal achievements were a stimulating challenge to their own authenticity in creation. Unlike Frank Lloyd Wright, Stieglitz wanted no followers. On one occasion he said, “What takes form within oneself will be felt outside oneself. But, if one begins with the idea of satisfying someone else, one will satisfy neither that person nor oneself. That is the difference between esthetics and ethical formulae; the creative, and the being in bondage to the attempt to do good deeds.” Spoken generically and not to Teske, Stieglitz’s words do have relevance concerning the after-effects of Frank Lloyd Wright.

Teske established the first photo workshop at Taliesin in 1937. He photographed the fellowship and recorded views of the architecture, but the time he spent surrounded by the aura of Wright’s feudal imperiousness and vast cultural accomplishments had less of a favorable effect on Teske’s art than on his ideals. From his childhood when his mother had taken him to the beautiful Mid-way Gardens designed by Wright, Teske had held the man in reverence. Approaching Taliesin for the first time, Teske is convinced his senses became attuned to a kind of radiance. Adoring the beautiful and with his pedestal-view temperament, thralldom to such a worthy master was inevitable. But too much awe can be crippling and only in direct photographs has Teske had any success in creating “the Portrait.” For years he has had a montage in process of Wright as a beacon within the American scene. Thus far the pasted figures are literary and grandiloquent. In contrast, Teske’s angle shot of Wright in his cape out-of-doors, is better because of the interlocking configuration of black and white shapes.

Moving to California in 1944, Teske worked for a year in the Still Department at Paramount. Motion pictures intrigued him as a way of showing the layers of experience in fluid sequence as well as simultaneously, but he had no luck getting into the union. Paul Strand, one of Teske’s most admired colleagues had written of him that he “sees life with that quality of concentration which is so rarely found in photographers.” This meditative gift flowered after Teske settled in Los Angeles. Instead of motion pictures, Teske began to develop sequences of his photographs linked by poetic association. Resurgence was dedicated to Frank Lloyd Wright, Song of Dust incorporated his city and Mid-Western experiences, “Inmost Eye” is a series of libidinous rhapsodies, and the most recent sequence, Resolution honors the memory of his mother.

Nevertheless it is in the single print that Teske exceeds himself. Strand had shown Teske the art of daylight printing, a procedure which stimulates the emulsion much more deeply, resulting in rich details and value gradations. Teske has developed his own three-part Pyro formula for this process. He believes his finest prints have been made by daylight but it is an expensive, involved and difficult method. Since he is so skilled as a photographic craftsman, able to make superb documents and extraordinary images from the same pliant medium, Teske finds the only unacceptable position in photography that of the man who takes one particular usage and declares it to be definitive. He is too keen an experimenter to accept arbitrary boundaries.

His personal touch as a dramatic photographer is best seen in uncanny image combinations. A print of a romantically arrogant youth wearing boots and a striped scarf, is a marvel of aptly superimposed reveries. While Dore angels proclaim the coming Judgment, our protagonist hesitates, poised atop the infested bluff. His face registers an expression of deliberation worthy of an Eliot hero freshly intimidated by a peach.

In Teske’s most secretive photographic method, the duo-tone, oxidization occurs within the solarizing process. The results are one-of-a-kind apparitions in sepia, orange, brown and blue-greys. Colors, which seem to have been imprisoned within the negative, wait to be released by Teske’s mysterious ritual. In the duo-tone Teske approaches the sensuous self-consciousness of medium that we find preoccupying much of modern painting. But the photographer has not gone so far as to submit a blank negative to this tonal procedure. He seems to require and treasure the sultry ambiguities mixed within the juxtaposition of scorched tonalities and presences extricated from reality.

In 1960 when Edmund Teske took part in the “Sense of Abstraction” show at the N. Y. Museum of Modern Art, Edward Steichen selected eleven pieces to begin the Teske folio in their permanent collection. The Chicago Art Institute has another group in their collection. During 1963 Teske exhibited at the Ceeje Gallery in Los Angeles, the San Francisco Museum of Art, the University of Illinois at Urbana and Fresno State College. It is good to note that so abundantly gifted an American poet is at last receiving some of the recognition he deserves for furthering through photography the legacies of life and place which men store in their imagination.

Rosalind G. Wholden