Margrethe Mather is best known for being Edward Weston’s lover, but she was also a talented photographer in her own right. Though working steadily from the 1910s to the 1930s, Mather has slipped into relative obscurity. Thankfully, historians including Nancy Newhall and Beth Warren have gone some way to correcting this, shedding light on Mather’s work and life.
Born in Utah in 1886, Mather moved to California as a young woman, where she is believed to have worked as a prostitute for some time. In 1912 she became a member of the Los Angeles Camera Club; in the same year, she submitted a photograph to the annual American Salon. Titled The Maid of Arcady, Mather’s entry was a romantic, pastoral image in the pictorial style favoured at the time. It was later reproduced in the January 1913 issue of American Photography.
In 1913, Mather met Weston and began to model for him. This was the beginning of a twelve year relationship, during which they worked closely together. Though they each maintained their own practice, they also collaborated; by 1921, they were co-signing photographs. Mather’s work gradually moved away from pictorialism and she experimented with more dramatic lighting and compositions. She also took portraits, photographing a number of performers including Charlie Chaplin and Vaslav Nijinsky. Weston would later write that Mather was ‘the first important person’ in his life.
Mather’s work is notable for its sensual depiction of men, including her friend Billy Justema. Mather photographs Justema in a manner usually reserved for female subjects: she pictures him lounging passively, his eyes closed, or isolates parts of his body. In perhaps Mather’s most famous photograph, Billy Justema in a Man’s Summer Kimono (1923), the camera closes in on Justema’s abdomen, his hands pulling the patterned fabric aside.
In 1931, Mather produced a set of still-lives for an exhibition at San Francisco’s M. H. Young Memorial Museum. She described these detailed close-ups of objects as ‘patterns by photography.’ Strikingly modern, Mather’s prints anticipated the more-celebrated Group f/64 exhibition at M. H. Young a year later. The San Francisco show was Mather’s last significant project. Increasingly disillusioned with photography and in poor health – she would later be diagnosed with multiple sclerosis – Mather retired from photography in the mid-1930s.
Sources and Further Reading:
Glueck, G., ‘Art in Review: Edward Weston and Margrethe Mather: A Passionate Collaboration’, New York Times, 4th April 2003.
Warren, B., Artful Lives: Edward Weston, Margrethe Mather, and the Bohemians of Los Angeles, Los Angeles, 2011.
Warren, B, ‘The Late Miss Mather’, American Photo, Vol. 13, No. 3, May-June 2002, pp. 66-69, 84.