Spirit into Matter
The Photographs of
Edmund Teske

Julian Cox, Editor
In later life, Edmund Teske was famous for his duotone and montage photographs. A woman's face is shadowed into one of Frank Lloyd Wright's houses. The rock group "The Doors" is shown with a crackle finish. The supine body of a naked young man is blended with the head of a lovely woman, her eyes closed.

His purest inspirations were red-grey-brown photographic mixes called Duotone Solarizations. These involved considerable work in the dark-room: high-contrast paper behind plexiglass, "an intense blast of light" which created color stains, "dramatic stains and streaking on the surface of the print."

Sometimes, the subjects of these shots are so merged with the stains and streaking that it is hard to determine what it is that is being shown. In all, the photographs of Teske are interesting, alarming, bleak, but, for the most part, not without a certain bizarre interest.

I say "for the most part" because during the early Los Angeles period of his artistic endeavors, Teske and some of his companions specialized in found objects --- empty egg cartons, abandoned ice boxes, general detritus, something the rest of us might prefer to think of as "trash."

The key elements of his photographs, at least judging by the 125 or so presented here, are a love for women's faces and young men's bodies, gussied-up portraits famous actors and musicians, and trash. The editor of Spirit into Matter comes up with some interesting theories as to why Teske chose to go from his simple, often powerful black-and-white photographs (mostly made in Chicago, into double (and sometimes triple) exposures and overprints. She claims that it came from his study of the Vedanta: in the 1950s Teske fell in with Huxley, Isherwood, and Gerald Heard and spent time with Swami Prabhavananda.

According to the editor, in Vedanta, "since the soul is regarded as immortal and divine, it is both birthless and deathless; it has no beginning and no end. Consequently there is no absolute destruction or annihilation of anything." How does this apply to his photography?

    By the practice of composite printing, in which two or more negatives are combined (either under the enlarger or though successive cycles of copying), Teske hoped to dematerialize fixed notions of time and space and reconfigure them in a new reality ... For Teske, the negative was never static or finished ...
Well, maybe: who are you and I to penetrate the mind of an oddity like Teske. His poetry --- some of it reproduced here --- is genuinely awful. The later photographs certainly have a touch of weirdness to them. He photographed Jim Morrison and married him to the negative of "parched and cracked vinyl seat cushions." He fell in love with the barren Mono Lake of the California desert, and merged --- through combining negatives --- some of his older photographs with the bleak stands of tufa. He was an endless recycler of his own stuff.

His big project which he worked on during his last years was A Song of Dust. It was his autobiography, and consisted of seventy-two prints and two poems. He constructed six of these volumes.

One doesn't have to be a psychologist to suggest that much of Teske's artistic set grew out of his sexuality. He was gay in an era when it was dangerous to be gay. (The word "gay" scarcely existed; the preferred terms, at least for the psychologists, was "invert." For the police it was "queer.")

Teske was born in 1911. In the years of his early manhood, it was a felony for a man to be caught in a compromising position with another man. Police regularly sent out undercover agents to entrap those who frequented the "tea-rooms" and bars. Detectives were encouraged to break down doors of apartments or houses of suspected homosexuals in order to catch them in flagrante delicto.

To survive in such a culture one had to adopt protective coloration. Teske knew that the revealing photographs he took of his friends in the 1930s could never be shown publicly. The only way to show naked male bodies would be if they were in some way manipulated so they could be called "art."

Thus he married photographs of the young and the beautiful to trees, leaves, farmhouses, and even churches. One photograph of Richard Soakup --- an early and wonderfully named lover --- is reproduced again and again, blended with other objects which soften, even hide, his quite explicit and lusty image. I would guess it was the safest way for Teske to advertise (to those in the know) and at the same time hide (from those who didn't) what was at the time a definite legal hazard.

For some of us, the tricks of his later photographs should not obviate the genuine art of his earlier ones. In Teske's hands, store-window mannequins take on an ominous air. Passengers on streetcars look desperate, trapped by the bars that were fitted onto the windows. Houses are dark, oppressive, isolated, alone. Even his photographs of the buildings of his much-admired (and occasional friend) Frank Lloyd Wright have a furtive, bleak air.

A good photographer shows much of himself or herself through what comes out of the darkroom. Edmund Teske was a haunted man, haunted by his own fears, and by the fears that an oppressive, Puritan society forced on him. The truth of it shows, and shows powerfully, in these works.

--- Linda J. Waley

Charlotte Sleigh
(Reaktion Books)
Of a summer evening in North Florida, about nine or so in the evening, as my father lay snoring in the other room, I would adjourn to my mother's sleeping porch and for the next half-hour or so I could avoid my own lonely room (with the skeletons lingering in the closets, alligators under the bed). She would read to me in her infallible, steady, school-marm voice.

She had been a teacher for most of her life, and I was a perfect class of one, me in my flannel pajamas, she in her sensible pajamas, her face and neck coated with Pond's --- a pink, sweet-smelling concoction which, even to this day, brings heady memories of the two of us, cool of evening seeping in past the heavy canvas curtains there on the porch, the cicadas and the crickets singing along with the words from Kim, or They Put out to Sea, or Fatapoofs and Thinifers (a jolly book about a kingdom of fat people and another of tall, thin nervous types) or our favorite of them all, The Astonishing Ant.

In the years since I have tried to find these last two (they have disappeared, as she would say, "from the face of the earth"). They struck me then, strike me now as the perfect child's books. The ant book was my introduction to what we used to call "nature," long before the now all-to-common nature programs that wander onto the television, where deep voiced narrators are accompanied by lions eviscerating hartebeests, hyenas scuttling in the firelight, ants doing, indeed, astonishing things.

I've probably romanticized my first ant book, but, still, Ms. Sleigh's book doesn't strike me as half as much fun. It has all the dull facts, takes us through literature (H. G. Wells, Derek Wollcott, Spike Milligan) and into and through the monster movies. It tells us about the soldier army ants and their rampages (and how some are used in South America to suture wounds). Dali, and M. C. Escher appear, as do Homer Simpson and, too, shots from scanning electronic microscopes of those creepy ant faces.

Æsop is here, Walt Disney too. We get all the classical stories and one from Edward O. Wilson. In fact, his is one of the few great stories in a book that should be packed with interesting and amazing ant stories. It's a tale of "small, yellow ants" from South American that somehow got free in his laboratory, playing havoc with all the essentials:

    Here and there yellow ants quickly covered food left out after lunch or afternoon tea. Portions of breeding colonies ... appeared miraculously beneath glass vessels, in letter files, and between the pages of notebooks. But most alarming, researchers found the ants tracking faint traces of radioactive materials from culture dishes across the floor and walls. An inspection revealed that a giant unified colony was spreading in all directions through spaces and walls of the large building.

Wonderful. Those who study the creatures being driven out of their minds by those who were supposed to be resting benignly under the microscopes. "Wilson's silently spreading supercolony was a cancerous growth subverting every aspect of life in the Harvard laboratories, from the recording of information to the execution of experiments, and to humans' social interactions over food." Wilson called it "the revenge of the ants."

Unfortunately, this is as fun as it gets in Ants. I contend the creatures don't have to be doled out to us with such dullness. For instance, our favorite ant book --- at least, the first one after our childhood stories --- is Ants at Work: How an Insect Society Is Organized by Deborah Gordon. She shows us a droll view of the world of ants --- a world she very obviously loves, since she passed many of her happiest hours sweltering on the Sonoran desert, studying their territoriality, their social make-up, their habits, their foibles. Her conclusion:

    Emulating ants does not improve one's character. A person with the moral qualities of an ant would be terrifyingly empty. And I have not learned much about people from watching ants. People remind me of ants only when seen from so far away that they no longer resemble people; in the movie Titanic, the passengers scrambling up the sinking hull seemed to behave like ants.

--- Ignacio Schwartz

Like the
Red Panda

Andrea Seigel
Stella is a top-drawer student at high school in Irvine. She's just been accepted to Princeton. Because her mother and physician father died of an overdose of cocaine when she was eleven, she lives with her guardians.

In the last few weeks, before graduation, she more or less gives up studying and going to exams. She takes up with a new friend, visits her somewhat screwball grandfather Charles in the nursing home, and makes love with Dan, the local high school drug dealer of choice.

Like the Red Panda might well be the female version of Catcher in the Rye --- references to the Salinger novel turn up all over the place. Everyone is crazy, parents don't understand, teachers are petty tyrants, Stella is confused and nauseous.

However, there is something that sets this one apart from Salinger. Stella is a 17-year-old zombie. She doesn't react to anything, mulls on killing herself. She tries to buy a gun from one of the few black students in school, and it's one of the few boffo scenes in Panda: --- he thinks she is looking for a night in the sack, tries to kiss her.

She is perhaps less a Holden, more a Young Törless.

§     §     §

Sometimes Seigel's writing is downright awful. Stella believes that a telephone call has come in from her guardian, Shana, telling her --- she imagines --- that

    Simon had had a brain aneurysm while studying beta versions of a new cookie box that were designed to prevent crumbling...

At other times, Panda can be genuinely moving. In her first night of love-making with Dan in the car, she reacts as a typical intellectual --- she wants to figure out how to get it all into words:

    I tried to think of that rhythm in terms of grammar, as far as my language translating into action through my own will. But I ended up thinking of birds flying south because they just can't help it.

As a novel, this one is certainly an odd duck. Or panda. It is not easy to report on the doings of the Oh-Whatever Generation that Stella belongs to without making it all too yucky. Perhaps there are too many references to Joyce, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and Salinger which serve to make us crave a writing style that is less mopey.

Still, it all makes strange sense. Being a killjoy may be the only way to survive in school in Irvine, California; or to put it another way, in our society. A brilliant student may have to act as if she were dead.

As she evolves, we have a chance to watch Stella slowly leave behind her death-in-life and move towards to, what turns out to be, in a rousing conclusion --- life-in-death. It involves $2,000 worth of a drug known as "freebase," and it's a mind-blower. The conclusion, that is.

The title? The beast certainly is an odd duck. And pretty, too. Doesn't look like the more common black-and-white panda at all. "The red panda likes to hide herself in heavy leaves," says the sign at the L. A. Zoo, "so if you catch sight of this exotic animal, consider yourself lucky!"

    This message was punctuated with three paw prints, as if the red panda had personally signed off on it.

--- Mary Anne Stover, MA
Send us e-mail


Go Up     Go Home

Go to the most recent RALPH