The Photography of Edmund Teske
Born in Chicago, Illinois in March of 1911, Edmund Rudolph Teske was an American photographer who along with his portraits produced a prolific volume of experimental photography. For him, photography was more than a way to record a specific moment in time; it was a way to explore the soul of his subjects. Although he was well known among other photographers and participated in many exhibitions, his work was not widely known among the general public.
The eldest son of three children born to Polish emigrant parents, Teske moved at the age of eight with his parents to Wisconsin. It was at this early age that he began to develop his interests in painting and poetry. When the family moved back to Chicago in 1921, Teske began to study music, lessons which concentrated on the piano and saxophone. Encouraged by his elementary school teacher, he began in 1923 to experiment in photography through the school’s facilities. By 1932 Teske was accomplished in the piano to such a degree that he became the protégé of concert pianist Ida Lustagarten.
Edmund Teske had his first solo exhibition of photographs at the Blackstone Theatre, now the Merie Reskin Theater, in the Loop community area of Chicago. In 1933, he began a career in photography working at a Chicago studio. Traveling to New York in 1936, Teske met and received encouragement in his work by American photographer and modern-art promoter Alfred Stieglitz. In the same year he had the opportunity to meet Frank Lloyd Wright at his studio in Wisconsin. At Wright’s invitation in 1938, Teske took up a fellowship in photography to be conducted at Taliesin, Wright’s personal estate in Wisconsin, where he documented Wright’s architectural projects and began experiments with his own photographic work.
Teske’s professional relationship with Wright enhanced his reputation and brought him into contact with such artists as Ansel Adams, portrait and architectural photographer Berenice Abbott and Hungarian constructivist photographer Lászió Moholy-Nagy. Teske taught briefly in the late 1930s with Moholy-Nagy at the New Bauhaus Institute of Design in Chicago and was an assistant at Abbott’s New York studio later in 1939. In the late 1930s, he started a documentary series of Chicago scenes entitled “Portrait of My City” which focused on the social issues of the city.
Although drafted at the beginning of World War II, Edmund Teske failed the medical exam for asocial tendencies and emotional instability, terms often used at that time to disqualify homosexual men. He was instead appointed as an assistant photographer for the Army Corps of Engineers stationed at Illinois’s Rock Island Arsenal where he printed aerial maps for the military. In the early part of 1943, Teske was able to leave his position and, allured by a new life in Hollywood, made the decision to move to Los Angeles.
After a brief working stay at Wright’s Arizona Taliesin West, Teske arrived in Los Angeles in April of 1943. He was hired for Paramount Pictures’s photographic still department and soon joined the artistic and bohemian movement in the city. After a chance meeting with oil heiress Aline Barnsdall, who was a client of Wright, he was invited to live at the Olive Hill estate that Wright had designed for her. Assuming a larger role than that of just caretaker, Teske hosted informal parties and artistic gatherings with such personalities as artist Man Ray, novelist Anaïs Nin, director George Cukor, sculptor Tony Smith, and actors Joel McCrea and Frances Dee.
Among the people that Edmund Teske met during this period was the novelist and playwright Christopher Isherwood who introduced Teske to the Hindu philosophy of Vedanta. Teske embraced this philosophy with its concept of the connection of life and nature, and its understanding of the existence of time in relation to the larger universe. He also believed in the coexistence of both the masculine and the feminine within every individual. These teachings became a firm basis for his existing view of life and formed a bonding point with Isherwood and the growing Los Angeles gay community.
Teske continued his photographic experiments with manipulated and combined multiple images from which he produced composite prints from sandwiched negatives, prints with solarization to reverse highlight and shadow, and photographic collages. One of the series he produced was “Shiva-Shakti” which featured a nude male overlaid with human faces, landscapes, or abstract subjects. After moving in 1949 to a small studio in Laurel Canyon, Teske became active during the early part of the 1950s with several small, local theater groups. Throughout the 1950s, he experimented with new manipulative and chemical techniques which culminated in 1958 with a new combination of photographic print toning and solarization, later named duotone solarization.
Edmund Teske frequently returned during the 1960s and 1970s to older negatives and reinterpreted them through experimental printing techniques. He participated in more than two dozen group exhibition including the Museum of Modern Art’s 1960 “The Sense of Abstraction” show and was given eighteen solo shows. A colleague of photographer Robert Heineken at the University of California in Los Angeles in the 1960s, Teske taught many of the important photographers of that time, among whom were Aaron Siskind and Judy Dater, and mentored many local photographers. He befriended singer Jim Morrison of The Doors and took a series of informal portraits of Morrison and long term companion Pamela Courson.
During the last twenty years of his life, Teske worked and lived in his East Hollywood studio where he regularly taught workshops. He assembled a comprehensive six-volume autobiographical collection of his work , entitled “Emanations”; however it was never published during his lifetime. In 1994 the Northridge Earthquake severely damaged his studio which forced him to relocate to downtown Los Angeles. Edmund Teske died alone in his home at the age of eighty-five on November 22nd in 1996. A posthumous retrospective of Teske’s photographs was given in 2004 by the John Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
“Strive to accept the facts of life with courage and serenity to develop talent, as an outlet for emotion, and to find happiness in the world of the mind and spirit. In the days when Greece and Rome ruled the world in arts and letters and philosophy, love of man for man reached openly its pinnacle of beauty. Civilization today, moving forward, must eventually recognize these true facts of love and sex variations.”
–Excerpt from Edmund Teske’s Journal, Published in Julian Cox’s “Spirit into Matter: The Photographs of Edmund Teske”, John Paul Getty Museum, 2004
Note: An informative and more extensive read on the life of Edmund Teske is Rosalind G. Wholden’s article for the February 1964 print issue of ARTFORUM entitled “Edmund Teske: The Camera as Reliquary”. The article can be found online at: https://www.artforum.com/print/196402/edmund-teske-the-camera-as-reliquary-37879
Top Insert Image: Photographer Unknown, “Edmund Teska”, Date Unknown, Gelatin Silver Print
Second Insert Image: Edmund Teske, “Richard Soakup, Teske’s Lover in Their Chicago Flat”, 1940, Gelatin Silver Print, 20.3 x 19.7 cm, Private Collection
Third Insert Image: Edmund Teske, “Jim Morrison and Pam”, 1969, Gelatin Silver Print Composite, Private Collection
Fourth Insert Image: Edmund Teske, “Herb Landegger and Bill Burke, Olive Hill, Hollywood”, 1945, Gelatin Silver Print, Private Collection
Bottom Insert Image: Elisa Leonelli, “Edmund Teske, Topanga Canyon”, 1976, Gelatin Silver Print