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Big Sur Mineral Baths 1967
Photograph by Edmund Teske

THE CLOUD OF UNKNOWING
IS HARD TO TRACK

(A Composite for Edmund Teske
from Jonathan Williams)

Early every morning I look at the empty skies over the Nantahala Mountains to the west and want to see written a great revelation from Uncle Fred Nietzsche, a hermit who used to live over on Clear Creek. In huge letters it would say: “IN EVERY MAN THERE IS A CHILD, WHO WANTS TO PLAY!” The player with language (me) might immediately zap that to: “On every man there is a cock, which wants to play.” Those who own one find it very demanding— it wants nearly all your time and attention. The phallus seldom leaves stage-center for more than seven seconds... Nietzsche also speaks of “a laughter in the mind”— a wonderful expression. This essay on a difficult photographer will try to spare you from Artspeak and Bafflegab. Shiva will be pushing the buttons. (Treat Shiva right, or he will pop your clogs.)

 
I’ve been wrestling with Teske’s work for a couple of months, and now it’s time to take a shot in the dark. Somehow the word dark makes me recall The Cloud of Unknowing, a text by an unknown fourteenth-century English contemplative, and leads me to retrieve what I quoted in a notebook at Princeton in 1948: “To see Him is to enter the Darkness and know only that we know nought.” And William Blake, much later, warns me: “Beware the Rational Mind.” I’ll do my best

+++

I am walking to the public library in Highlands, North Carolina, where I live. On the sidewalk, one of the more literate kids in town has scrawled MY GOD HAS A BIGGER DICK THAN YOUR GOD!!! Now we’re getting somewhere, courtesy of one of his daddy’s George Carlin videos. This battle, this unholy war, is one that macho Muslims, Christians, and Jews will fight from this day forth, on through kalpas of vast eternity. Shiva merely laughs. He is the God of Destruction, of those who are ignorant and of all that is impure. As Destroyer he is dark and terrible, appearing as a naked ascetic accompanied by a train of hideous demons, encircled with serpents and necklaces of skulls. But for Edmund Teske, Shiva is profoundly benign. And more than that: Shiva turns him on.

I need to shift gears... But I’ll get back to Shiva.

I never met Teske, nor saw an exhibition of his photographs. I did go to Topanga Canyon and Venice in the 1950s— I knew what was in the wind and in the smog. I had managed to know Stieglitz ( I was 15 when I visited Gallery 291. Stieglitz was in the backroom talking to John Marin. He invited me to sit with them and listen. I did and I went back a few times on holidays to New York.) Later, I became friendly with Ansel Adams, Minor White, Wynn Bullock, Edward Weston, Brett Weston, Frederick Sommer, Aaron Siskind, Harry Callahan, Brassaï,  Clarence John Laughlin, John Szarkowski... Sommer was the only one who ever spoke to me of Teske— he may have had prints, but I never saw them. Teske was always the odd man out... Many of these photographers, of course, knew each other. Witness this letter from Minor White to Teske. At the time White was an editor for Aperture, and Teske had sent in a portfolio of his work. White’s reply —as the man himself says—is enough to make you weep.

1 November 1962
APERTURE  Quarterly of Photography
72 N. Union Street  Rochester 7, N.Y.

 Dear Edmund:

Last evening the appropriate time came in which to study your prints. I deeply appreciate your patience and your sending such a large number of examples because the life of a man permeated the room.

Out of the 200 I isolated 20. These prints will be found in a separate envelope, numbered on the back in order 1/20 in red. They outline for me a tragic story of a man's life... The story is familiar in our society: childhood home, the nest, for some unstated reason the sex wires get crossed, followed by confusion, anger, self-pity, guilt in various combinations. The remarkable psychological image of the nude with the tools is the most direct expression of the hidden desire...to transform the male into the female that I have ever seen. Thereafter come the twistings caused by the psycological blocks, the turnings and returnings in the same scrap heap, the anger and the hate. The denying principle becomes stronger and stronger, resulting in fear, self-pity, vanity, and a host of posturings There is no end to it, the inner conflict is neither resolved by some solution to the problem, nor by death.

Not a pleasant story.... These photographs of yours are always mirrors of yourself.  Stated in another way, your images are raw, the emotions naked, and hence to the audience embarrassing at the exhibitionism....the emotions need appropriate clothes.

It would be well to read The First Six Lessons in Acting, by Richard Boleslavski. In one of the chapters he discussses this matter of clothing the naked emotions that is so necessary in art.

I found tears coming to my eyes as I studied this group of pictures. The whole thing is pathetic, ill, the inward turning of one who became confused years ago, retreated from the world, and still eats his own heart out. (Because it tastes so good?) The tears came from psychological reactions to the psychological situation that is so obvious.

On the craftmanship side the printing is generally thin, meager, meally, but not always. The solarizations are masterful...they may well be the best of your work. “Best” here merely means available to the public.

Again let me say that I deeply appreciate your making this large collection of your work live in my room....I often wonder if you actually know what others see in your photographs. Not just anyone, but adult, wise, and perceptive human beings who can look with compassion at the people of the world....

If you can make images in the future out of a love for those to whom you will show your pictures, I believe, with great sympathy, that you will be a great man....

Sincerely,

Minor

Quite a letter, from a man born in 1908 to a man born in 1911. It makes us realize how difficult it was for outcasts and queers in those days, sixty and seventy years ago. How guarded and coded their language was. Compare that to an e-mail I received a day or two ago from a young poet-pal of mine: “I intended on celebrating the Supreme Court sodomy ruling by going out and sodomizing someone last night in downtown Memphis. But, my plans fell through— no eyes of blue. Oh well.”

Teske said: “I show the beauty and the wonder of the male nude and I show him in terms of his position as lord of the lingam.”

Read this, from the Shiva Purana, one of the fourteen sacred books of the Hindus:

Anyone who goes through life without honoring the phallus is truly pitiful, guilty, and damned. If one weighs up on the one hand phallus worship and on the other charity, fasting, pilgrimages, sacrifices, and virtue, it is the worship of the phallus, the source of pleasure and liberation, offering protection against adversity, which is to be preferred. Anyone who venerates the phallus, knowing that it is the prime cause, the source of consciousness, the Substance of the Universe, is closer to me than any other being.

And read Whitman and the Transcendentalists. (Watch out, though: Whitman’s work becomes a rat’s nest after his early, world-class amazements.) “I Sing the Body Electric” is a key text.

I have perceiv’d that to be with those I like is enough,
To stop in company with the rest at evening is enough,
To be surrounded by beautiful, curious, breathing, laughing flesh is enough...

A great, soothing, democratic message. And in the next section he becomes wonderfully explicit:

Ebb stung by the flow and flow stung by the ebb, love-flesh swelling and deliciously aching,
Limitless limpid jets of love hot and enormous, quivering jelly of love, white-blow and delicious juice...

Makes me think of Henri Bergson’s élan vital, “vital ardor.” Sounds like a product you should be able to purchase by the pint from exclusive pharmacies. Any well-appointed household featuring “beautiful, curious, breathing, laughing flesh” needs some in the linen closet....

Some of Teske’s composites absolutely reek of vital ardor. They are like nothing else I know in 20th century photography. They are simply astonishments: “Geraldine Page,” “Kenneth Anger, Topanga Canyon,” “Mono Lake, California, Composite with Cactus,” “Davenport, Iowa, Composite with Shirley Berman and Male Nude.” Another stunner is the morose young man in the hot springs at Big Sur.


The prints by Teske that intrigue me the most are the little ones of throwaway, rusting objects. I keep coming back to these modest photographs from the Chicago period: “The Stove of Mrs. Soakup,” “Shack,” “Pianola Roll,” “Stove Tray,” “Washtub with Flowers,” and “Rusting Can, Chicago,” among them. What did Teske see in these minute particulars? Is what they call “reification” going on here? In my mind William Carlos Williams is lurking near when he says “No ideas but in things.” If Teske were here, he might say “back off, no way... I took those photographs because the world treated me like it treated those objects.” Elvis breaks in with a few lines from “You Ain’t Nuthin’ But a Hound Dog.” There is plangence in the air.

I was discussing Teske with Tim Davis, a photographer who teaches the history of photography at Yale and who’d stopped by for a visit. He was looking at these Teskes that so absorb me and asked, “Have you ever heard of the word rhopography?” I looked in three good dictionaries and failed to find it. “This is just some snazzy Ivy League word you hear at Yale,” said I, Princeton drop-out. So we consulted the internet, and lo, St. Google came through:

Rhopography (from rhopos, trivial objects, small wares, trifles) stands in opposition to megalography, the depiction of all the grand themes in art, e.g., history painting, portraiture, and concentrates on the realm of the still life, on which, it seems, the great issues of the time have no bearing.

Rhopography— a genre comprising representations of trivial bric-a-brac, which may include such things as the remains of a meal, garbage on the floor, etc. Variations on this genre might include Dadaist readymades and works in the Arte Povera style.

Now we need to know how a generation or two of artists and photographers like Edmund Teske were drawn to seek out such “powerless” things. I venture a guess and put three texts in apposition. And I think of a line by Russell Edson: “The things we take for granted do not take us so.” Go directly to your zazen and meditate on that for the rest of the afternoon!


1.

  “A box, with eyes?”
— “No one understands!
My eyes are in my hands!”

Argyrum Nitricum, or,
A Dialogue on the Art of Light-Shadowing,
by “Enthusiastes Mancuniae,”
Salford, 1841

2

One day as he sat in his room, Jacob Boehme (1575-1624), the “Inspired Shoemaker,” “gazed fixedly upon a burnished pewter dish which reflected the sunshine with great brilliance.” He fell into an inward ecstasy, and it seemed to him as if he could look into the principles and deepest foundations of things. Boehme said: “Desire is everything in Nature; does everything. Heaven is Nature filled with divine Life attracted by Desire.”

3.

William Carlos Williams published Spring and All in 1923. It was dedicated to his painter friend Charles Demuth. The best reading I know of it is by Cid Corman. Corman sees that Williams is speaking with us— imagination to imagination. WCW: “I speak for the integrity of the soul and the greatness of life’s inanity; the formality of its boredom; the orthodoxy of its stupidity.” ... “The imagination freed from the handcuffs of ‘art,’ takes the lead! Her feet are bare and not too delicate. In fact, those who come behind her have much to think of...”

WCW says further: : “When we name it, life exists.” And here he asserts it—life itself—as poetry:

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens

What a poem! The three-word/one-word units are as lovely as anything in Li Po or Tu Fu. Cid Corman notes: “It is painful—no doubt—for two or more generations of teachers/professors to have to deal with this poem. I was given it and told as an undergraduate— allowed no context for it— that it was/is a hoax. That was already 20 years after its advent. And it took me another 5 years OUT OF SCHOOL to find it again for myself. And Bill is no fool—who lays out the poem so decisively—to make us sound every word and syllable—so that each word assume/resume its life—which is ours. If the imagination occur.”

The poet sees a new, heightened world in the glaze on the red wheelbarrow. Does that not tie in with Jacob Boehme? The sun in Boehme’s town will soon go behind a building; in a few minutes the wood on Dr. Williams’s wheelbarrow will be dry and “ordinary,” and the scene not to be seen—unless it is captured by the man with eyes in his hands.

I think I offer us more composites than the law allows, but let’s say goodbye to Shiva one more time. Shiva in so many forms is the central figure in Edmund Teske’s life and work. I imagine him in a grassy meadow on Olive Hill with Shiva. They make love—and Teske makes photographs of the Hollyhock House. They discover a clump of Shortia on the edge of the woods—it is America’s rarest plant. Exploring the woods we find morels galore! Somebody order a case of Chablis. Make it a grand cru—this is a special day. Shiva doesn’t grow on trees. Boehme and Doc Williams got lucky. And Edmund did too.


Jonathan Williams
Sky Winding Farm
July 2003


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