When I started as the Archival Assistant for the Theo Westenberger Archive, my first task was to examine and describe the contents of every box in the Theo Westenberger Archive. Because there are 400 boxes of pictures and documents, I was prepared to find the task overwhelming. But I was not prepared to find the task so moving.
I was happy to be privy to Theo’s values and approach to life through her pictures. I knew I was going to see all the pictures she took of one subject, including the ones that were left on the editing room floor, and not just the few that were printed. I learned that she was a generous person and a kind photographer, because there are very few “indecisive” moments or awkward pictures in her takes. She did not click the shutter until the subject was ready to present his or her self to the camera. She was not a quiet bystander, trying to capture an unguarded moment; she was always the ringmaster, organizing the show, preparing her subject—taking a picture with her subject. Theo generated the high spirits and good humor that her subject radiate back to the camera.
However, learning about the private Theo through her diaries, journals, personal pictures, and mementos was a different matter. I did not expect to be in tears in the processing room of the library. But when I read Theo’s handwritten account of meeting her birth mother for the first time when she was already fifty years old, my eyes filled with tears.
And I was recently stunned into silence when this note fell out of one of Theo’s books as it was being catalogued for the Autry Institute library: “Marry me.”
MSA.25 Theo Westenberger Photographic Archive, Autry National Center, Los Angeles
No signature, no context, no clues, no date. The book, “A Retrospective Monograph” featuring the work of photographer Paul Strand, was published by Aperture in 1972, well before Theo’s marriage to Jay Colton in 1986, but then again, we have no idea when she purchased the book.
So it may have been just a childish, insignificant joke, but to me the note will always remain a little mystery; a poignant, haunting memento.
I do wish I could ask her about it.