Theo Westenberger: A Woman of the West

Note: These photographs are not currently on view. This is an online-only exhibit.

In 2010, the Libraries and Archives of the Autry received a generous gift: the entire photographic work of Theo Westenberger (1950–2008). The Autry embraced Westenberger as a true woman of the West. She had a Western childhood and, in her early photography, captured the essence of both the natural and constructed California landscape. Westenberger’s success as a commercial photographer in New York brought her back to California as a player in the movie industry, where she worked with new and established stars. It was in her personal fine art work, however, that her California roots were revealed. She photographed the Rose Parade from 1974 to 1980 and was clearly fascinated with Western culture and the elaborate costumes worn by horses and riders alike. Throughout her life she photographed contrasts. She photographed the “kitsch” architecture of Los Angeles and the sleek midcentury architecture of Palm Springs, and the dense luscious gardens of San Marino as well as the sharp, bristled Joshua trees of the Mojave Desert. Even when we look at images Westenberger shot in the gardens of Italy or the jungles of Guatemala, we see elements that are familiar to us from her work in California.

Theo Westenberger was born in Los Angeles in 1950, raised in Pasadena, California, and finished high school at the Norton School, Massachusetts. After graduating from Wheaton College in 1972, she worked as a gallery owner in Boston and later as a studio manager and photographer’s assistant in New York. Westenberger was initially interested in architecture and landscape photography, working extensively with 4x5 and 5x7 cameras, and shooting buildings and gardens in Southern California, Mexico, and Ireland.

While she was studying for an MFA at Pratt institute from 1976 to 1978, Westenberger found that photographing people was her forte. Her ebullient spirit and willingness to laugh put her subjects at ease. Fortuitously, when Westenberger was an exchange student at Dartmouth College in 1971, her roommate was an aspiring actress named Meryl Streep. After their graduate work, they met again in New York in 1978 when Ms. Streep was already making her mark on the New York stage. As a friend, Westenberger was able to catch her natural beauty and spontaneity. Those photo shoots were widely published and helped bring the talents of both women to the attention of Hollywood and the national press.