The Autry

The Autry National Center announced it has received the gift of a comprehensive collection of more than 9,500 photographs along with thousands of negatives, transparencies, contact sheets, and studio materials from the estate of trailblazing feminist photographer Theo Westenberger (1950–2008), whose versatility in portraiture and travel images made her a leading magazine and advertising photographer and a respected artist. In keeping with its mission to explore the experiences and perceptions of the diverse peoples of the American West, the Autry will create the Theo Westenberger Archive to honor and build on the legacy of this important woman artist from the West. Plans for the archive include exhibitions, digitization of the collection to create online databases, licensing of the artist’s most iconic works, and the establishment of a series of programs and awards around the Westenberger name and collection.

Meryl Streep, 1980. Photograph by Theo Westenberger, courtesy of the Autry National Center

Photographs from the archive will be on display at the Autry in both solo exhibitions and as part of larger group and thematic shows. Archivists, curators, and collections staff have begun preserving and cataloging Westenberger’s body of work. The first program and award to carry the Westenberger name will be the Theo Westenberger Lecture in the Arts, a public program that showcases exceptional feminist artists or research, which will take place at the Autry on Saturday, April 30, 2011. The lecture showcases the 2011 recipient of the Theo Westenberger Grant for Women of Excellence, which recognizes excellence and innovation in any field of art.

A second award to be presented in the summer of 2011 is the Theo Westenberger Award for Artistic Excellence, an invitational competition to honor the achievements of outstanding women artists in the fields of photography, film, and new media, and to promote work that transforms how we see the American West. Additionally, the Theo Westenberger Fellowship for the Study of Photography and the American West is scheduled for 2013 and again in 2015. The fellowship will support a scholar-in-residence at the Autry Research libraries over a one- to two-month period. The award supports research that will significantly shape our understanding of the history and art of the photography in the West.

“This is a landmark gift for the Autry, and I want to thank Theo Westenberger’s estate for making it possible,” said Daniel Finley, President and CEO of the Autry National Center. “We couldn’t be more excited to be the new home for the Theo Westenberger collection, from her widely recognized celebrity portraits to the lesser-known mixed-media works she created during her early years in Southern California. We are delighted that this incredible archive will join our permanent collection, enhancing the Autry’s commitment to promoting a deeper understanding of the experiences of the women of the West—past, present, and future.”

Steve Martin, Photograph by Theo Westenberger, courtesy of the Autry National Center

Theo Westenberger grew up in La Cañada-Flintridge, California, in a Richard Neutra house that was one of her first artistic subjects. She received her MFA from the Pratt Institute in New York and began her career in that city in the studio of advertising photographer David Langley. Westenberger became the first woman to shoot covers for Newsweek and Sports Illustrated, at a time when women in the field were scarce. Although best known for her commercial work, including numerous award-winning magazine covers with portrait subjects such as Clint Eastwood, Meryl Streep, Fidel Castro, and three U.S. presidents, her fine art photography is critically important for its vision of the West as a contemporary landscape. Westenberger’s joint interests in exploring and celebrating this mythic place make this body of work a significant contribution to the Autry’s growing photography collection.

“We found the perfect home in the Autry to provide a historical and cultural context to Westenberger’s body of artwork,” said Colleen Keegan, executor of the Theo Westenberger Estate. “Through exhibitions, the licensing of her most iconic works, and the support of contemporary artists in her name, the Autry will preserve and promote Westenberger’s legacy, ensuring that her work continues to impact audiences and artists for generations to come.”


California Blimp 3, 1975. Hand-painted photograph by Theo Westenberger, courtesy of the Autry National Center