Georgia O’Keeffe spent 30 years with the legendary American photographer Alfred Stieglitz. She worked alongside him, posed for him, and even spotted prints for him. But she knew not a lick about taking photographs. “Stieglitz used to say I knew less about photography than anybody he ever knew,” she told a journalist in 1962. “Yet, he’d trust my judgment of a print.” No doubt she’d laugh to see herself newly proclaimed as Georgia O’Keeffe, Photographer, the title of an exhibit now on view at The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH).
O’Keeffe took a handful of incidental photographs over the years, and during her 1939 Dole-sponsored junket to Hawaii she produced a roll of what she labeled “snaps.” It wasn’t until the late 1950s that O’Keeffe owned her own camera. First, a 35mm Leica, and later a Polaroid.
“I have a little camera — a Leica a friend found for me — but I haven’t learned to use it. I never have the time. I’ve been wanting to photograph the dogs, and I haven’t got around to it,” O’Keeffe told journalist Ralph Looney. That friend was the photographer Todd Webb. He and his wife, Lucille, spent summers in New Mexico from 1957 through 1960, and moved to Santa Fe in 1961. You can see from the photos they took during that time that photography was part of their friendship, something fun they did together. O’Keeffe never did commit the camera’s technical details to memory. She relied on Webb and made herself a set of crib notes on Waldorf-Astoria memo paper. Three of them are on display at the MFAH, a great bit of O’Keeffe memorabilia. My favorite one begins: “Check to see if sprocket engages holes in film — Pull spool up & down — shake spools till it does.”
As for the Polaroid Land camera, O’Keeffe first encountered the instant camera when her longtime friend Frances O’Brien came to visit. The artist was fascinated with it, used it, and was very good at it, as O’Brien recalled later, and said she would get one. When Webb brought one along to O’Keeffe in July 1964, she was, he wrote in his journal, “like a kid with a fine new toy.” “Todd came yesterday with the Polaroid camera,” she reported back to O’Brien. “I must laugh that the film costs more than the machine but I have a lot [of film].”
The snaps weren’t anything O’Keeffe planned to exhibit. She wrote to a friend, the journalist Edith Evans Asbury, that she intended them as a way of making records. Nevertheless, O’Keeffe had no illusions about the veracity of photography: “Many people think photography is realistic. I think it lies. I am often astonished to see something after I have seen a photograph of it. Often it isn’t accurate. It can be quite a bit different from the real thing.”
At most, O’Keeffe tucked the snaps into letters to friends. Like when she sent one of that famous patio door to the art critic Henry McBride. “This is what made me buy the house I live in – this door in the wall.” The photographic image gave her another way of sharing the wonder of her world.
With this show, curator Lisa Volpe makes an art historical pivot: from O’Keeffe the photographic subject to O’Keeffe the photographer. Despite the artist’s remarks to interviewers that she’d only taken “about 20” snaps, or only what you could count “on one hand,” Volpe has identified more than four hundred of them, found among the artist’s own possessions, along with seven that made their way anonymously into the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The exhibit is engagingly installed: positioning nearly 100 photos by O’Keeffe alongside photos of O’Keeffe, juxtaposing her photos with related paintings, and displaying archival objects (most notably, the artist’s cameras and her spotting equipment). But knowing how incredibly particular and protective O’Keeffe was about her art (she unblinkingly destroyed paintings deemed unworthy and let major sales fall through if she couldn’t control the work’s display and care), I couldn’t help feeling a bit uneasy. As if I were reading an obviously unfinished manuscript retrieved posthumously from the bottom drawer of some famous novelist. The vast majority of the prints on view are nothing remarkable in themselves, no better or worse than what you or I would take. (The portraits are surprisingly clumsy.) After all, she pointedly called them “snaps” and not “photographs.” But for scholars and historians and O’Keeffe fans, they are fresh finds, and therefore irresistible.
Mostly we find the usual subjects — flowers, trees, skulls, adobe walls, the Chama River, and the patio door. O’Keeffe’s immediate world. The same world she limned as a painter. The biggest takeaway? O’Keeffe was relentlessly single-minded. The same concerns she had in painting are here in the photographs, and they are the troika of compositional concerns that she learned at the very beginning, from the teachings of Columbia University art professor Arthur Dow. From start to end, she never stopped exploring line, notan (light/dark), and color. But for O’Keeffe, these were only tools, deployed to discover that holy grail of modernism: a unique, radical point of view. She succeeded over and over again: flowers the scale of skyscrapers, a tree turned upside down and roundabout, landscapes collapsing near and far, bones as viewfinders, rivers like tree branches, and a runway of clouds like stepping stones.
O’Keeffe resisted acknowledging any impact on her work from photography. (Though she did once admit to an interviewer that “I must have been influenced by photography. I saw so much of it. [ . . . ] I can’t think specifically how. Perhaps the clarity of the print influenced me.”) The way she was treated, it’s no wonder she worked so assiduously to establish her autonomy. As she wrote to a friend and colleague about Stieglitz: “It often sounds as if I was born and taught to walk by him — and never thought of painting till he worked on me.” Clement Greenberg, in his scathing review of her retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, dismissed “the greatest part of her work” as “little more than tinted photography.” O’Keeffe worked to disassociate herself from photography, and Surrealism, and Precisionism — from anybody or any -ism. Why would she try to out-Sargent Sargent, as she once put it. O’Keeffe considered (and constructed) herself as an artist sui generis.
And yet we know that photography was a formative influence. “Part of my searching,” as she put it, for a definition of what art was. Photography, she wrote with seeming envy in 1922, did not suffer the same burden of tradition as painting. Photography was unencumbered by the history and expectations of genre and style. The camera emphasized the act of seeing rather than the production of an object. Modern photography had a point of view — the direct expression of the self. And that’s what O’Keeffe sought to do in paint.
From Stieglitz, O’Keeffe learned about color. She was impressed by the subtle tonal range he managed to create in a platinum or palladium prints. Renowned for her own use of color, O’Keeffe nevertheless described his as “a very refined color sense, much more refined than mine,” which “made me think a little differently about my color.”
From Paul Strand, she learned two things. First, he showed her an elegant elaboration of Picasso’s modernist space, which rejected the illusion of realistic perspective. O’Keeffe would go on to invent her own radical approach to scale and distance and depth, guided only by a logic she called “painting sense.” “I have always thought,” she wrote, “that in those things like ‘Dishes’ [sic] — that Strand was the first to consciously use in photography the abstract idea that came to us through cubism.”
Second, in a less concrete but more profound way, Strand showed her what it meant to make art as a subjective act. Soon after meeting him in New York in 1917, she wrote to him on the train back to Texas, breathless about the prints he had shown her. “And I’ve been wanting to tell you again and again how much I liked your work[.] I believe I’ve even been looking at things and seeing them as I thought you might photograph them — Isn’t that funny — making Strand photographs for myself in my head.”
What distinguished Strand’s art wasn’t his subject matter or technique. It was his unique way of looking at the world, literally. That was O’Keeffe’s ambition: to make art so recognizably hers that no signature was needed. O’Keeffe was her “eye,” whether taking a photograph or making a painting. She was her own “viewfinder.” I’m reminded of that wonderful, whimsical, very meta portrait by Tony Vaccaro. She’s sitting in the back of a car, holding up a slice of swiss cheese to one eye as if it’s a camera. She looks out from behind that large hole, knowingly returning the photographer’s (and viewer’s) gaze.
O’Keeffe did acknowledge that several early 1960s paintings, including The Winter Road (1963), were the direct result of a photograph. In order to capture an image of the entire road, which swooped up and below her Abiquiu home, she “had to turn the camera at a very odd angle.” As always, she was interested in an extreme point of view. But that sinuous line was hardly a new one for her. It resembles the kind of Japanese brushwork she was playing with in the 1910s. And you can see that unfurling line show up as early as Abstraction IX (1916), and again in the ribbons of rivers that she sketched from airplanes in the 1950s.
Photographs were one of the first things I looked at when I started archival research on O’Keeffe. What a good way, I thought, to gain additional insight into her “eye.” What did she choose to look at? And how did she choose to look at it? The most telling images I found were 1964 snaps of Forbidding Canyon, which is located in Glen Canyon in Utah; five of these pieces are included in the show. Each image is of the sky between two cliffs, forming a “V.” It’s essentially a mass-and-void, one of O’Keeffe’s most familiar visual themes. Over the course of nine exposures she explores Dow’s principle of notan, from the Japanese word meaning “dark, light,” referring to how light and dark spaces (whether in color or not) are used in relation to each other. Then you can see how she carries the experiment over into a painting like Canyon Country, White and Brown Cliffs, c. 1965, where the configuration of light and dark color fields confound which triangular area is mass and which is void. Another riff on the dynamic ambiguity of cubist-inspired space.
O’Keeffe took advantage of what shadows could do to a form or add to a scene. A ladder comes alive alongside its shadow on the wall, like a cheerful doppelganger. A roofless room in deeply etched shadow makes for gorgeous abstraction. On a patio, a shadow spreads across the wall like a veil.
It’s always a pleasure to see anything that O’Keeffe did with her Abiquiu patio. For her, it was the primal canvas, providing the minimal elements needed to make a picture: wall and door. That’s what she taught her art students in Canyon, Texas, back in the late teens: how to place a door on a wall. I like how the door becomes a recessed frame for twin portraits on view in the show, one of O’Keeffe by Webb, and one of him by O’Keeffe.
Garage Vigas and Studio Door (1956) is one of the photos in the Met’s collection, and the very best of O’Keeffe’s photographs. It’s a stunning notan success story, beautifully textured and starkly composed as a horizontal diptych. If you resist the temptation to make wholistic sense of the picture, it becomes a vertiginous pleasure. Can I reach out across that deep black night sky? Am I falling into an abyss? Can I run my hand over that wall? Can I bear such a tight spot? Blink, and it’s back to being a piece of paper covered in shades of black and white. O’Keeffe framed the world in unexpected ways, often placing the viewer in an untenable position. True, we may have no solid ground to stand on, but — even better — she gives us lots of room to move.
One last aha moment for me: the still lifes. When you see how rather awkward her photos are of skull and chair — you can sense O’Keeffe trying to compose a picture — you realize just how remarkable her painted still lifes are. They look so . . . inevitable. Grand, iconic, magnificent. Even though they’re just a skull.
The exhibit runs through January 17, 2022. If you can’t make it to Houston, not to worry. O’Keeffe herself suggested that photographs may be better viewed and appreciated “in the hand like a book” rather than hung on the wall. So get ahold of the catalog, which gives you the full exhibit, along with an inventory of her 400+ photos, with the added bonus of curator Lisa Volpe’s exhaustive research.
Ann Daly, PhD is writing a book on the art and art-making of Georgia O’Keeffe. You can follow her at @mygeorgiaokeeffe. On February 22, 2022, she’ll be giving an online reading from the work-in-progress, Digging for Stars: The Art of Georgia O’Keeffe, via Book Woman bookstore.