Georgia O’Keeffe’s photographs, seen up close for the first time
HOUSTON – In July 1964, Georgia O’Keeffe bought her first Polaroid camera. “She was like a kid with a beautiful new toy,” her friend, photographer Todd Webb, later wrote in his diary. “She said it was better than Christmas.” Back then – as is still the case today – O’Keeffe was best known for her luminous oil paintings that ignore nature. But she had also been quietly taking photographs for over a decade. As Webb’s entry suggests, photography brought great joy to the artist. But it was also a crucial, albeit unrecognized, component of his creative practice and his personal life.
Georgia O’Keeffe, photographer at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston is O’Keeffe’s first exhibition dedicated to photography. The groundbreaking presentation brings together nearly 100 photos of the artist from unpublished archives, as well as 17 of his related paintings and drawings. O’Keeffe’s intimate and carefully composed photos emerge from his long-standing complex relationship with image creation. After three years of research, curator Lisa Volpe has reconstructed the role of photography in the life and work of the artist. His exhibition offers us a rare opportunity to deepen our knowledge of the visual universe of O’Keeffe through a new avenue: photography.
O’Keeffe was no stranger to the camera. Born in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, in 1887, she grew up taking family photos and frequently exchanged snaps with distant friends as a young adult. In 1924, O’Keeffe married photographer and gallery owner Alfred Stieglitz. She has appeared in hundreds of her portraits, but she has also designed and hung her photography exhibitions, corrected and edited her photographic prints, and has written publicly about photography as an art form. After Stieglitz’s death in 1946, O’Keeffe organized and organized a “set of keys” of 1,600 of his master prints for posterity.
But O’Keeffe’s first independent and significant foray into photography came away from Stieglitz, on a solo trip to Hawaii in 1939. While roaming the islands for a painting project, she borrowed her guide’s camera and took a series of photos of a rock formation volcano which she then captured again in painting. Snapshots show the artist experimenting with slight compositional changes, a cropping technique that would characterize O’Keeffe’s photographic work from the 1950s onwards, when she began photographing more regularly.
“This reframing is what defines her,” Volpe told Hyperallergic during a recent tour of the show. “No other photographer of the time, and no other photographer in the Stieglitz Circle, has been photographed in this way.” The method may have been inspired by Arthur Wesley Dow, head of the art department at Teachers College at Columbia University, where O’Keeffe studied in 1914. Dow pointed out that visual harmony could be achieved by finding the appropriate scale and proportions of an image, and encouraged students to practice what we might now call framing or cropping. Years later, we see O’Keeffe refining and reworking the contours and orientations of his compositions in his drawings and paintings, but especially in his photos.
O’Keeffe’s cropping technique appears in snapshots of her salita door in its courtyard Abiquiú In New Mexico. A dark, gloomy form against the sleek adobe walls of her home, the door was the reason the artist purchased the property, and it has appeared repeatedly in her artwork. “I always try to paint this door – I never quite get it,” O’Keeffe said. Seeking another approach, she began photographing the gate in 1956. Along with the gate, these images also record the subtle changes in sun and shade that O’Keeffe often focused on in his photography. .
The salita The series also reflects the importance of the artist’s domestic space. O’Keeffe’s house is often his muse in his photographs, and his familiar patio, bowls, cow skulls, rocks, chow chow dogs, and yard ladder transform into graceful elements of light, texture and shape when captured in black and white. But despite the beauty of her photos, O’Keeffe didn’t care about producing crisp, neat prints – she casually sent her prints to friends and used them as bookmarks. O’Keeffe was more concerned with her contact sheets, which revealed her unique cropping process. “For her, photography was about testing compositions and seeing how the shapes fit together in the frame,” Volpe explained.
While the exact relationship between the photograph and O’Keeffe’s painting is still uncertain, Volpe notes in the exhibition catalog that “His prints show evidence of frequent manipulation: ink and paint stains, fingerprints and scratches in the emulsion, and, in some, shallow skin on all four corners of the reverse side indicates that they were glued to one surface at the same time. In his letters, O’Keeffe calls his photos “sketches,” a quick and precise way to express ideas Volpe’s analysis suggests that photos have played a regular role in the artist’s life and may have served as reference material or inspiration for his other visual works.
Photography played another role in O’Keeffe’s life: it connected her to the outside world. Webb visited his Abiquiú home during the summers, and the two often wandered around the surrounding canyons and plains together, passing a camera back and forth for photos. Immersed in nature and in dialogue with another artist, O’Keeffe reveled in the possibilities offered by the camera. “We often think of her as that hermit in the desert, but it wasn’t,” Volpe told Hyperallergic. “Webb produces these incredibly endearing photos of her, always smiling. It’s like a whole different side of her personality.
To reveal this new side of O’Keeffe’s life and work, Volpe conducted extensive research. Most of O’Keeffe’s prints are neither signed nor dated. The curator therefore worked tirelessly to determine the year, location, season and, if possible, even the time when each of the photos was taken. To do this, Volpe compared the edges and surfaces of the prints using Yale University’s Historical Paper Types Database and made several trips to New Mexico. She also relied on the help of a few unexpected experts, including the director of botany at New Mexico State University, the Santa Fe architectural preservative, a breeder and judge of chow dogs. chow and a master river runner in Glen Canyon, where O’Keeffe pictured in 1964.
While this is new to most of us today, O’Keeffe told the world about her photography – albeit briefly – in her 1976 autobiography when she described photographing a road that “fascinates her.” Just outside his house. “I turned the camera at a sharp angle to get the whole road,” she says of one of the photographs. “It was by accident that I made the road appear to rise in the air, but it amused me and I started to draw and paint it in a new form.”
Although she preferred to be known primarily as a painter, O’Keeffe’s latest exhibition proves that her artistic practice was more dynamic and flexible than previously thought. “Because she was passionate about painting, she said, ‘I’m a painter.’ I’m not trying to change that, ”Volpe said. “I’m just trying to give you a little glimpse of how she saw the world.”
Georgia O’Keeffe, photographer continues at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston (1001 Bissonnet Street, Houston) until January 17, 2022. The exhibition is curated by Lisa Volpe and will visit the Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover, Massachusetts, the Denver Art Museum and the Cincinnati Art Museum.
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