Georgia O’Keeffe, Photographer

JTF (just the facts): Co-published in 2021 by Yale University Press (here) and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (here). Hardcover, 10×10.7 inches, 288 pages, with 588 color illustrations. Includes essays by Lisa Volpe and Ariel Plotek, and a complete catalog of known photographic works by the artist. (Cover and spread shots below.)

The book accompanies an exhibition which was originally held at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (here), from October 17, 2021 to January 17, 2022, with additional stops at the Addison Gallery of American Art, the Denver Art Museum, and the Cincinnati Art Museum through early 2023.

Comments/Context: It seems decently obvious that a simple definition of a “photographer” is a person who makes photographs. But underneath that literal statement lies a range of more subtle questions of process and intent that complicate matters. People who use a camera to make images that they then present as art objects are photographers, but so are the people who make snapshots at family gatherings and keep them in albums. And what of the people (or even machines) that document scientific specimens or celestial bodies, those who create elaborate installations or performances to be documented by cameras, and those who have never used a camera to make their art, but have instead made their images in the darkroom or with computer software? They’re all photographers too, at least in some sense of the word.

The title of this catalog, which accompanied a recent exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, is Georgia O’Keeffe, Photographer, and the application of that particular word “photographer”, is in this case something of a provocation. O’Keeffe is of course best known as one of the most important American painters of the 20th century, and if she is at all connected with photography in the minds of the world at large, it is likely in her place as a collaborative model for her husband Alfred Stieglitz, whose Modernist nudes and portraits of O’Keeffe are some of the most striking in the history of the medium.

That O’Keeffe herself was a photographer was until relatively recently an overlooked facet of her rich artistic life. But a tantalizing switch of prepositions (referencing not photographs “of” O’Keeffe but photographs “by” O’Keeffe) in a conversation with Georgia O’Keeffe Museum curator Cody Hartley led MFAH curator Lisa Volpe on a treasure hunt through the archives that ultimately led to the hundreds of O’Keeffe photographs unearthed, organized, and meticulously catalogued in this volume. With the raw material now in hand, the next step f0r Volpe was to think through and assess what kind of photographer O’Keeffe actually was.

Given O’Keeffe’s marriage to Stieglitz and her intimate friendships with photographers like Paul Strand, she was certainly aware of the aesthetic power of photography from quite early on in her artistic career, and the fact that she was one of the primary editors of what became the “Key Set” of Stieglitz’ work after he died in 1946 is further direct evidence she was minutely attuned to the details and nuances of the medium. But aside from a few earlier snapshots, O’Keeffe didn’t really pick up a camera for her own artistic reasons until a trip to Hawaii in 1939, and didn’t more broadly or actively make her own photographs until the mid 1950s.

By far the most typical use a painter has for photography is as a visual note taking tool. Some painters use a camera as a kind of replacement for a sketchbook, gathering up ideas, motifs, and compositional relationships in their photos, which they then re-use or re-interpret when making their paintings. What’s fascinating about O’Keeffe’s photographs is that while Volpe has uncovered a handful of very close pairings that match a photograph O’Keeffe made with a later painting, there is no real evidence that O’Keeffe was using her camera in the manner of a sketchbook – the pictures weren’t conceived of as drafts of something to be executed in paint, and there is no identifiable causal link to be charted between her photographs and paintings, even with the benefit of chronologically-precise hindsight. She just wasn’t thinking that way.

Instead, she seems to have come to photography with a more pure mind, engaging it as a novel (to her, at least) way to see and process the world around her. While many Modernists, including Stieglitz, were tried-and-true pre-visualizers, in that they patiently considered how a photograph was to be composed before ever clicking the shutter, O’Keeffe was much more improvisational. Again and again, we see her finding a subject and then making multiple exposures, each one a slight variant where she is actively tuning the formal relationships and balances of the composition. In a sense, she’s using the camera to look, and look again, and her mind was quickly iterating on what she saw, tweaking the framing to find the “right” equilibrium. As a painter, O’Keeffe had already honed a masterful skill in translating the real world into a painted picture; as a photographer, she was teaching herself to see in a new way, with framing and re-framing as a process of intuitive tinkering that ultimately led her to satisfying artistic solutions.

The strongest of O’Keeffe’s photographs were made at her house in Abiquiú, New Mexico, incorporating the various combinations of adobe walls, doorways, and patio spaces between her house and studio. The architecture of the property was simple and spare, with clean unadorned lines and only a few sage bushes, a tall wooden ladder, and the timbers of the building to add to the compositional mix. Working largely in black-and-white, the formal geometries and contrasts of light and dark created by differing light conditions throughout the day offered a surprising number of visual options. The intensely dark salita door was a common subject, its enveloping rectangular blackness set off by angled shadows, a sage bush in the foreground, or the nearby ladder. Other doorways and entry points provided similar geometric forms to play with and rebalance, with the flat roof edge of the house and the clear sky above providing additional angles and colors to arrange; in one case, a roofless room with rough wooden slats created an ever changing array of dark linear shadows. O’Keeffe’s photographic seeing in these images is sparse and refined, with the angle of a shadow or the spatial proportions (and tonal qualities) of the door placed with exacting precision, which she then tried again and again to reconsider different subtleties of vantage point.

As O’Keeffe moved the tall ladder around the house, she seems to have found it visually engaging throughout the changing seasons of the year. There are images of the ladder in the baking sun, in the coolness of near night, and then in the sharp crispness of snow-covered mornings. Seen leaning against the flatness of the adobe walls, the ladder cast shadows all around as the angle of the sun moved, from almost directly behind the ladder when the sun was low to distorting the form steeply and widely when the sun was higher in the sky, and O’Keeffe was there to notice, rethinking each composition based on these relative positions. When a dozen or more of these ladder photographs are gathered together (as they are in the thumbnails at the end of the catalog), it becomes very apparent how systematic and meticulous O’Keeffe was in re-seeing the same space (and same subject) over and over.

O’Keeffe also pointed her camera at the nearby desert, and rethinking the compositional space of the landscape seems to have been her constant aim. The view out of various windows from her house took in the low hills and the sweep of a curving single lane road, which she photographed not only in different seasons, but with attention to placing the road in different relationships to the nearby mesa. When she took her camera out on walks, she captured more views of the angles of steep sided canyons, the rumpled indentations of the dusty hills, and the changing waterlines of the nearby Chama river, where O’Keeffe took notice of sandbars, little islands, and the curves of the shoreline, rearranging them over the years, based on the height of the water and her vantage point. Still other images looked closely at gnarled sage brush, the endless path of straight roads, or the intersection of canyon cracks and faults, always seemingly assessing and replaying the formal possibilities to be found right in front of her.

Given O’Keeffe’s famous paintings, we might have expected that she would use her camera to make still life arrangements of skulls or close-ups of flowers, and while there are a few photographic examples of each of these, these still life ideas don’t seem to have been a photographic subject that interested her intensely. A selection of images of jimsonweed are the closest to what we might have envisioned, with O’Keeffe looking closely a clusters of white blossoms, playing with single specimens, pairs, and combinations of five or more flowers, moving in and out, rotating the angle, and searching for the right balance of shapes. A handful of skull photographs isolate a white skull against a dark adobe wall, and then go on to explore the compositional options of adding a single chair, or perching the skull atop the roof timbers of the house, but they seem perfunctory rather than energetic or committed. The still life subject O’Keeffe was clearly most interested in was her dogs, a rotating group of black chows (eight different dogs over twenty years), their fuzzy dark forms seen curled up on the hard-packed ground or on the snow in winter, like dark shadows.

The key takeaway from this well-researched volume is less that O’Keeffe’s photographs are singular or even important, but that they form an adjacent record of one of America’s most revered painters and her attempts to explore an alternate artistic medium. It’s not what she took pictures of, or what she was using them for – what matters is that we can watch how she saw, and how she worked within the constraints of photography to apply her vision. O’Keeffe was clearly curious, and game to try, and the sets of images where she is circling around a subject, trying out different compositions, and refining the spatial relationships – these are the fascinating moments of unfiltered aesthetic problem solving to be found here. It’s as if she wanted to keep testing herself artistically (even in her 70s and beyond), and photographic seeing required her to adjust (and freshen up) her established ways of visually organizing the world. To my mind, there is something inherently optimistic and forward thinking about such an endeavor – by picking up a camera, she was challenging herself once again, and her results offered enough flashes of brilliance to keep her artistic mind churning.

Collector’s POV: While a robust secondary market for Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings and watercolors was long ago established, O’Keeffe’s photographs have remained in the Georgia O’Keeffe foundation and/or museum since the artist’s death, with only a handful leaving the archives to reside in other museum collections.

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