Georgia O’Keeffe, Photographer | Collector Daily

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, plus a comprehensive catalog of known photographic works by the artist. (Cover and distribute the plans below.)

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

Comments/Background: It seems decently obvious that a simple definition of a “photographer” is a person who makes photographs. But beneath this literal statement lies a series of more subtle questions of process and intent that complicate matters. People who use a camera to create images that they then present as works of art are photographers, but so are people who take snapshots at family gatherings and keep them in scrapbooks. . And what about the people (or even machines) who 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 device photo to make their art, but rather made their images in the darkroom or with computer software? They are also all photographers, at least in a certain sense of the term.

The title of this catalogue, which accompanied a recent exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, is Georgia O’Keeffe, photographer, and the application of this particular word “photographer”, in this case is 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 has any connection with photography in the minds of the world, it probably belongs in as a collaborative model for her husband Alfred Stieglitz, whose modernist nudes and portraits of O’Keeffe are among the most striking in the history of the medium.

The fact that O’Keeffe herself was a photographer was until relatively recently an overlooked facet of her rich artistic life. But a tantalizing change of prepositions (referring not to photographs “of” O’Keeffe but to photographs “by” O’Keeffe) during a conversation with Georgia O’Keeffe Museum curator Cody Hartley leads MFAH curator Lisa Volpe on a treasure hunt through the archives that ultimately led to the hundreds of O’Keeffe photographs discovered, organized, and meticulously cataloged in this volume. With the raw material now in hand, the next step for Volpe was to reflect and assess what kind of photographer O’Keeffe really was.

Given O’Keeffe’s marriage to Stieglitz and her close friendships with photographers like Paul Strand, she was certainly aware of the aesthetic power of photography from the start of her artistic career and that she was one of the main editors of what became the “Key Set” of Stieglitz’s work after his death in 1946 is further direct evidence that she was painstakingly attuned to the details and nuances of the medium. But apart from a few earlier snapshots, O’Keeffe didn’t really pick up a camera for his own artistic reasons until a trip to Hawaii in 1939, and didn’t do his own photography more widely or actively until the mid 1950s.

By far, the most typical use a painter has of photography is as a visual note-taking tool. Some painters use a camera as a sort of replacement for a sketchbook, gathering ideas, patterns, and compositional relationships in their photos, which they then reuse or reinterpret when making their paintings. What is fascinating about O’Keeffe’s photographs is that while Volpe discovered a handful of very close matches that match a photograph O’Keeffe made with a later painting, there are no actual evidence that O’Keeffe used his camera like a sketchbook – the images were not intended as sketches of something to be executed in paint, and there is no causal connection identifiable to trace between his photographs and his paintings, even with the benefit of precise chronological hindsight. She just didn’t think that way.

Instead, she seems to have come to photography with a purer spirit, engaging it as a new way (for her, at least) to view and process the world around her. While many modernists, including Stieglitz, were seasoned pre-visualizers, in that they patiently considered how a photograph should be composed before they even clicked the shutter, O’Keeffe was much more improvisational. . Again and again we see her find a subject and then make multiple exposures, each a slight variation where she actively adjusts the formal relationships and balances of the composition. In a sense, she’s using the camera to look, and look, and her mind quickly iterates over what she’s seen, fine-tuning the framing to find the “right” balance. As a painter, O’Keeffe had already honed a masterful skill in translating the real world into a painted image; as a photographer, she was learning to see in a new way, with framing and cropping as an intuitive DIY process that eventually led her to satisfying artistic solutions.

O’Keeffe’s strongest photographs were taken in his home in Abiquiú, New Mexico, incorporating the various combinations of adobe walls, doors, and patio spaces between his home and his studio. The architecture of the property was simple and uncluttered, with clean, unadorned lines and just a few sage bushes, a tall wooden ladder, and the building’s timbers to add to the compositional mix. Working primarily in black and white, the formal geometries and contrasts of light and dark created by different lighting 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 slanting shadows, a sage bush in the foreground or the nearby ladder. Other doorways and entry points provided similar geometric shapes to play with and rebalance, with the house’s flat roof edge and open sky above providing additional angles and color to curate; in one case, a roofless room with rough wooden slats created an ever-changing array of dark linear shadows. O’Keeffe’s photographic vision 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 rigorous precision, which she then tried again and again to reconsider different subtleties of point of view.

As O’Keeffe moved the grand scale around the house, she seems to have found it visually appealing throughout the changing seasons of the year. There are images of the ladder in the scorching sun, in the cool of the approaching night, then in the sharpness of the snowy mornings. Leaning against the flatness of the adobe walls, the ladder cast shadows all around as the angle of the sun shifted, from almost directly behind the ladder when the sun was low to distorting the shape sharply and widely when the sun was higher. high 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 photographs of scales are brought 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 revisiting the same space ( and the same topic ) again and again.

O’Keeffe also pointed his camera at the nearby desert, and rethinking the compositional space of the landscape seems to have been his constant goal. The view from the various windows of her house overlooked the low hills and the sweep of a curving single-lane road, which she photographed not only in different seasons, but making sure to place the road in different relationships to the nearby mesa. . When she took out her camera on walks, she captured more views of the angles of steep canyons, the crumpled indentations of dusty hills and the shifting waterlines of the nearby Chama River, where O’Keeffe noticed sandbars, small islands, and the curves of the shoreline, rearranging them over the years, depending on the height of the water and its vantage point. Still other images looked closely at the gnarled sage brush, the endless path of straight roads, or the intersection of canyon fissures and faults, always seemingly assessing and replaying the formal possibilities that lay right in front of her.

Given O’Keeffe’s famous paintings, one might have expected her to use her camera to make still life arrangements of skulls or close-ups of flowers, and although there are a few examples photographs of each of them, these ideas of still lifes are not It seems that it is a photographic subject which interests him intensely. A selection of jimsonweed images are the closest we could have imagined, O’Keeffe looking closely at clusters of white flowers, playing with single specimens, pairs and combinations of five or more flowers, moving inwards and outwards, rotating the angle, and finding the right balance of shapes. A handful of skull photographs isolate a white skull against a dark adobe wall, then explore the compositional options of adding a single chair or perching the skull atop the frame of the house, but they appear superficial rather than ‘energetic or engaged. The still life subject that O’Keeffe was most interested in was clearly his dogs, a rotating group of black chows (eight different dogs over twenty years), their dark, fuzzy forms seen curled up on hard ground or snow in winter. , like black 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 his attempts to explore another artistic medium. It’s not what she took pictures of, or what she was using them for. What matters is that we can see how she saw and how she worked within the limits of photography to apply her vision. O’Keeffe was clearly curious, and a game to try, and the sets of images where she revolves around a subject, trying out different compositions and refining spatial relationships – these are the fascinating moments of unfiltered aesthetic problem-solving. to find here. It’s as if she wanted to keep testing herself artistically (even into her 70s and beyond), and the photographic vision forced her to adjust (and refresh) her established ways of visually organizing the world. In my opinion, there’s something inherently optimistic and forward-thinking about such an endeavor – picking up a camera, she again challenged herself, and her results offered enough bursts of brilliance to keep his artistic spirit boiling.

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

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