Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings are vast and generous offerings of color, but the artist herself is remembered in black and white. Aside from a few instances of color portraits that were taken of her here and there, “by and large, our images of her are in black and white,” according to Ariel Plotek, a curator at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Sante Fe. During her lifetime, she was rarely seen donning anything other than her nun-like, black and white robes, many of which she made or altered herself. She reputedly once explained that if she started wearing color, she would have no time left over to paint.
An exhibition up at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum through October displays 22 color photographs of the artist by Malcolm Varon, taken in the summer of 1977 when the photographer visited Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu, New Mexico, the site of O’Keeffe’s home and studio beginning in 1940.
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They also represent some of the only photographs of O’Keeffe late in her life. “Malcolm had been the only photographer that O’Keeffe really worked with from the 1960s onwards,” Plotek told Hyperallergic.
Varon was not a portrait photographer by trade, and was staying at O’Keeffe’s ranch for two months on assignment, documenting her artwork for an upcoming retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum. But when O’Keeffe was asked if she had any recent photos of herself to contribute for an upcoming 90th birthday feature in ArtNews, she realized she did not, and conscripted Varon to take them.
Because he was living as O’Keeffe’s guest during this time, Varon was able to observe her in a different, more familiar light. “It was an intimate situation,” he said in an interview. “We had lunch quite often during those two months: O’Keeffe, me, Juan Hamilton, and my assistant. It got to be more of a friendly association, and her iconic persona disappeared, for me at least, during that association.”
Photographing O’Keeffe near the end of her life would have been quite an intimidating task. Over the course of her lifetime, she was captured by some of the leading artists of the day, including Alfred Stieglitz, her erstwhile spouse who took a series of portraits of her, including nudes, that were career-defining for him and which Varon calls “some of the best photographs of a nude body that I’ve ever seen”; Andy Warhol, who rendered her as a pop celebrity; and Todd Webb, who remained close friends with her for over three decades.
Although Varon was “certainly well aware of the many hundreds of portraits that were taken of her over the course of her life,” Plotek said, he wasn’t fazed by the lineage of photographers who came before him. Instead, he focused on his own style.
“I had a way that I wanted to show people when I did do photographs,” Varon said. “That was somehow to try to get at the essential person. One of the ways to do that was not necessarily to take candid photographs, but to actually pose a person and have them — by either staring into the camera, or maybe listening to music, or having them think about something in their lives, just having them get out of the context of being photographed — oblivious to the camera in such a way that what is really the essence of who they are begins to show up in their facial expression.”
“That’s what I tried to do with O’Keeffe. The photographs that you see are a result of that way of trying to photograph her,” Varon added.
Plotek has another hypothesis for why O’Keeffe might have appeared so unconcerned with the presence of the photographer. “I wonder if that isn’t something to do with the fact that her vision was really deteriorating,” he said. He noted that by the time of her 90th birthday, O’Keeffe had little central vision remaining due to macular degeneration.
Something Varon attempted to counteract in his portrayal of O’Keeffe was the popular notion that she was reclusive.
“She always had people surrounding her,” he said, whether that was Abiquiu residents who helped her with cooking, gardening, and groundskeeping; her personal secretary Agapita Judy Lopez, or her close confidante and studio assistant Juan Hamilton. If he had to guess, Varon theorizes that her reputation as a recluse probably stemmed from her conscious effort to neutralized the sexualized fame she achieved early on as Stieglitz’s nude subject.
“She did a lot to negate that idea of herself as a sexualized person, and her paintings as sexualized paintings,” he said. “So this idea of her as reclusive, as iconic, simply came from celebrity status.”
Varon took special care in photographing O’Keeffe with Hamilton; at the time, the relationship was widely reported and speculated on in the art world. “My observation of them together was that they had a very, very deep and loving friendship,” he explained. “And that was unusual because he was sixty years younger than she was. But it happens — and it happens legitimately, and doesn’t necessarily have to be a romance. Nobody knows whether it was or not, and they certainly deny it. But nevertheless, it was close and intimate as we all know friendships can be.”
“I thought it was worth recording in photographs, because of the way people look askance at that kind of relationship,” Varon added. “I saw it differently when I was there, and I think my way of seeing it was the correct way. I wanted to get that out as a record.”
While capturing O’Keeffe in Abiquiu, Varon also represented landscapes that might be familiar to her devotees. The blue mesa Cerro Pedernal, which she painted many times, is the backdrop of a silhouette portrait of her. In another image, she is seen walking side-by-side with Hamilton in front of a dry waterfall near her home, which she also once painted.