HOUSTON — In July 1964, Georgia O’Keeffe purchased her first Polaroid camera. “She was like a kid with a fine new toy,” her friend, the photographer Todd Webb later wrote in his journal. “She said it was better than Christmas.” At the time — as is still the case today — O’Keeffe was best known for her luminous oil paintings abstracting nature. But she’d also been quietly making photographs for more than a decade. As Webb’s entry suggests, photography gave the artist great joy. But it was also a crucial — if little-known — component of her creative practice and personal life.
Georgia O’Keeffe, Photographer at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston is the first exhibition devoted to O’Keeffe’s photography. The groundbreaking presentation brings together nearly 100 of the artist’s photos from a previously unstudied archive, along with 17 of her related paintings and drawings. O’Keeffe’s intimate, carefully composed photos emerge from her long-standing, complex relationship to picture-making. After three years of research, curator Lisa Volpe has reconstructed the role of photography in the artist’s life and work. Her exhibition grants us a rare opportunity to deepen our knowledge of O’Keeffe’s visual universe through a new pathway: photography.
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O’Keeffe was no stranger to the camera. Born in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin in 1887, she grew up taking family photos, and frequently exchanged snapshots with faraway friends as a young adult. In 1924, O’Keeffe married the photographer and gallerist Alfred Stieglitz. She appeared in hundreds of his portraits, but she also designed and hung his photography exhibitions, spot-corrected and mounted his photographic prints, and wrote publicly about photography as an art form. After Stieglitz’s death in 1946, O’Keeffe organized and curated a ‘key set’ of 1,600 of his master prints for posterity.
But O’Keeffe’s first significant, independent foray into photo-making occurred far from Stieglitz, during a solo trip to Hawaii in 1939. While touring the islands for a painting project, she borrowed her guide’s camera and took a series of photos of a volcanic rock formation that she later captured again in painting. The snapshots show the artist experimenting with slight compositional shifts, a reframing technique that would characterize O’Keeffe’s camera work from the 1950s onwards, when she began photographing more regularly.
“This reframing is what defines her,” Volpe told Hyperallergic on a recent tour of the exhibition. “No other photographer of the time, and no other photographer in the Stieglitz circle, photographed in this way.” The method may have been inspired by Arthur Wesley Dow, the director of the art department of Teachers College at Columbia University, where O’Keeffe studied in 1914. Dow emphasized that visual harmony could be achieved by finding an image’s proper scale and proportions, and encouraged students to practice what we might now call framing or cropping. Years later, we see O’Keeffe honing and reworking her compositions’ edges and orientations in her drawings and paintings, but especially in her photos.
O’Keeffe’s reframing technique appears in snapshots of her salita door in her Abiquiú courtyard in New Mexico. A stark, dark shape against her home’s smooth adobe walls, the door was the reason the artist purchased the property, and it appeared repeatedly in her artworks. “I’m always trying to paint that door — I never quite get it,” O’Keeffe said. Looking for another approach, she began photographing the door in 1956. Along with the door, these images also record the subtle shifts in sun and shadow that O’Keeffe often fixated on in her photography.
The salita series also conveys the importance of the artist’s domestic space. O’Keeffe’s home is often her muse in her photography, and her familiar patio, bowls, cow skulls, rocks, chow chow dogs, and courtyard ladder transform into graceful elements of light, texture, and shape when captured in black and white. But despite her photos’ beauty, O’Keeffe didn’t care about producing crisp, polished prints: she casually mailed her prints to friends and used them as bookmarks. O’Keeffe was more concerned with her contact sheets, which revealed her unique reframing process. “For her, photography became about testing compositions, and seeing how the shapes came together within the frame,” Volpe explained.
While the exact relationship between O’Keeffe’s photography and painting is still uncertain, Volpe notes in the exhibition’s catalogue that “Her prints show evidence of frequent handling: ink and paint stains, fingerprints and scratches in the emulsion, and, in some, shallow skinning on all four corners of the verso indicates they were taped to a surface at one time.” In letters, O’Keeffe refers to her photos as “sketches,” a quick and precise way to get her ideas down. Volpe’s analysis suggests that the photos had a regular role in the artist’s life, and may have served as reference material or inspiration for her other visual artwork.
Photography served another role in O’Keeffe’s life: it connected her to the outside world. Webb visited her Abiquiú home during the summers, and the two would often walk around the surrounding canyons and plains together, passing a camera back and forth to snap pictures. Immersed in nature and in dialogue with a fellow artist, O’Keeffe reveled in the possibilities that the camera presented. “We often think of her as this hermit out in the desert, but she was not,” Volpe told Hyperallergic. “Webb produces these amazingly endearing photos of her, always smiling. It’s like a completely different side of her personality.”
To reveal this fresh facet of O’Keeffe’s life and work, Volpe conducted extensive research. Most of O’Keeffe’s prints are unsigned and undated, so the curator worked tirelessly to pinpoint the year, place, season, and — where possible — even the time of day that each of the photos was taken. To do so, Volpe compared prints’ deckled edges and surfaces using Yale University’s database of historic paper types, and made multiple trips to New Mexico. She also relied on the help of a few unexpected experts, including the head of botany at New Mexico State University, Santa Fe’s architectural preservation officer, a chow chow dog breeder and judge, and a master river runner in Glen Canyon, where O’Keeffe photographed in 1964.
Although it’s new for 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 her house. “I turned the camera at a sharp angle to get all the road,” she says of one of the photographs. “It was accidental that I made the road seem to stand up in the air, but it amused me and I began drawing and painting it as a new shape.”
Even if 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 insight into how she saw the world.”
Georgia O’Keeffe, Photographer continues at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston (1001 Bissonnet Street, Houston) through January 17, 2022. The exhibition is curated by Lisa Volpe and will travel to the Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover, Massachusetts, the Denver Art Museum, and the Cincinnati Art Museum.