Between 1917 and 1937, Alfred Stieglitz took 331 photographs of Georgia O’Keeffe. Along with the thousands of letters the two exchanged throughout their 30-year romance, these photographs occupy a sort of middle ground between documentation and expression, between correspondence and art. They are an eloquent testament to a profound and prolific love between two creative individuals. Although a subplot in Malcolm Daniel’s new catalog Stieglitz, Steichen, Strand, accompanying an exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on view until April 10, 2011, the relationship between Stieglitz and O’Keeffe came at a critical point in the former’s artistic life, and would have serious implications for the subsequent development of American photography in the early 20th century.
Stieglitz, Steichen, Strand tracks the development of American photography from the very end of the 19th century through the beginning of World War II. This chronological scope is not determined by world history, however, but by the life and collection of Alfred Stieglitz. Born in the Hudson Valley and educated in Karlsruhe and Berlin, Stieglitz spent the vast majority of his life in New York City. He was an early and vocal proponent of photography as art, a life of advocacy that reached an apex when The Metropolitan Museum of Art finally accepted his donations of photographs in 1928 and 1933 (Daniel is Curator in Charge of the Department of Photographs). The two subsequent names in the title refer to Edward Steichen and Paul Strand, two of the most important photographers in American history and Stieglitz’s chief acolytes.
At their best, these two men represent a philosophical and artistic shift in Stieglitz’s conception of photography. Steichen, whom Stieglitz began working with in earnest in 1902, when the latter had founded the magazine Camera Work as well as the Manhattan gallery “291”, embodied a turn-of-the-century aesthetic greatly influenced by contemporary European painting. This style of photography, described in Karen Rosenberg’s New York Times exhibition review as a “hazy, nostalgic Pictorialism,” utilizes shadows, heavy colors and a soft focus. Steichen’s best photographs, of the Flatiron Building or of Rodin’s sculpture of Balzac, are expressive and “self-consciously artistic,” heavily indebted to such European painters as James Whistler. Paul Strand occupies the opposite end of the spectrum. Having begun his relationship with Stieglitz in 1915, Strand promoted a photography that was straight-lined, geometric, and greatly influenced by the modern art of the 1913 Armory show. He had a precise, “brutal” aesthetic, as seen in the photographs “Wall Street” and “Geometric Backyards.” Strand, with the help and support of Stieglitz, “led the way to a straightforward, modern photography, unencumbered by the allegorical themes, celebrity subjects, and painterly techniques of turn-of-the-century artistic photography,” Daniel writes. In the catalog, as well as in the life of Stieglitz, these two men represent a shift in photography from shadowy to clear, from soft to straight, from formal to abstract. Begun in 1917, Steiglitz’s artistic and romantic affair with Georgia O’Keeffe would explore a middle ground between these two polarizing aesthetics.
The catalog’s first photograph of O’Keeffe comes from 1917, entitled “Georgia O’Keeffe – Hands.” The viewer sees the body of a woman, clothed in a black robe with a white, v-shaped collar. The tan skin of her neck is exposed, allowing for a juxtaposition of three solid blocks of color. At the center of the painting, raised above her torso, are the woman’s hands. One clutches at her clothed breast, the other makes a cup underneath the first: they are frozen in motion, caught in the middle of a dance that highlights the smooth lines of her fingers and the sharp angle of her elbow. The portrait is both partial and abstract: the viewer understands that he is looking at a woman, at Georgia O’Keeffe, at her body and at her hands, but the absence of her face and the angle of the shot are disorienting. Daniel attributes this photograph, as well as the series that follow, to Stieglitz’s idea of a “composite portrait: one that would record a single person throughout life, in many moods and many forms.” One is shaken by this introduction to O’Keeffe’s body. It is somewhere in between expression and abstraction, between Pictorialism and modernism. It is a testament to two artists in love.