Thanks to a re-scheduled appt. last Saturday morning I scuttled over to the Portland Museum of Art just after opening time to get my first viewing of the just-opened Georgia O’Keeffe and the Camera – The Art of Identity exhibit curated by Susan Danly, Curator of Graphics, Photography, and Contemporary Art at the museum. The exhibit was already humming with people who were clearly really getting into what they were seeing, to the extent that over the next hour I got cornered by a couple of delighted strangers who just had to talk about what they were looking at. That’s a first.
I went to the far corner of the farthest room of the exhibit to try and get some space and soon totally forgot about the annoyance that there are other people in the world. I had found gold – and the fact that others were enjoying the same treasure no longer mattered.
I’d suggest you start at the beginning. If I had seen nothing but the first photograph Stieglitz took in 1917 of O’Keeffe when she was 30, standing in front of her first one woman show at his NYC gallery, that would have been enough. It is all about her, as opposed to many of his subsequent photographs of her which were much about him. Of course, I’ve seen this image in books, but studying this original platinum print left me practically levitating. Alfred Stieglitz took well over 300 photographs of O’Keeffe and they are truly icons in the history of photography. In 1918, in front of her work No.15, Stieglitz photographed O’Keeffe in her hat and coat, hands beautifully arranged around the top coat button. These two images are simply unforgettable.
After O’Keeffe moved to New Mexico, she was photographed throughout the rest of her life by the best of the best. Many of these images I had never seen. Regardless of the point of the exhibit – how O’Keeffe collaborated with and controlled many of the photographers who came to take her image to create a certain sort of public persona, the portraits collected here are quite frankly breathtaking and talk to me as much about the photographers as about the subject herself.
A huge silver gelatin portrait (1956) by Yousuf Karsh of O’Keeffe sitting in the shady alley of Abiquiu is beautiful beyond belief (and reproduced a little light in the catalog). The touch of light on O’Keeffe’s face and just beyond her in the corner of the alley is something only a master could achieve. Ditto for the catalog cover silver gelatin image portrait of O’Keeffe with a white headscarf on (above). Honestly…could it get better than this?
Well, I had never seen the Irving Penn full length studio shot of O’Keeffe kind of cowering in a corner – did the photographer really master her, I wonder? It is amazing. The iconic Arnold Newman image (1968 ) used for the promotional pieces for the exhibit will be no stranger to anyone and you can see why when you stand in front of the real thing.
John Loengard’s two pictures – The Rock from Eliot Porter, Abiquiu, 1966 and Evening Walk, Ghost Ranch, 1966 are images I will spend much time studying before the end of the exhibit on September 7. The latter says it all about O’Keeffe. An almost endless vista of desert engulfs the tiny figure of O’Keeffe from the back walking on a dry rocky path with her chow further on ahead. Engulfed she may be, but there is no doubt she is completely at home in that desert. It’s completely inspired and both portraits demonstrate Loengard to be a photograper with a powerful and unique vision.
I’m not a huge fan of Ansel Adams but I was blown away by two of his images in this exhibit: the simply gorgeous and perfect St. Francis Church, Ranchos de Taos, NM (circa 1937) and surprise: the wonderful 1937 shot Palomino, Ghost Ranch. I’m so glad it was included in the exhibit – it’s a stunner. Neither are reproduced in the catalog, so I’ll have to return to the exhibit itself to enjoy them further.
I will also return to see O’Keeffe’s simple and exquisite painting The House I Live In, 1937, the quote next to which provoked a seemingly endless monologue from another museum-goer who just had to speak about what he was feeling. I happened along and looked as good as any other witless audience, I guess!
Three years ago my friend Peg Golden and I spent a week in Santa Fe and reserved tickets in advance to tour Abiquiu. The two hours is imprinted forever on our memories. Standing in O’Keeffe’s studio (right next to her priceless journals and catalog raisonné) gazing out the picture windows over the miles of desert she loved, allowed into her spare, beautiful bedroom, her living room, her kitchen, her gardens. If you can, put it at the top of your life’s TO DO list. Of course the photos in this exhibit of O’Keeffe’s personal spaces at Abiquiu bring back that treasured afternoon and that’s a gift in itself.
Summer’s upon us. My favorite beach will be the Portland Museum of Art – cellphone turned to “silent”, a deep frown on my face to discourage comments from strangers, and seriously, my heart speeding up in anticipation as I enter these rooms again and again to lose myself in the presence of greatness.