The Far-Apart Artists

Benfey_1-011212_jpg_230x803_q85Christopher Benfey on Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz, in the NYRB:

It is tempting to imagine Stieglitz as Pygmalion, with O’Keeffe groomed and marketed until her work sold for sufficiently high prices to make her, according to Barbara Buhler Lynes, “a millionaire in today’s dollars” by 1929. And yet, as one reads the letters and considers the shifting shapes of these complicated careers, one has the impression that it was Stieglitz, past fifty when they first met, who experienced the greater awakening. He felt a renewed sense of purpose in his self-consciously American gallery; at the same time, he rededicated himself to photography, embarking on an ambitious project of photographing cloud formations reminiscent of Constable’s studies. These he named “Equivalents,” suggesting that he was finding sublime metaphors in the sky. On one occasion, he bragged to the poet Hart Crane, with his customary grandiosity, that he had “photographed God.”

In a parallel undertaking, Stieglitz began to compile the series of over three hundred photographic images that comprised his “Portrait of O’Keeffe.” He photographed every part of her body, nude and variously clothed. In one intriguing letter, a meditation on an artist’s relation to her own hands, she tried to make sense of her hand holding one of Stieglitz’s photographs of her hand:

I wondered at my hand—my left one as I saw it on the last printed page of the last book—and my mind wandered to the prints of my hands—I moved to get up to look for them—No—The other hand reached for the book…. So I sat looking at the hand—then at them both—I’ve looked at them often today—they have looked so white and smooth and wonderful—I’ve wondered if they were really mine—

The cloud studies and the portraits intersected when Stieglitz titled a dramatic convolution of clouds, resembling a torso with open legs, Portrait of Georgia.