“Interest is the most important thing in life; happiness is temporary, but interest is continuous.” Georgia O’Keeffe
In the summer of 1929, a 32-yr-old artist well known by that time as an influential and successful modernist painter, drove her Model T automobile cross country from New York to a “faraway place” in northern New Mexico. By invitation of friends, Georgia O’Keeffe came there for a short visit, but ended up staying for almost three months. She may not have known she was looking for a spiritual home, but she knew it when she found it.
“You know, I never feel at home in the East like I do out here. I feel like myself and I like it.” Georgia O’Keeffe
When O’Keeffe took her cross-country trip, she was living in New York with her husband Alfred Stieglitz. Both famed artists at the time, the two often left the city to spend summers at Lake George. And it was there she wrote the following to a friend, “Here at Lake George, everything is very green. I look around and wonder what one might paint.” O’Keeffe was feeling stifled. And for good reasons that went well beyond the green monotones surrounding her.
Her husband was a great photographer that had elevated his medium to a modernistic art form. Owner of the legendary 291 Art Gallery in New York City, the influential Stieglitz exhibited and promoted avant-garde artists, such as Georgia O’Keeffe. Excited by her originality, he exhibited some of her abstract charcoal drawings in 1916. Soon after, the couple fell in love, they married in 1924, and O’Keeffe came to New York to live with Stieglitz. There, both continued their work supported by mutual encouragement.
“You hung all your own associations with flowers on my flower. You write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see of the flower – and I don’t.” Georgia O’Keeffe
During that time, Stieglitz created several photographic images of O’Keeffe. Meanwhile, O’Keeffe was creating some of her most significant abstract modernism paintings, mostly flowers. She was painting her joy. But then something happened that changed her direction dramatically. In 1921, Stieglitz exhibited 45 of his prints of O’Keeffe, including several intimate nudes. And he wrote about her work. Consequently, this created a persona that caused critics to depict O’Keeffe as a sensual and sexual creature. When her work of joy was finally exhibited, critiques fraught with Freudian analyses of which Stieglitz contributed described it as ‘expressions of her sexuality’. Devastated, the acclaimed painter went back to realism. But not for long.
“As soon as I saw it, that was my country. I had never seen anything like it before, but it fitted to me exactly. There’s something that’s in the air, it’s just different. The sky is different, the stars are different, the wind is different.” Georgia O’Keeffe
And then, O’Keeffe met New Mexico which transformed her art and in which she felt at home. It was in the high desert where O’Keeffe redefined herself on her own terms and became an iconic mythic figure. After her first visit to New Mexico in 1929, O’Keeffe followed an established pattern for several years, staying on for longer periods each time. Eventually, she acquired a house at Ghost Ranch and shortly after a second one in the nearby town of Abiquiu. In 1949, three years after Stieglitz’s death, she came to live permanently and for the next 37 years, lived and worked at Ghost Ranch and Abiquiu. Georgia O’Keeffe, born in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin on November 15, 1887, died in Abiquiu, New Mexico on March 6, 1986.
Both Vivian and I had a fervent desire to experience O’Keeffe’s faraway place and I was thrilled to do it through the camera’s lens. Like me, Vivian admires O’Keeffe’s work immensely and to see her source of inspiration was as exciting to her as it was for me. This was the focal point of our 4-week visit to New Mexico. But especially as a landscape photographer, my admiration and intrigue for O’Keeffe rose exponentially as I prepared for our visit. I attribute this to three reasons.
First, O’Keeffe was greatly influenced by photographers, which is no stretch of the imagination given her husband was Alfred Stieglitz. Concerning her large flower paintings, O’Keeffe said, “If I could paint the flower exactly as I see it no one would see what I see because I would paint it small like the flower is small. So I said to myself – I’ll paint what I see – what the flower is to me but I’ll paint it big and they will be surprised into taking time to look at it – I will make even busy New Yorkers take time to see what I see of flowers.”
Her flower observations are strikingly similar to what a macro photographer might say – “If I photograph the flowers at 35mm or as my eyes see them, no one will see what I see because the flowers would appear too small. But if I use a macro lens, I can get within an inch of the flower and fill the frame with all its details, as I see it”.
Check out this slideshow of a couple images I shot of the Chama River overlook. In 1961, O’Keeffe stood in the same spot with a camera and took photographs.
“Nothing is less real than realism. Details are confusing. It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis, that we get at the real meaning of things.” Georgia O’Keeffe
Second, O’Keeffe was an artist of nature, as a nature photographer might be. Her paintings are more than abstract, they are intriguing studies of simplicity with details carefully added. One of her biggest influences was Arthur Wesley Dow, a painter who mentored O’Keeffe early in her art studies. His teachings of composition and design were based on the principles of Japanese art, which in my mind, is a study in simplicity. From Dow’s teachings, O’Keeffe learned to “Fill a space in a beautiful way”. Photographers learn to do the same through the frame of a lens. As O’Keeffe injects realism into her abstracts, a photographer learns to add abstraction through simple compositions that utilize negative space, single elements, and muted or monotone colors. All from nature.
“I found I could say things with colors and shapes that I couldn’t say any other way – things I had no words for.” Georgia O’Keeffe
Third, O’Keeffe’s profound connection to New Mexico’s landscapes resonates powerfully as I have also felt a strong connection to places; first in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert where I lived for four years, and later in the Everglades that I have called home for the past 17 years. Photographing these places requires more than simply being there, you must explore it and learn it. O’Keeffe was drawn to the mystical wonders and beauty of the high desert and spent so much time exploring it. Consequently, her abstract paintings became her vocabulary – her visual language to describe her experiences in these places. As a photographer, I feel an urge to create my own visual language when I take my camera into the Everglades – a means of describing how it feels to be in such a place.
“God told me if I painted that mountain enough, I could have it.” O’Keefe said this about the Cerro Pedernal, a flat-topped, strong-shouldered mountain that she viewed from her backyard and painted several times. When Vivian and stayed in the area for a several days, the mountain seemed to watch us where ever we were, including our campsite on Pedernal loop. Check out this slide show and see what I mean.
Vivian and I walked on O’Keeffe’s land; Ghost Ranch, the White Place, the Black Place, and observed firsthand what she painted over 80 years ago. As I stood in one place framing one image after another, I thought about O’Keeffe’s numerous paintings of the same scene. Her visual description of a place is not through just one painting, but several. I wonder if O’Keeffe were alive today at the miraculous age of 134 and without losing her central vision from macular degeneration, how many more paintings of the Black Place or the Cerro Pedernal would she have created? Afterall, God had already given her the land.
Check out the next three slideshows, photographs taken from O’Keeffe’s 1) Ghost Ranch, 2) White Place and 3) Black Place.