Some days it feels like we are buried alive by forks, teacups, and saucers. Don’t get me wrong, I love the amount of attention we pay to each detail to label, organize, and order objects in the museum collection, but some days it is nice to have a break.
These breaks happen every Monday when I work with the Research Center to sort, label, and order a different type of object – photographs. Peering into these snapshots of Miss O’Keeffe’s life provides little peeks into the candid moments that are not captured in her posed photographs. They add more facets to the bigger picture of Georgia O’Keeffe as not only an artist, but as a human being.
There is the photograph of her peering off into the distance, a frequent look:
But there are also pictures where the photographer clicked at just the right time to capture Miss O’Keeffe breaking out of her traditional image with a goofy smile:
or a spark of sass in her eye:
These, these are the photographs I adore because they capture a moment in time when O’Keeffe was being her full, uninhibited self and letting her energy shine through:
These real, tangible photographs make me think about our current image-based society where many of us carry some form of a camera in our pockets at all times. We use them to share bits of our lives through social media platforms, or maybe even a printed photograph, at any given minute. There is a desire to capture the moment, thousands of moments, each day as if an image can stop time forever to preserve a lighthearted reunion with friends at dinner or the sense of awe during a magnificent sunrise. Though our cameras and technologies have changed since O’Keeffe’s time, we still try to capture portions of the feelings that arise in these fleeting moments.
Of course, it is impossible to fully capture or re-create these moments, but the images provide a way for us to remember, to re-visit a previous time when our hairstyle was a bit different than it is now; to a previous time when the spirit of youth ran through us; to a previous time when our ancestors were in the midst of paving the way for future generations.
Photographs are one lens through which we see the world and the past. Though a majority of the photographs I currently work with are of O’Keeffe, her own artwork reveals the awareness she had of photographic perspective, a perspective she utilized in many of her paintings and compositions. Barbara Lynes explains this understanding in her essay, “O’Keeffe and Photography,”
“O’Keeffe became aware early on of the total photographic process and understood how various technical manipulations could bring great variations to the final product in terms of framing a subject, delineating contours and defining shapes, compressing or emphasizing spatial recession, and achieving tonal control.”
Much of this photographic understanding developed throughout her relationship with photographer Alfred Stieglitz, as well as her friendship with Paul Strand. She wrote to Strand in 1917,
“I believe I’ve been looking at things and seeing them as I thought you might photograph them – Isn’t that funny – making Strand photographs for myself in my head . . .”
-O’Keeffe to Paul Strand on June 2, 1917
(quoted in Lynes 52)
It was with this photographic view that Georgia O’Keeffe played with optical illusions, knowing very well how the eye operates and using this knowledge to show the viewer how to see.
For example, as we have seen before, a bone becomes the lens:
O’Keeffe uses this lens to frame the sky and moon in the far off distance, but draws us back to the immediate, nearby subject of the stark white bone. Our eye travels between the near and the far, torn between the two, creating a tension that we try to resolve by looking at both the bone and the moon at once before realizing it is impossible. O’Keeffe strategically leads our eye throughout the painting in this way – into the distant blue and back to the flat white – a constant rhythm.
This is much like looking through a viewfinder with one eye closed to focus on a distant subject before coming back to the object at hand – the lens of the camera.
Miss O’Keeffe also plays with photographic composition by dividing a canvas with the subject:
Or she points an imaginary camera upward to capture a cityscape:
And of course, she zooms in, magnifying an object to the point of abstraction:
O’Keeffe guides our eye over the canvas of her work, showing us which way to go before we even realize she is leading us. She is the creator, telling us not only how she sees the world, but how we can see it, too.
But for someone who is behind the scenes of art so often, it is a joy to see her as the subject of these photographs. Taking a break from my usual magnified focus on the patterns of a fork to sort through these pictures transports me to a different time and space where O’Keeffe does not lead our eye through her work or show us how to see, but is instead caught up in laughter, the middle of a sentence, or a glance through the lens to let us in on a secret, share a moment, and meet through time.
Though Georgia O’Keeffe’s artwork is one avenue we can walk to get to know her as an artist, these fundamental photographic records of time lead us to new understandings about her as a person.
A small grin appears on my face as I step back from sorting to reflect on these beautiful memories once lived. I can only continue smiling as I sort through my own photos of this New Mexico summer, knowing someday all of our captured histories will continue sharing their tales, bringing us back to the moments in time that needed to be preserved.
Liz Brindley, Curatorial Intern
Lynes, Barbara Buhler, Lesley Poling-Kempes, and Frederick W. Turner. Georgia O’Keeffe and New Mexico: A Sense of Place. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press in association with the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, 2004. Print.
Todd Webb | Georgia O’Keeffe with New Leica | 1966 | photographic print | 8 x 10 inches | copyright Todd Webb Estate | Gift of The Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation