Georgia O’Keeffe, Photographer? A New Exhibit Reveals A Hidden Talent Of A Legendary Painter – Forbes

“I have been much photographed,” mused Georgia O’Keeffe in 1922. As the favorite model of the legendary photographer Alfred Stieglitz, she was often in front of the camera, and would continue to be a frequent photographic subject following their marriage two years later. By the time of Stieglitz’s death in 1946, O’Keeffe was the focus of some three hundred and thirty of his photographs, ranging from nudes to formal portraits.
All of this is well known to aficionados of Stieglitz’s photography and O’Keeffe’s painting (the fame of which would ultimately overshadow Stieglitz’s pictures of anyone but her). What is far less familiar is O’Keeffe’s considerable body of work behind the camera.  Aside from a brief mention in her published writing and some prints sent to friends as postcards, O’Keeffe kept her photographic practice to herself. With a new exhibition featuring more than ninety of her images, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston has changed the picture, compelling viewers to consider O’Keeffe through another lens.
Georgia O’Keeffe, Salita Door, Patio, 1956–57, gelatin silver print, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, … [+] the Lane Collection. © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum / image © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
The exhibition originated with a box of prints stored in the archives of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. When MFAH associate curator of photography Lisa Volpe first saw the box and learned that the contents had never been studied, she set out to determine whether O’Keeffe was their creator and to assess her motivations. Additional discoveries in other museums – including the Metropolitan, where O’Keeffe appears to have made an anonymous donation of seven signed prints – led Volpe to conclude that O’Keeffe regarded photography as an essential mode of artistic expression.
The 1922 text in which O’Keeffe wryly noted that she’d been “much photographed” – a text written at Stieglitz’s prompting – already alluded to an artistic interest in photography that would remain latent until she picked up a Leica in the ‘50s. Photography “has been part of my searching,” she wrote, “and through that searching maybe I am at present prejudiced in favor of photography.”
Art historians have previously noted some photographic qualities in O’Keeffe’s early paintings, and more can be seen when the work is considered with a photographic frame of mind. O’Keeffe often framed her imagery as if seen through a viewfinder, a formality imposed upon photographers by the nature of the camera that was a matter of choice for a painter working on canvas. “I often wonder what would have happened to painting if he had been a painter,” O’Keeffe wrote of Stieglitz in her 1922 text. The paintings she created in the 1920s and ‘30s might be regarded as her attempt to find out.
Of course there was much more to O’Keeffe’s painting than Stieglitz’s influence. One of the most interesting attributes of her photography is what it reveals about her way of seeing, and how she integrated her deep appreciation of photography into her mature work as a painter with no apparent aesthetic connection to Stieglitz’s photographs.  
O’Keeffe was not technically inclined or adept. She relied on professional photographers to configure the settings on her camera and to print the pictures she took. Volpe carefully considers the sequences and themes of O’Keefe’s work in the MFAH exhibition catalogue. As she observes, O’Keeffe would take multiple pictures of her surroundings with slight variations on the camera angle, and would return to the same subjects at different times of day and in different seasons. Although Volpe describes these qualities to argue for O’Keeffe’s artistic standing as a photographer – making the case that her photographs need to be included in her artistic oeuvre alongside her paintings and drawings – the repetitions and modulations actually seem more indicative of an amateur slowly growing accustomed to a camera.  
Georgia O’Keeffe, North Patio Corridor, 1956–57, gelatin silver print, Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, … [+] Santa Fe. © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum
To call O’Keeffe an amateur is not to disparage her, but rather to point out that we are looking at work that is unsophisticated in photographic terms. For the most part, she wielded the camera as a framing device for paintings she might make (which often were alternative versions of canvases she’d already painted). Her best photographs, which are excellent, are really paintings in a different medium.
That said, the camera was not only a mechanical paintbrush for O’Keeffe. At least in some instances, her awkwardness with the device provided her with new insights into the familiar. Even the road visible from her window was transformed. “I had made two or three snaps of it with a camera,” she wrote in her 1976 autobiography. “For one of them I turned the camera at a sharp angle to get all the road. It was accidental that I made the road seem to stand up in the air, but it amused me and I began drawing and painting it as a new shape.” In paint, she made that accidental shape iconic.
Both the transformation and translation are telling. Photography was never O’Keeffe’s natural mode of expression. It was not her métier. That is what made the camera most compelling for her – and what makes her photographs most compelling for viewers today.