Who We Are
Photography changes how we choose to represent ourselves
Barbara Buhler Lynes, curator of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, relates how Georgia O’Keeffe benefited from, and then worked against the photographic images that first defined her as a public figure.
Alfred Stieglitz (1852–1946) began making photographs of Georgia O’Keeffe (1887–1986) in 1917, when she travelled to New York from Canyon, Texas, where she was teaching, to see the one-person exhibition that Stieglitz had organized of her work at his famous gallery, 291. She became a frequent subject in his work after 1918, when she moved to the city at his invitation to devote all of her energies to her work. In 1921, when Stieglitz organized an exhibition of his own work at The Anderson Galleries, he included many of his recent photographs of O’Keeffe including some that presented her in the nude, partially clothed, and often positioned before one of her recently completed and innovative abstract works, as in Georgia O’Keeffe (1917).
The Stieglitz exhibition created a sensation in New York, not only because its images of O’Keeffe were startlingly sharply focused, “straight photographs” of the nude female form, but also because they confirmed the then-scandalous love affair between the thirty-four-year-old O’Keeffe and the fifty-seven-year-old, married guru of the New York art community. As art critic Henry McBride later put it: “It made a stir. Mona Lisa got but one portrait of herself worth talking about. O’Keeffe got a hundred. It put her at once on the map. Everybody knew the name. She became what is known as a newspaper personality.”
Stieglitz’s photographs of O’Keeffe in the late teens and early twenties forged a public image of the artist not only as a highly sensual, seemingly naïve, and vulnerable force of nature, but also as a sexually liberated, modern woman. The power of this image is best measured by the fact that it functioned as a visual equivalent for Stieglitz’s ardent and ongoing promotion of O’Keeffe’s art as a manifestation of her sexuality.
Although the public image Stieglitz’s photographs had constructed bothered O’Keeffe, as did his ideas about the meaning of her work, she was not in a position to challenge him in the 1920s. She was new to the New York art community, while he was one of its most prominent authorities, and his support and promotion of her work was responsible for her burgeoning career and her increasing financial independence. By the end of the decade, revenues from his sales of her work had made O’Keeffe a millionaire in today’s money. Also, O’Keeffe was deeply in love with Stieglitz, and having lived with him since 1918 (she married him in 1924), knew well enough that neither she nor anyone else could change his mind or opinions.
Yet, she developed silent strategies to counter what she considered misconceptions of herself and her work. She associated the Freudian interpretations that dominated criticism of her 1923 one-person show with the recently made, innovative, abstract images the show included. And so, she began to shift the emphasis in her imagery away from abstraction to redefine herself as a painter of representational forms; she remains best known today as a flower painter. Still, her success in moving critics away from Freudian interpretations of her work was limited. Her paintings of natural forms, especially her large-format paintings of the centers of flowers, were seen first and foremost by the critics as female sexual forms even though most flowers are considered to be androgynous and contain both male and female sexual parts.
But, by the end of the 1920s, another campaign she had launched was achieving a degree of success. That is, when being photographed by Stieglitz, she increasingly defined herself as she wanted to be known by presenting herself as a self-assured and independent individual. This can be seen in Stieglitz’s Georgia O’Keeffe—After Return from New Mexico (1929), which was taken at Lake George, New York, after O’Keeffe’s first summer of painting in New Mexico. Here, O’Keeffe appears confident, assertive, and anything but the vulnerable, sexual creature of his early portraits.
That O’Keeffe understood the power of photography as a means of establishing self-identity becomes particularly evident after she moved from New York in 1949 to take up permanent residency in New Mexico, three years after Stieglitz’s death. From then until her death in 1986, she allowed herself to be photographed by numerous professional photographers, increasingly relying on the medium to construct an image of herself based on her ideas about who she was and what she had accomplished, as can be seen in Yosuf Karsh’s 1956 photograph of her.
This image of O’Keeffe as a severe, uncompromising individualist, along with many portraits other photographers made of her, was published widely in numerous newspapers and magazines. Through them, O’Keeffe succeeded in constructing a public image that conveyed her conception of herself: a serious, determined individual, who in her strong commitment to her work and life as an artist had achieved the American dream of self-fulfillment through self-discipline and self-determination.
Constructed primarily through photography, this public image was one of the great successes of O’Keeffe’s late career. That is, by defining herself in her own way and on her own terms, this public image effectively took the place of the one Stieglitz’s early portraits had established.
- Georgia O’Keeffe, 1918
- Alfred Stieglitz
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Georgia O’Keeffe, 1918
Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Gift, The Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation
© Georgia O’Keeffe Museum
- Georgia O’Keeffe, 1956
- Yosuf Karsh
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Georgia O’Keeffe, 1956 by Yosuf Karsh
Georgia O’Keeffe Museum
© Estate of Yosuf Karsh