1929 isn’t just the last time the world felt such a global financial crunch—it also is the year Ansel Adams and Georgia O’Keeffe met in New Mexico.
The two knew each other up until the mid-’80s when Adams, and then O’Keeffe, passed away. When they met, it was a bleak time in the nation’s socioeconomic landscape but a fruitful one for creativity and intellectualism in New Mexico.
Adams, who hailed from the West Coast, was delighted and influenced by the modernist sensibilities that surrounded Mabel Dodge Luhan’s Taos enclave and the photographic theory espoused by Paul Strand and Alfred Stieglitz, whom he later met. Most people familiar with the relationship between Adams and O’Keeffe think of the photographs he took of her over the years. New Mexicans will have noticed Adams’ photographs of the chapel in Hernandez, NM and the famously bulbous and organic mound of a church at Ranchos de Taos, both subjects O’Keeffe tackled with enthusiasm and in evolutions. Some will think of Adams’ 1937 photograph, “Ghost Ranch Hills, Chama Valley” as O’Keeffe country to its core.
But the exhibition that was on view at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum over the summer, Georgia O’Keeffe and Ansel Adams: Natural Affinities (now at the Smithsonian), revealed a deeper interplay between the two icons of 20th century American art. It was the story of two individual journeys of expression and exploration that ultimately found convergence not because of commonalities between the artists or their friendship, but because they opened the perception of the country in entirely new ways and profoundly deepened the common perception of the American landscape.
The exhibition was a predictable pleasure, with common subjects on view—more Adams exposures of New Mexico than are usually seen and iconic works by both Adams and O’Keeffe. As great a pleasure as it was to marvel at O’Keeffe’s distinct painting style or to gawk at Adams’ highly technical exposures, it is the accompanying book that now emerges as the true treasure of the exhibition. Well beyond the typical catalog, the hard-bound tome is packed with well-considered color plates, sections devoted to each artist and, most importantly, three excellent and in-depth essays.
Critic Richard B Woodward dissects and unveils the lives, careers and interconnectedness between O’Keeffe and Adams against the powerful backdrop of Stieglitz. It is a lively and personal account, full of details that lend a surprising intimacy to the side-by-side examination.
Barbara Buhler Lynes, curator of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum and the Emily Fisher Landau director of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum Research Center, examines the sense of self that was projected by both artists. Focusing, in particular, on the autobiographies each wrote, Lynes generates a riveting account of two artists coming into their own in a tumultuous century. For all their intensely divergent philosophies on how and why to work, a common thread of inspiration and motivation from very young ages materializes. Lynes manages to celebrate the achievements of each artist while simultaneously criticizing the facile and ego-driven illusions that characterize how each wanted to be perceived and the limited conditions under which they would tolerate commentary on their works.
Finally, Senior Curator of Photography for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art Sandra S Phillips details Adams’ career from his decision to finally pursue photography over music to his oft-misunderstood relationship with modern and contemporary art. Adams has such mainstream popularity, the influence of European and American modernism is rarely considered in relation to his work, but Phillips ably demonstrates Adams’ embrace and need for such ideas.
As companion essays to the exhibition, these works create a sense of how New Mexico, the West and the United States came to be understood visually and emotionally as a place of stirring grandeur and intimate beauty. The book details the mystique of land and geography promulgated by both artists, and also the aura surrounding their identities, sometimes with nearly equal vigor.
There also is a rare contextualization of the artist’s process in stride with the public imagination and the value of both personal and vicarious exploration. In navigating the journey of two artists whose work charts simultaneous voyages of deep understanding and subtle delusion, we are able to recognize something of the recent history of America embedded in the affinity between O’Keeffe and Adams.
On a less grand scale, the allure of New Mexico, itself, is revived in the images and letters both artists generated. We are reminded of O’Keeffe’s statement on New Mexico to Perry Miller Adato in a 1977 PBS documentary:
“As soon as I saw it, that was my country. I’d never seen anything like it before, but it fitted to me exactly. It’s something that’s in the air. It’s just different. The sky is different. The wind is different. I shouldn’t say too much about this because other people may become interested and I don’t want them interested.”
Georgia O’Keeffe and Ansel Adams: Natural Affinities
By Barbara Buhler Lynes, Sandra S Phillips, Richard B Woodward
Little, Brown and Company