Photographs have the special dual power to become valuable either for who took the picture or who’s in the picture.
A photograph of a celebrity is able to piggyback the status of its subject. We may look at it and appreciate it solely because of whom it depicts. This is very different from appreciating artwork for its beauty and craftsmanship. In a way, it is much shallower. In the best photographs, of course, we get both style and substance. But when a celebrity is the subject, it is very easy to forget the person behind the lens as we admire the person in front of it.
The photographs in New Mexico and New York: Photographs of Georgia O’Keeffe at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum are hardly transcendent. Except for a few formal portraits and some on-location shots that serve as illustrations of the landscapes she painted, the work is closer to a family photo album than an art exhibition. Most of the images, simply put, are snapshots: informal, uninformative and uninspiring. In this sense, they may qualify as a more realistic representation of a person’s life, but that doesn’t make them art.
This is especially disappointing when one considers O’Keeffe’s starring role in the history of photography. Alfred Stieglitz, the rigidly influential photographer and O’Keeffe’s husband, was a one-man ad agency. He compulsively photographed his bride over the three decades he knew her. All told, he produced hundreds of images of O’Keeffe, successfully helping to transform her into one of the most recognizable artists of the 20th century.
Stieglitz’ legendary body of work would have made for a potent portrait of the revered O’Keeffe. Hell, the number of images alone should have ensured a strong selection. Instead, the O’Keeffe Museum gives us two rooms—one contains some of the more mediocre images by Stieglitz and the other contains a mixture of photographers ranging from the best in the field to the totally amateur.
According to the literature, the exhibit’s organizers opted for a more rarefied (not to mention whitewashed) grouping of images. Unfortunately, this approach only hints at the breadth and the quality of the images made of O’Keeffe during her lifetime.
For example, Stieglitz frequently photographed O’Keeffe in the nude. However, nary a belly button is revealed in the exhibit, and it seems to me that this exclusion is a bit disingenuous. After all, why ignore a large chapter in the biography of the artist we are celebrating? The selective retelling strikes me as disrespectful, as though we can just paper over the parts of O’Keeffe’s life that we find embarrassing or controversial. Besides, the images would have been in black and white, and everyone knows this elevates their status to art instead of mere whacking material.
Despite these flaws, I began imagining I had known O’Keeffe and had taken these photographs, and then the very moving feelings of the images took hold. I realized these pictures are no different than family photos. Most weren’t attempts at art at all, but something better. They were made for the same reason we all take pictures of our families—because we love them, because we want these moments to last forever.
Looking around the room, I no longer saw the pictures as portraits of a celebrity. They are happy and intimate moments between friends or lovers. Just like when I photograph my wife, the images may mean nothing to the viewer, but to the photographer they are acts of devotion.
New Mexico and New York: Photographs of Georgia O’Keeffe
Through Jan. 10, 2010
Georgia O’Keeffe Museum
217 Johnson St.