Georgia O’Keeffe, Photographer is an exhibition of nearly 100 photographs, the majority taken by O’Keeffe herself, that explores a new aspect of the painter’s process and works to deepen our knowledge of her persona. Lisa Volpe, Associate Curator of Photography at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, spent three years researching and analyzing photographs held in many O’Keeffe collections. She read the artist’s journals, systematically creating timelines to match photographs with the artist’s extensive travels and assigning years to the images.
Volpe organizes the show around three themes: Reframing, Light, and Seasons. In Reframing, we see “snaps” as O’Keeffe often referred to them, taken in quick succession as she reframed a rock formation or roofline to create different compositions. In three photographs entitled “Lava Arch, Wai‘ānapanapa State Park” (March 1939), we see O’Keeffe adjust her position slightly, making the arch appear to move across the photographs.
In each section, selected O’Keeffe paintings accompany the photographs to illustrate the section’s theme. In Reframing, we see “Shell and Old Shingle No. I” (1926), a still life in which the viewer clearly sees a leaf and a shell. Next to it, we see “Shell and Old Shingle No. III” (1926), nearly the same painting, however with a shift of perspective so that it becomes a landscape: the shingle becomes a rock face and the foregrounded shell, a shadowy desert mound. In these captivating moments, O’Keeffe’s photography comes alive in her paintings.
The second theme, Light, features O’Keeffe’s photographs of her home in Abiquiú, New Mexico, such as “North Patio Corridor” (1956–57), “Ladder against Studio Wall with White Bowl” (1959–60), and “Salita Door, Patio” (1956–57). In these images the salita door becomes a black hole, and a bleached ladder leaning against an adobe wall casts a singular, black shadow, seemingly as sturdy as the ladder itself. Here we see the painting “In the Patio VIII” (1950) in which the light takes on a corporeal form as it cuts across a static, looming building. The building shifts into a landscape of forms.
In the final section, Seasons, we see O’Keeffe’s photographs of the same scene in different seasons. This section highlights her fascination with the road outside her home. Alongside the painting “Road Past the View” (1964), is a quote from O’Keeffe, “I had made two or three snaps of [the road] with a camera. 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.”
Throughout the exhibition are O’Keeffe’s cameras, her spotting kit, notes she took about correct shutter speeds in low light scribbled on a notepad from The Waldorf-Astoria, as well as many images she took of friends or images taken of her with friends. It’s here that this exhibition about her creative process also illuminates aspects of her as a human being, offering a slight reframing of O’Keeffe herself, in changing light.
Georgia O’Keeffe, Photographer continues at the Denver Museum of Art (100 West 14th Ave Parkway, Denver, Colorado) through November 6. The exhibition was curated by Lisa Volpe.