The Model Wife

Excerpt from the book The Model Wife, by Arthur Ollman, Director of the Museum of Photographic Art


Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946)

Many commentators have discussed the utterances and legacy of Alfred Stieglitz. Every one of them must eventually address the impact on his life and his art of his second wife, Georgia O'Keeffe. Just so, scholars of O'Keeffe must consider Stieglitz's involvement in her life. The popular image of Stieglitz and O'Keeffe locked in mortal combat is inaccurate. They were sometimes combative but more often supportive, and cooperatively strategic about their careers.

O'Keeffe's art career virtually begins with Stieglitz, for he launched it. On the other hand, the control of his final legacy resided nearly fully in her hands and, after her death, under the auspices of her estate. In this regard, each took great care of the other, and collaborated to create, of their marriage, an art world institution. Their collective power cannot be ignored in any discussion of early to mid-twentieth-century American art.

Alfred Stieglitz was a masterful photographer who towers above most of his contemporaries. While his depiction of architecture, landscape, and portraiture is direct, and distilled, and his luminous equivalents are poetic harbingers of Abstract Expressionism, it is his prolonged portrait of Georgia O'Keeffe that is his most profound photographic contribution to twentieth-century art. (left: Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O'Keeffe: A Portrait, 1920, gelatin silver print, courtesy The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles)

The period prior to O'Keeffe's arrival in Stieglitz's life was difficult and frustrating. He was estranged from his wife, Emmeline, and daughter. The outbreak and progress of World War I preoccupied the public. Stieglitz himself, having spent years in Germany, could not at first take sides in the war. In 1917, there were only thirty-seven subscribers to his pride and joy, the magazine Camera Work. He had financial worries, was middle aged, with a dwindling circle of followers eager to listen to him. He had made very few photos in the previous 10 years; then came Georgia O'Keeffe.

When Stieglitz first saw O'Keeffe's drawings he identified them as the "purest, finest, sincerest things that have entered 291 (his New York Gallery) in a long while." Stieglitz was rapturous over O'Keeffe and made no secret of it.

He photographed her first in June of 1917. Sensing her protean energy, her non-verbal assertiveness and her earthy physicality, he depicts her in the earliest photographs as open and vulnerable. A more sophisticated visual dialogue began soon after. She moved to New York in June of 1918 and within a month their romance was apparent to all who knew them.

Stieglitz's emotional life had changed and now his artistic life had to follow. He suddenly faced his greatest challenge -- how to depict this passions. In August 1918, they were making photographs virtually every day. Ultimately, 350 images of O'Keeffe resulted from their efforts together. In this work, Stieglitz went far beyond the directness and intimacy of his previous portraiture.

O'Keeffe was transformed, in a few years, in front of the camera from a shy, rather reserved young woman to an identifiable, widely viewed and discussed voluptuous nude model. Her portrayal alters also, from girlish and coy, to brazen and haughty and then to masculine, assertive and even taunting. By 1921, Stieglitz was producing close-up portraits of O'Keeffe that had strong masculine components. The portraits became more complex, dramatic and ambiguous. Stieglitz was drawn to her straining muscles, her long bony fingers, the exquisite definition of her clavicles, her stark profile or her haughty, even icy stare. Her final persona is one of strength and autonomous aloofness. She does not reject the photographic enterprise and thus she accepts Stieglitz, but she clearly does so on her terms.

From the first O'Keeffe portraits in 1917 to the last in 1934, there is little in each frame but O'Keeffe. Often there is only a part of her, appreciated, savored. It is clear that whenever she was around him there was little room in his vision for anything else. Stieglitz's perception of O'Keeffe was closely aligned to his own needs. O'Keeffe young and in his thrall, O'Keeffe with her paintings, as his sexual stimulant and muse, as a masculine source of strength, as his ally, his tease, his aloof tormentor, and elusive wife -- Stieglitz used O'Keeffe as a model but the subject of his art was just as much the storms of his own psyche.

If a paradigm exists for the portrayal of a spouse, it was created by Stieglitz's images of O'Keeffe. After this body of photographs, it seems, anyone working in these fields must first read the trespass warnings. Each artist in this book, from De Meyer to Nixon, was aware of this work. Exploring the emotional terrain associated with a long-term partnership, these photographs identify a high point of honesty and revelation, belief and poetic dramatization in photography. They are as stunningly contemporary today as when they were made.

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