The Letters of Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz

In 1916, when they met, Alfred Stieglitz was 52, and an internationally known photographer whose avant-garde gallery in Manhattan made him one of the most influential men in early 20th century American art. Georgia O’Keeffe was 28, and an unknown schoolteacher from Texas.  Their professional and personal relationship spanned three decades and is documented in 25,000 pages of correspondence.  The first volume of these letters has just been published as, My Faraway One: Selected Letters of Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz, Volume I, 1915-1933, edited and annotated by Sarah Greenough.

Georgia O'Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz, 1944

Sarah Greenough discussed this correspondence recently on NPR:  Stieglitz and O’Keeffe were prolific correspondents, sometimes writing two or three letters a day, up to 40 pages long.  These documents “track their relationship from acquaintances to admirers to lovers to man and wife to exasperated — but still together — long-marrieds.”   

The two began living together soon after O’Keeffe moved to New York.  They were married in 1924.  Greenough notes that tensions began to appear between them almost immediately, but the deciding moment in their relationship came in 1929, when O’Keeffe visited New Mexico and discovered the landscape of her soul.  Stieglitz had promoted her work in New York, but in New Mexico, O’Keeffe found the subjects and colors that made her famous.  You cannot really think of her living anywhere else, just as you cannot think of Stieglitz outside of New York.  The two maintained their relationship at a distance, struggling to grow as individuals and as a couple, until Stieglitz’s death in 1946.

"Ram's Head," by Georgia O'Keefe

More is generally known about O’Keeffe than Stieglitz, for her powerful canvases have a distinct 20th century feel, and her life has become emblematic for generations of women struggling to champion their own personal and creative gifts.

"Light Iris" by Georgia O'Keeffe

Stieglitz is not as important to contemporary artists, but his influence on early 20th century American art and especially modern photography cannot be overstated.  He was an early and ardent champion the idea of photography as an art.  Later 20th century masters of the medium – Paul Strand, Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, and Minor White – all made the pilgrimage to New York to seek the “master’s blessing,” and those who won his approval never doubted themselves again.  In her NPR interview, Sarah Greenough notes that Stieglitz was “amazingly egotistical and narcissistic,” but he had the ability to establish “a deep communion with people.”

Stieglitz was also a “hinge” on which the transition to modern photography swung.  Prior to Stieglitz, most people made and saw photographs in terms of their literal subject matter.  Stieglitz used the medium of visible shapes to evoke states of awareness and feeling that move beyond the visible.  He named his efforts, “equivalents,” a term which Minor White later picked up, championed, and made known to subsequent generations of photographers.

No one before Stieglitz had made photographs as evocative of meaning beyond their literal subjects:

"New York Central Yard," by Alfred Stieglitz

Georgia O'Keeffe's Hands by Alfred Stieglitz

Equivalent, 1930, by Alfred Stieglitz

O’Keeffe and Stieglitz met almost 100 years ago, but their relationship seems utterly contemporary, laced as it was with tension between self-expression and commitment to the other.  Even so, their attitude might be summed up by what Minor White reported after his visit to Stieglitz’s gallery.  White wondered if he had what it took to become a serious photographer.

“Have you ever been in love?” Stieglitz asked.  White said he had.

“Then you can photograph,” was the reply.

4 thoughts on “The Letters of Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz

  1. Wonderful images. I’d forgotten how much texture and depth Steiglitz brought to his black and white images. I’ve never been a big fan of Georgia O’Keefe, but I appreciate her art. Her subjects are just not something that interests me. You don’t say much about the book. I probably won’t read it because I always feel like something of a voyeur when I read collections of people’s private letters, but it’s interesting to know about it. Thanks for another good post.


    • I too, have not been a big fan of O’Keefe, though I remember seeing a show of her work in Santa Fe, and realizing again that the visceral experience of large canvases on the wall is very different from that of smaller illustrations in a book on on a screen.

      I do not expect to read the book either. I think the only “Letters” book I have read straight through, was Tolkien. But this was a rewarding excuse to think about and look at both of their work.


  2. Congratulations, Morgan, on being Freshly Pressed! It was just yesterday that I learned what that meant! I plead new to the WordPress and Blogging world – a month or so – and will eventually find my way around.

    Today I ventured into a “real” bookstore. You know the kind: in an old house, doors open, three different levels to get lost in, books going up the staircase, one copy of each title, owner on site, etc etc….. I had been in this local store a number of times previously, but quietly would leave, and buy favoured books at a Big Box Store – at a discount…. maybe two discounts with a coupon!! But occasionally – like today – making a good old fashioned book purchase! No Membership card! No discounts!!

    As I ventured on to the second landing, (don’t get me wrong, this is a relatively small – mid-size store – the landing would not fit more than two serious book browsers). But it did happen to be the Art Section. As I scanned the titles, and picked up a small, but heavy, (wonderfully heavy pages), little book called “The Paper Garden” – which is now on my wish list – out of the corner of my eye I saw a book about Georgia O’Keefe and letters she wrote to somebody!! I knew there was a flower on the cover, but I did not recognize the correspondent’s name. And I did not turn and pick up the book.

    Now, tonight, now that I know what Freshly Pressed is all about, I glanced, and saw your post: “A Year on Blogging” – and went exploring your blog. By the way, Happy Anniversary, oops, I guess I mean Happy Blogiversary! (BlogOversary? BlogAversary? We need common spelling!). The one year mark seems so far to me – I’m not even sure that I want to stay in this big blogging world.

    But I digress…… My point of this post is that now, I know the name of that book, which just caught the corner of my eye earlier today. It was, of course, “My Faraway One: Selected Letters of Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz, Volume I”!! Is this a SIGN??? Does this mean that tomorrow I rush back to that store and purchase that book?? I’m not even a big fan of Georgia O’Keeffe, but anything for the cause!! Its not that I don’t admire her art – I do – but it seems just too real to me – makes me a little uncomfortable. Is that another SIGN that I need to go back for that book?? OR………… do I login to Chapters-Indigo website, where the book is 34% off (34???!), plus there is an online discount, plus a discount because I am a Chapters-Indigo Member?? What to do…….

    You know, why am I posting this here??? This could be tomorrow’s blog for me – getting me one week closer to my BlogOversary!!

    Your blog looks great, Morgan – I really like how you have set up your book reviews. That’s really how this started for me – a desire to blog book reviews – that’s all I was going to do. Now, I’m not so sure. Maybe this will become my online journal. Yep, same process for me: journalling for years (how many ways can you say: Life throws out alot of crap), went the Facebook route – good for connecting with friends from ages past – but beyond that, what is there? really?? what?? Now this blogging business is something I can get behind – connecting with people who have the same interests. Because with our Friends – Facebook or Real – we have varied interests.

    Well, this rather lengthy response needs to come to an end; you need to get back to writing, rather than reading!

    I have now clicked the “Sign me up” button on your blog, and look forward to your future posts. Thank you for enriching my blogging world.


    P.S. What is a Blogroll??? And, what’s up with Goodreads? I find it so bewildering, and usually my comprehension of book websites is pretty good! And what is it with this love for commas? Me too! Plus dashes!! I love dashes!! So Emily Dickinson! Oh! I did buy Emily’s Book of Letters today – it’s a small lovely little book, which perfectly matches the small lovely little book of her poems, (which I already have). ENOUGH chatter!! Signing off!


  3. Interesting…

    Can’t help but see similarities between this real-life story and the fictional story of two writers in A.S Byatt’s book “Possession”. Have you read it? La Motte, the poetess in the story, also struggles between her love for the poet/writer Ash and her own place in the feminist movement in literature in an age where women were considered incapable of being able to write anything that went beyond their own narrow domestic world or that would be remembered beyond their own times….

    3-4 letters of more than 40 pages!! I wonder if there is a story to how these letters were discovered…


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