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.
Sarah Greenough discussed this correspondence recently on NPR: http://www.npr.org/2011/07/21/138467808/stieglitz-and-okeeffe-their-love-and-life-in-letters. 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.
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.
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:
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.