Georgia on His Mind

Washington's National Gallery showcases work by Alfred Stieglitz, who changed American photography.

On a 100-degree day in Washington, D.C., the bag-check clerk at the National Gallery of Art is cranky. After first demanding to know whether a patron's backpack contains a live cell phone, he reluctantly offers directions to the big photography show Alfred Stieglitz: Known and Unknown.

"I hope you like Georgia O'Keeffe," he grumbles.

Any Stieglitz retrospective, of course, would be remiss if it left out the photographer's adoring portraits of the painter who would become his wife. The photographer made more than 300 pictures of O'Keeffe between 1917 and 1937, when ill health forced him to end his long photographic career. The National Gallery show duly offers up some 25 images of O'Keeffe, which form, astonishingly, almost a quarter of the 102 works on exhibit.

The early erotic nudes are ablaze with sexual fervor--the naked subject gazes at her photographer with frank longing, and the favor evidently was returned. In a frenzy that O'Keeffe later described as "a kind of heat and excitement," Stieglitz made 140 studies of her in just the first three years they were together.

With his camera he lionized her long, lean body, and lovingly scrutinized her separate body parts, making arresting images of her hands, her breasts, her feet. Sometimes, as in the 1921 "Georgia O'Keeffe--Hands and Grapes," he borrowed pieces of her anatomy for elegant still lifes. He made sadder portraits in the 1930s, when the two were leading essentially separate lives, he in New York, she in New Mexico. In these later pictures, the bones and blankets of O'Keeffe's Southwest life are positioned like barriers between photographer and sitter.

But apart from her starring role as subject, the late O'Keeffe had an even greater hand in this show than is immediately apparent. When Stieglitz died in 1946, the painter spent three years putting her late husband's work in order. According to Sarah Greenough, the Stieglitz expert who curated the show, O'Keeffe "formed what she called the 'key set' of his work, including at least one print of every mounted photograph in his possession at the time of his death." When casting about for a museum to house the key set, O'Keeffe rejected the Metropolitan Museum of Art, horrified that the Met's curator intended to trim Stieglitz's carefully cut mount boards to fit the museum's storage boxes. (The photographer, whose long career was partly a campaign to have photography honored as a fine art, did not consider a photograph complete until he had mounted it.)

The National Gallery apparently promising not to maul Stieglitz's handiwork, O'Keeffe gave the entire collection to the then-fledgling Washington museum. She donated some 1,300 photographs in 1949, and another 325 or so--all portraits of her--in 1980, not too long before her death. The current show is drawn entirely from this treasure, some of which has not been exhibited in 50 years. (The exhibition also celebrates the publication of a massive volume called Alfred Stieglitz: The Key Set, a two-volume work that for the first time reproduces every single image in the key set, yours for only $150.) The show draws on only a small portion of these works, but it's an admirable retrospective tracing Stieglitz's long career from late Victorian Europe to America at midcentury.

A pioneering modernist with an enormous influence on American photography, Steiglitz once declared, "I was born in Hoboken. I am an American. Photography is my passion." Yet this show demonstrates conclusively just how much Europe influenced the American photographer. Born in 1864, Stieglitz moved with his family to Germany at the age of 17. Studying with photographers as well as painters, he early on made gorgeous photographic renditions of the genre scenes favored by conservative European painters. His workers laboring among wheat sheaves recall Millet, and his fishermen's wives waiting on the shore summon up Boudin. "The Last Joke--Bellagio," 1887, is a classic genre study--a carefully assembled group of peasants, rendered noble by art.

These lovely 1880s pieces are tonal platinum prints with all the painterly qualities of Pictorialism. Like the other Pictorialists, Stieglitz was working against the perception that photography was merely a technical medium, a humdrum copier of reality divorced from art. They sought to inject their photographs with arty high-mindedness--strong feelings, lovely compositions--and they crafted them with care, making them unique art objects. Nowadays these photographers come in for criticism for their sappy subjects, from sylvan frolics to sentimental madonnas, but they played a respectable part in pushing the idea that photography can be art. And truth to tell, while critics conventionally think of these early Stieglitz pieces as prologues to the work that was to come, their painterliness is fresh, and welcome. Not so coincidentally, contemporary photographers lately have been experimenting with such cumbersome old technologies as palladium printing to achieve similar laudable effects.

But America, naturally, was bound to change the young artist. In 1890 he returned to New York, a Gilded Age hotbed of capitalism, a bustling city growing architecturally toward the sky. The Flatiron building, he later recalled, struck him as "moving toward me like the bow of a monster ocean-steamer--a picture of the new America that was still in the making." The city taught him he could make art photography outside the straitjacket of old-world subjects. New York's hard-edged geometries made their way into his pictures, and so did its more humble denizens. Not long after his return, he made "The Terminal," a wintry, thoroughly unromantic New York street scene--a carter watering his horses on a cold, gloomy day.

Increasingly evangelical, Stieglitz started the first of a string of galleries in 1905, with plans to instruct his fellow Americans in the avant-garde art of Europe. He succeeding in stunning New Yorkers with pioneering shows of Cézanne, Matisse, Picasso and Brancusi, but these European artists returned the favor to their gallerist, pushing his work in ever more modernist directions. Abandoning Pictorialism's soft focus, he experimented with shape and form, in much the way his cubist friends were doing. The well-known picture "The Steerage," from 1907, aptly records the torrent of Europeans washing up on American shores, but it's also an abstract composition of shapes--from the white straw boater hat to the diagonal pipe--that lend their geometries to a syncopated pattern of lights and darks.

In the 1920s cloud pictures, which Stieglitz called "Equivalents," he continued his forays into abstraction, and also occupied himself with portraiture and landscape, particularly at his beloved Lake George, N.Y., summer home. But eventually photography evolved without him. By the 1930s, when the Depression led photographers to right social ills through documentary and social realism, Steiglitz's highfalutin' experiments had begun to seem elitist and out of step, the curator tells us. His health was declining, his relationship with O'Keeffe was problematic, but he nevertheless spent his 70s making important urban pictures of the quintessential American city, and elegiac pictures of the American countryside.

"Literally and metaphorically more focused," Greenough declares, "these photographs reverberate with a sense of time and change, and with memories of the past."

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