SF MOMA Gallery Talk: Curator Lisa Sutcliffe on Rineke Dijkstra’s Beach Portraits, Thursday evening, April 19, 2012
One of the most highly regarded photographers of her generation, Dutch artist Rineke Dijkstra is well known for her psychologically probing portraits of ordinary people in states of transition. Her Beach Portraits, a very painterly series taken between 1992-1996, in which adolescents from all over—the U.K., Croatia, Poland, Ukraine—are posed alone against a background of sea and sky brought her immediate acclaim. More than simply documenting a transitional moment, Dijkstra reveals a heightened tension in her subjects who are delicately poised on the edge of an unknown future. These life-size photographs and videos, subtly colored, are celebrated for capturing the essential nature and complexities of growing up. Taken as a group, these portraits reveal fascinating cultural differences and some universal similarities and allow us to draw some profound conclusions about how people react under a watchful eye.
Rineke Dijkstra: A Retrospective, at The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) through May 28, 2012, is the artist’s first midcareer retrospective in the United States, bringing together 70 of her large-scale color photographs, including many of the beach portraits, and five video installations, including two new video projections. The exhibition is coorganized by SFMOMA and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and curated locally by Sandra Phillips, Senior Curator of Photography, SFMOMA. On Thursday, April 19, 2012, Lisa Sutcliffe, assistant curator of photography, SFMOMA, will give a 20 minute gallery talk, sharing her perspective on one of Dijkstra’s portraits in her Beach Portraits series. Meet in the Haas Atrium at 6:30 p.m. before moving into the galleries. Free with museum admission.
If you go, be sure to watch her 12 minute video “I see a woman crying (the weeping woman)” (2009) which unfolds on three screens and is the first work in which she used the human voice. Picasso’s “Weeping Woman” (1937), in the Tate Liverpool, was used as the talking point for a group of British schoolchildren who are filmed having a prolonged serious discussion about what they see in the painting. To create the video, she set up three cameras on tripods and had the children look at a reproduction of the painting that was attached to the middle tripod, so none of them were looking straight into the camera lens but beyond it, at the image. Unlike a conventional portrait in which the subject looks at the camera, the children here were engaged with each one another and thus disconnected from the viewer. What they come up with and how they respond to each other’s remarks and begin to speculate on the woman’s emotional state and situation is truly fascinating.
Also riveting is her series “Almerisa,” (1994-2008) a study in how a subject, in this case a 6-year-old Bosnian girl in a refugee center for asylum seekers in Leiden, Netherlands, changes over time. When Dijkstra first photographed Almerisa in 1994, she was in her best and probably only dress, and posed lifelessly, almost like a rag doll, her feet dangling because they could not touch the floor. Concerned about what had happened to her, Dijkstra found the family after they left the center and settled into life in the Netherlands and began photographing Almerisa every two years or so, completing 11 portraits of her sitting in a chair, that also captured her maturation into a young woman. The final portrait captures Almerisa holding her own baby. The orthodoxy in this powerful series is one of honesty rather than beauty. The subject’s body and character are transitioning for many reasons that invite the viewer to embark on the same type of speculation that Dijkstra asked of the school children who encountered Picasso’s powerful portrait.
Rineke Dijkstra: A Retrospective is the second of three shows at SFMOMA this year focusing on Female Pioneers of Photography. The first was Francesca Woodman, September 5, 2011-February 20, 2012. The third is Cindy Sherman, July-October, 2012.
Details: SFMOMA is located at 151 Third Street, San Francisco, across from the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. General admission is $18—Thursday evenings admission is half-price. For more information, visit www.sfmoma.org.
Richard Avedon at SFMOMA: A Powerful Retrospective of the Legendary Photographer through November 29, 2009. SFMOMA is the show’s only U.S. venue
Throughout his celebrated six-decade career, Richard Avedon (1923-2004) has always drawn huge crowds. His fashion photography, portraiture and reportage, an innovative juggling of commercial and fine art photograph, have seared themselves into our memory. His current show at SFMOMA, “Richard Avedon: Photographs 1946-2004” July 11 through November 29, 2009, is the first comprehensive retrospective his work since his death in 2004 and delivers over 200 of his signature photographs along with some surprises—lesser known photographs that are remarkable. SFMOMA is the only US venue this show. The exhibition was organized by Helle Crenzien in 2007 for The Louisiana Museum of Modern Art Denmark in cooperation with the Richard Avedon Foundation and it has traveled to Italy, France, Germany, and the Netherlands. It is installed here by Sandra Phillips, SFMOMA Senior Curator of Photography, with support from SFMOMA curator Corey Keller, Norma Stevens and James Martin from the Richard Avedon Foundation and the Jeffrey Frankel Gallery.
Aside from the famous models (Dovima, Suzy Parker, Veruschka, Twiggy), there are movie stars (Marilyn Monroe, Katherine Hepburn), rock stars (the Beatles, Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, Björk), world leaders (Eisenhower, Kissinger, Ted Kennedy), writers and poets (Ezra Pound, Renata Adler), artists (Willem de Kooning, Francis Bacon, Andy Warhol) and non-famous people. It all adds up to a show that equals the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 2002 blockbuster show “Richard Avedon: Portraits.” Now that Avedon is dead, what kind of artist we judge him to be is ultimately based on the work we see and its presentation, which makes posthumous retrospectives vitally important.
This exhibition is organized chronologically, highlighting the major themes and benchmark moments in Avedon’s prolific career—his early post WWII street scenes; his breakthrough into fashion work in the 1950’s; his expansive reportage of American counterculture in the 1960’s and 1970’s; his Reagan-era series of portraits of non-famous people—cowboys, drifters—on the fringe and his iconic portraits of the influential and famous. The galleries are filed with unforgettable gorgeously printed pictures–medium-sized, large, larger and really really large, like the 31 foot long 1969 mural of Andy Warhol and several of his Factory gang, buck-naked.
With Avedon, it’s all about people—capturing them at that perfect moment in time when you sense you can read them— against a backdrop that is either a highly-stylized fashion environment infused with energy and movement or, for the portraits, a stark sheet. Either way, Avedon was in full control of everything down to the finest detail.
Of his early fashion photography, certainly the most famous images are those of his beloved models– “Dovima with Elephants, evening dress by Dior, Cirque d’Hiver, Paris, August 1955” and “Homage to Munkacsi, Carmin, Coat by Cardin, Place Franḉois-Premier, Paris, August 1957” which captures Carmen gliding effortlessly in mid air as she steps off a curb into a Paris street. Avedon was inspired by the Hungarian-born Martin Munkacsi, whose work he had come across in Harper’s Bazar and Vogue. Munkacsi was a former sports photographer who revolutionized the static world of fashion photography by injecting it with movement. Avedon added to Munkacsi’s pioneering work by infusing the movement with soul and emotion.
As Avedon quickly found his expressive groove in the fashion work, his career took off and he successfully and seriously embraced portraiture. His stark portraits have been described as unforgettable, as being unusually good at capturing character. The truth is that we read into these whatever we want to see. We all have an internal filter–whatever we think we may know about that person, we project onto their image. Critic Michael Kimmelman writes “The tradeoff with Mr. Avedon is between style and substance. It’s the tension he has made into his art.” (Art Review, New York Times, September 27, 2002.) Avedon’s 1957 portrait of Marilyn Monroe captures a weary starlet who seems smaller than life, whereas his 1963 portrait of a young Bob Dylan seems “charged with future” (Gabriel Celaya).
Avedon is one of the very few artists who started in a so-called non-serious branch of photography and transitioned into serious branch and was able stay there, not only as a fully accepted but also as a highly esteemed practitioner of photography as an art. (Helle Crenzien essay p 22 in Richard Avedon Photographs 1946-2004, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, 2007) His first major retrospective was in 1962 at the Smithsonian (he was 39), just as photography itself was being recognized by arts institutions. His fashion work drew the crowds, who also reacted enthusiastically to his vital portraits. The situation now is radically different—today, it is generally accepted that a commercial photographer can be an artist.
Walking through the exhibition, I had a talk with Sandra Phillips, SFMOMA Senior Photography Curator, and with Norma Stevens, Avedon’s long-term “person” (friend, colleague, and Founding Executive Director of the Richard Avedon Foundation in New York) and with James Martin, Managing Director, The Richard Avedon Foundation, who worked closely with Avedon as a technician up until Avedon’s death in 2004.
Geneva Anderson: As Avedon became more and more famous over the years, did his work process change? Did he become more and more picky about who he worked with, selecting subjects himself, or did he work on commission?
SANDRA PHILLIPS: He worked pretty much only through commissions. He had a very strange egalitarianism mixed with celebrity. I think what he tried to do was to show that people were remarkable and that famous people were as remarkable as people who are remarkable in different ways.
His work did change over time. It changed, I think, because the market place evolved. Harper’s became a less interesting magazine. It is significant that his last position was at The New Yorker which was kind of like Harper’s Bazar had been and he was very interested in making that a vital magazine. He also did these commissions In the American West—these people who are not celebrities, they are unknown and that was an interesting challenge for him. They are not humanitarian pictures; they are very serious pictures though that show the dignity that people have acquired through living as they have and where they have.
I believed the 1960’s shaped him profoundly in the way it shaped us–a period of tremendous upheaval whose resonance we still experience. He photographed all the players, the heroes and villains, from Janis Joplin, to the Beatles, to Warhol, to the
Vietnam Generals, to George Wallace. And his pictures of art aristocrat’s Robert Frank, Willem de Kooning and Jasper Johns come from the same special family as those more broadly known. Avedon saw them all as an individuals and all as models.
NORMA STEVENS: He worked both ways. He worked for Harpers, Vogue, The New Yorker, so if he wanted a photograph someone, like say Ezra Pound, that request came from him through the magazine. If the magazine brought him someone, he would do that too. It happened all along the way and I am talking about the portraits–they were something that were of enormous interest to him. He had fascination with the arts—artists like Jasper Johns, Willem de Kooning and writers like Tennessee Williams, Dorothy Parker. By the time he got to The New Yorker, it was wonderful because they were interested and would bring him people that he might not have even known about and it was a wonderful collaboration.
Geneva Anderson: Did he ever refuse to photograph anyone?
NORMA STEVENS: Well, Madonna. When a celebrity comes, they have their idea of how they want to look and you can go along with it but Dick would always want to add his creative mark, how he saw what they wanted to portray. There might be a little struggle but, with her, she was not interested in working with him and he was definitely not interested in working with her.
Geneva Anderson: Did she approach him?
NORMA STEVENS: With celebrities, it’s usually mediated. She sent her people to our people (and that was me). She has people she loves working with like Steven Meisel. Dick was not her time of day. It would have been interesting though–don’t you think?– to see what would have come out of that?
Geneva Anderson: Did he strictly adhere to no cropping?
NORMA STEVENS: He rarely cropped. The prints you see here with all the black edge—that’s the entire photo. He did it in the camera and that was it. He used a big 8×10. The printers would go all through the night and prepare images for him to review in the morning and he would make comments like “it needs a little more drama.” And they had to interpret that.
Geneva Anderson: How did the advent of digital photography impact him?
SANDRA PHILLIPS: I am inclined to say it didn’t.
NORMA STEVENS: He tried it and it didn’t really impress him. He might have gone around and said no further prints can be made. He was very strict about that.
Geneva Anderson: What was it like over the years? How did you make it?
NORMA STEVENS: I am still here. It wasn’t always fun. It was an awful lot of work. Look at the energy in those portraits around us…he was just like that…he was so full of energy. We had an understanding. I am taller than I look.
James Martin, Executive Director of the Richard Avedon Foundation worked as a dark room technician for Richard Avedon during his final years.
Geneva Anderson: Take me through a typical printing experience with Avedon.
JAMES MARTIN: I did a lot of his printing. If you look at the way he has printed, it hasn’t changed that much. Earl Steinbicker, who worked with him from the 1950’s onward, is writing a book about the experience and his blog describers the printing technique. The process for a single print involves making ten different prints with slightly different contrast ratios—darker or lighter and picking the four that they—the team–think Dick would want. Those were printed 16 x 20 and put on his kitchen table in morning and, of course, they would all be wrong. He would say things like “the ear is perfect–you should focus on the ear.” And so you would go back down to the dark room and spend 4 or 5 hours and make another range of say 6 images based on his comment. You would bring these up to him and you would get closer but he would say these are garbage. And so it went.
Geneva Anderson: He had the capacity to use very technical terms to describe precisely what he wanted but it sounded like he chose to communicate in a non-technical way.
JAMES MARTIN: Yes. He would communicate with us using phrases like “this “needs to have more passion” which, in a sense, is not technical but you know exactly what you need to do as a darkroom technician. “More passion” is a nuanced way to work with the printing process. Everything was done downstairs in the basement and you would work all day long on a single print, sometimes at 3 in the morning and he would talk in a very non-technical way–“More drama here, less drama there.” It was a very intuitive way of going about it—it’s also talking with the other technicians you are working with and trying to determine what that means, what does that translate to. It was a lot of teamwork and a lot of team building.
Geneva Anderson: Is there a photograph here that you were responsible for printing?
JAMES MARTIN: There is only one in this show—the portrait of the singer Lorraine Hunt Leiberman. It’s really fairly close towards the end of his life. He was 82 when he did this project and was aware that it was his last major effort and he knows it and he knows he needs to come up a last important series of photographs. And this was for The New Yorker but it was also for himself. He working on this book Woman in the Mirror , photographs of hope, woman that bring that sense of coda to his story, to the work of Avedon.
These are different portraits. This is a very tender tender image. You do not see that forgiving quality in his earlier work. That meant lowering the contrast in her face with one filter, yet pumping the contrast up in the hair. But once you did that, you ran into the problem of what does that hair convey? She had red hair and as I took the photo back to him, he would say that it doesn’t look like a photograph of a redhead. I had to translate that into technical printing—how do you make that hair look red and preserve the contrast with the softness in the face? It was certainly a challenge and you make choice and it probably took me 20 hours just working on the contrast ratios in the hair alone to really pull it up. Now that I am looking at it here, I am seeing that in certain light, it looks a little more brown than red. It’s very hard to look at this without seeing the other photos, the history.
Contrast that with the 1955 portrait of Marian Anderson the contralto singer who is captured in a moment of intense inner concentration on song. By waiting for the moment when her eyes were closed, all the attention is drawn to her mouth, to her total embodiment of voice. There is strength in this portrait rather than the tenderness and vulnerability in his last portraits of women.
When Avedon died unexpectedly in San Antonio, Texas, in October 2004 on assignment for The New Yorker magazine, he left iron-clad instructions about how his $60 million fortune was to be used and how his artistic legacy should be preserved.
Geneva Anderson: Norma, you have worked for the past five years to establish and make The Richard Avedon Foundation financially secure. We are living in very tumultuous times–how secure are you?
NORMA STEVENS: “We are financially secure for the foreseeable future, at least the next five years. Dick knew what he wanted done to protect his legacy. The copyrights of his work alone, which he bequeathed to the Avedon Foundation totaled nearly $300,000. The estate’s biggest asset is his printed pictures. His biggest worry was what would happen to the prints after his death and he left directives indicating that no prints or reproductions were to be made posthumously, except for contact sheets, which could be used for educational purposes.
review-Masters of the Southwest Georgia O’Keeffe and Ansel Adams Natural Affinities, SFMOMA May 30- September 7, 2009
Few American artists have attained the tremendous popularity of photographer Ansel Adams and painter Georgia O’Keeffe, the subject of a fascinating show at SFMOMA which explores how these two monumental artists converge. “Natural Affinities” consists of roughly 100 works by O’Keeffe and Adams and focuses on their approach to landscape and their mutual use of natural forms such as trees, mountains, and water as well as their vital contributions to American Modernism. The exhibition was organized by the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe in 2008, toured nationally and is in its final leg at SFMOMA, where it was curated by Sandra Phillips, SFMOMA, Senior Curator of Photography. The show closes on Monday, September 7, 2009 and there is a $5.00 surcharge for admission.
Adams (1902-1984) and O’Keeffe (1887-1906) knew each other for 56 years, from 1929 until Adam’s death in 1985. They met in Taos, New Mexico, in 1929 at the home of mutual friend, Mabel Dodge Luhan, and immediately became friends. They met again the following year in New Mexico when Adams was there making photos
for his first book, Taos Pueblo, published in 1930, and when O’Keeffe was spending her first of many full summers painting there. They traveled together though the Southwest in 1937 and 1938 and visited the Yosemite High Sierra, which Adam immortalized in splendid images. Their most obvious affinity is their mutual emotional attraction to the American Southwest which led each to produce important bodies of work based on their responses to the landscape, enticing desert vistas, mountains, architecture and history. Their iconic images have become so pervasive, so much a part of our mindset, that artists working with this subject matter today, still find themselves compared to, and falling short of, what these two achieved decades ago.
Forces of Modernism
Both artists became leading forces in American Modernism, a period of American artistic innovation roughly dated from the 1890’s to 1960 when artists began to depict contemporary life through experimental forms and new mediums. Modern artists shared a desire to break away from the conventions of representational art and abandoned the old rules of perspective, color, and composition in order to work out their own visions. These new attitudes were reinforced by scientific discoveries of the time that seemed to question the solidity of the known world and the reliability of perception.
Adams’ legacy is as the preeminent American photographer and as a leading environmentalist. In the realm of the grand landscape, Adams is in a class by himself—his vision, perfectionism, unprecedented combination of technical virtuosity and inspired eye are unmatched. His landscapes stand out as moody, exhilarating, near operatic experiences.
Perhaps his most significant contribution to modernism though is through his lesser known but equally impressive images that depict nature’s intimate details—his close-up camera work, his interaction with nature on a human scale, that led him into abstraction. Adams’ close-ups captured aspects of form and texture in the natural world—the lathery foaming of water in motion, the purity of a new delicate blossom, the fuzzy perfection of moss in symbiotic harmony with a tree trunk. These works, many are included in the exhibition, were very personal interpretations in terms of angle, framing and light, and moved photography in a very contemporary direction.
O’Keefe is regarded as one of the leading American female artists of the first half of the twentieth century. She too was inspired by close-up examinations of natural forms and her gift was her ability to distill these into their pure essence leading to abstract, energetic, spiraling, undulating, vibrantly colorful artworks. The critics frequently identified her form of abstraction as the definitive feminine pole and attached Freudian analogies. This pigeonholing annoyed her but also secured her fame in the art world, an arena from which women had traditionally been excluded. In 1970, when the Whitney Museum of American Art opened a retrospective exhibition of O’Keeffe’s work, she became the heroine of the feminist movement, thus positioning her in the limelight, which she had first enjoyed in the 1920s.
Stieglitz shared mentor, promoter
Both O’Keefe and Adams enjoyed a special relationship with the famous photographer and gallerist Alfred Stieglitz. O’Keefe’s interaction was complex to say the least—they met when she was 28 and he was 52 and he became her friend, mentor, agent, lover, and husband and he played a tremendous role in launching her career, which she was loathe to fully acknowledge, going so far as to barely mention him in her best-selling autobiography. Stieglitz was her agent from 1916 until 1950 and organized her first solo show in 1917 and another in 1923 at the Anderson Gallery that was tremendously successful and annual shows thereafter. Barbara Buhler Lynes, curator of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, has written excellent chapter on this in Georgia O’Keeffe and Ansel Adams Natural Affinities, the book accompanying the exhibition.
By the end of the 1920’s, O’Keeffe was regarded as one of the country’s leading modernist painters and a millionaire (in today’s dollars) in her own right. The languid nude photographs that Stieglitz took and exhibited of her from the early years of their relationship are among the most talked about in twentieth century art history—they immortalized O’Keefe and drew thousands to his gallery. The couple never stopped exciting and challenging each other and stayed married even while living separately—he in New York and she in New Mexico– and each benefited tremendously from the other. By the time she met Ansel Adams in 1929, O’Keeffe was already famous and had the means to do whatever she wanted, which was to devote herself entirely to her art and to spend her time in the American Southwest.
In 1933, Adams traveled across country to meet Alfred Stieglitz, who he called “the greatest photographic leader in the world.” Stieglitz welcomed Adams, eventually giving him the attention and affection he had bestowed upon Paul Strand (Natural Affinities, p. 16). In 1936, Stieglitz gave Adams a solo show at his influential gallery, An American Place, which established Adams as one of America’s leading photographers. Stieglitz and Adams remained lifelong friends and carried on a remarkable and vital dialogue about photography.
Adams and O’Keeffe: Not Always Chummy
There is not much existing written correspondence between Adams and O’Keeffe about their art, so their impact on each other, what they found compelling in each other’s work, and how that might have influenced them must be inferred. I have the impression that even if they had never met, each would have become pretty much the artist that he/she became. There is evidence of enjoyable and creative time spent together as well as some unexplained rifts in their friendship. In 1937, O’Keefe introduced Adams to David McAlpin, Rockefeller heir and arts patron, and the three traveled together later that year photographing and painting throughout the Southwest. It was on this trip, at Canyon de Chelly, that Adams snapped his famous unposed portrait of O’Keeffe beaming at him. In 1940, Adams and McAlpin would play a key role in establishing a photography department in the Museum of Modern Art, the first museum department for photography of consequence. (Adams’ archived correspondence with MOMA.) About that same time, O’Keeffe abruptly broke off her relationship with Adams and chilled towards him for years, with each embarking on extremely productive separate artistic paths, only to pick up their relationship a decade later with genuine warmth. In 1955, at O’Keefe’s request, Adams printed Stieglitz’s negatives for his posthumous show at The National Gallery.
Connections–Shared motifs, subject matter, different sensitivities
The 100 works on display in several galleries across SFMOMA’s 4th floor reveal both interesting commonalities and differences. The curators tried to present the works in a sequence that best allows us to see natural connections but, for the most part, the works remain separated by artist. I came expecting to see more pairings of works. In actuality, most of that work is left for the viewer to do and it’s hit or miss based on your ability to take time with the works as they communicate. I found myself walking through a gallery and needing to turn around and check a work across the way that bore resemblance to one I was standing in front of. Fortunately, I have the catalog so I was able later to flesh out convergences. Even then, I found myself wishing the book was a portfolio so that I could lay works out side by side and conduct my own examination.
The most obvious pairing in the show is a New Mexico motif that both artists tackled in 1929–the small adobe Saint Francis Church in Rancho de Taos, New Mexico. O’Keeffe’s depiction is softer, more organic in feel that Adams’ but both churches seem to grow out of the ground. Adams wrote in The Making of 40 Photographs that he was taken by the church’s “magnificent form” and its “rigorous and simple design and structure.” He shot intentionally from the rear of the church, the angle that he thought made it “one of the great architectural monuments of America.” He did not use a filter either and this allowed the blue sky to appear quite light in his photo, and the shadows were softened.
Several works that share a similarity in subject matter, composition and temperament— O’Keefe’s “Church Steeple” (1930) and Adams’ “The New Church, Taos (1929-30) illustrate each artist’s fascination with the interplay of light and shadow on a starkly geometric architectural form. Adams made several famous shots of this church from different angles, including a full side view. Other comparisons can be made too—a number of Adams’ photos from his Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail (1938) —“Lake Near Muir Pass, Kings Canyon National Park” (1934), “Dead Oak Tree, Sierra Foothills, Above Snelling,” (1938), resemble O’Keeffe’s landscapes.
Both artists also emphasized the abstract component of the Southwestern landscape as can be seen in O’Keefe’s “Black Hills with Cedar” (1942) or her “Black Mesa Landscape, New Mexico/Out Back of Marie’s II (1930) and Adams “Ghost Ranch Hills, Chama Valley Northern New Mexico” (1937) or “Winter Sunrise, the Sierra Nevada from Lone Pine, CA” (1944).
The show also includes a number of interesting close-ups done by each artist, revealing a fascination with natural texturing, repetition and light. O’Keefe’s Petunia No 2. (1924) is somewhat comparable to Adams’ “Dogwood Blossoms (1945) and her “Birch Trees (1925) are similar to his shots of “Roots, Foster Gardens, Honolulu, Hawaii (1947). Both artists clearly appreciated the rich texturing of wood—O”Keeffe “Stump in red Hills” (1940) and Adams “Wood Detail, Eroded Stump with Knothole” (not dated). Adams, clearly mesmerized by nature, and highly sensitive to its processes, however, produced close-up works seem more chaste, delicate and poetic in form. O’Keefe seemed more interested in unleashing the power within the plant or object before her, depicting it as if it were about to transform from one form to another.
For all the vibrant energy her works convey though, I was disappointed with a close-up inspection of O’Keeffe’s brush work which was flat and expressionless. Adams’ work, on the other hand, with every imaginable shade of gray, entices you to get closer and closer–even the shadowed areas speak volumes—the work keeps giving until you run out of patience to look.
The show also attests to each artist’s ability to capture their subjects’ most essential qualities, creating brilliant abstractions. O’Keeffe’s gift was her ability to distill her subject down to its core and pump it up with rich pulsating color, imbuing it with a breathing proximate presence that starts to impact you even before you know exactly what you are looking at. “Red Canna,” an oil painting from 1925/28, bursts with heat, intensity, while “Abstraction White Rose” (1927) undulates in concentric swirling layers.
O’Keeffe battled interpreters eager to see every open flower and hollow form she drew as a symbol of womanhood. She said in her autobiography “Nobody sees a flower, really, it is so small. We haven’t time – and to see takes time like to have a friend takes time.
If I could paint the flower exactly as I see it no one would see what I see because I would paint it small like flower is small. So, I said to myself—I’ll paint what I see—what the flower is to me but I’ll paint it big and they will be surprised into taking time to look at it—I will make it even busy New Yorkers take time to see what I see of flowers. (O’Keeffe, Georgia O’Keeffe, NY, Viking Press, 1976, text accompanying images 23-26.)
Adams works have not invited erotic readings like O’Keeffe’s have. Even in abstraction, he tended to produce photos that were truer-to-life representations of nature, more faithful to optical reality, an optical reality he alone had the patience to look for and to then capture in brilliant composition. “Ice on Ellergy Lake, Sierra Nevada, CA” (1959), starkly captures the meandering line of ice formation on the lake, while “Sand Dune, White Sands National Monument, New Mexico” (1942), captures elegantly rippled sand dunes. “Frozen Lake and Cliffs, Sierra Nevada, Sequoia National Park, CA” (1927) and “Wood Detail, Eroded Stump with Knothole” (not dated) seem to bow to a romantic vision of nature, one of poetry in form.
Adam’s “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico” (1941), is a stand-out in the show, one of the best known and most sought after photographs in the field of fine-art photography. The moon sits low but centered in a black sky, against a back-drop of white clouds, mountains. In the bottom lower right, a line of white sunlit gravestones sits against a backdrop of gray pueblos. “Moonrise” said Adams “combined serendipity and immediate technical recall.” Serendipity means lucky chance. He “felt at the time it was an exceptional image” and when he took it, he felt “an almost prophetic sense of satisfaction.” Ironically, Adams happened upon this shot by chance while driving along a roadside heading towards Santa Fe, NM, after an unproductive day of photographing. The conditions were perfect but he was basically unprepared because he didn’t have access to his light meter. He used his knowledge of the luminance of the moon and was able to get this precious shot. Adams said it “is a romantic/emotional moment in time.”
An excellent YouTube interview with Barbara Buhler Lynes, Curator of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe reviews several of the works in the show.