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Saturday, 11 December 2010


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IMNSHO Compared to some other painters of her era who were also famous, Georgia O'Keefe was absolutely brilliant as a painter. I won't get into who those others are.

"Karsh’s reputation has suffered since his death"...

Really? In what way?

I have always liked O'Keefe's work but I can umderstand how it might not have universal appeal - after all it is art and art is subjective.

The picture at the top of the article by Ansel Adams showing O'Keefe and Orville Cox is one of my favourites by Ansel (apart from his landsacpes). Georgia's expression is wonderful. This picture by Ansel inspired a picture of my wife and I which I took in Mesa Verde earlier this year http://www.flickr.com/photos/29093195@N06/

I had not seen some of the other photographs of Georgia - many thanks for showing them.

If you place O'Keeffe's work in the time when she did it, it'd be hard to see how you could call her work derivative...

"Karsh’s reputation has suffered since his death,...

That's news to me, John. We (the AIC) produced a wonderful retrospective exhibition, with catalog, of Karsh's work in 2009. I heard no hint of such a sag at that time.

Please, pray tell, be more specific.

Fame, talent, fortune, publicity, luck. O'Keefe, Pollock, Bacon, Adams. Could be you. Or me.

Regarding her Art - your point reinforces that Art, is indeed, in the eye of the beholder. I do agree that she was a fantastic model - every photo I've seen of Georgia has moved me...as does her painting. All too often the past is viewed from the present, overshadowing the powerful impact made by the art at it's time in history.
Many years ago, I had the opportunity to travel to New Mexico. I fell in love with the light immediately and made a trip out of searching for Georgia's home in Abiquiu. I was struck by the beauty of her surroundings and understood why she was drawn to the location. She had an amazing view of the surrounding hills. I still long to return, now that my photographic skills have matured, to take the drive from Taos - round trip through Abiquiu and back - photographing that amazing land and light,the spirit of which, is so well captured in her paintings. It was where I saw first hand that there really are purple mountains...and made a friend with a painter from France there for the light. In Sante Fe I heard more languages spoken as I walked the square than I hear in Chicago...all of them drawn there by that magic light. What more could a photographer or painter need?

After viewing a documentary about Stieglitz from Netflix, I have to agree with you about O'Keefe's earlier work: I much prefer it.

And John, I made it a point to hoof it to Photo-Eye while in Santa Fe a couple of months back; my wife went to the O'Keefe Museum. It was a hot 30 min, each way. I guess we both came away disappointed - her with the museum and me with the bookstore. It's a ramshackle sprawl; a bit disorganized; maybe more of a local photog's hangout. Maybe on a cooler day ... I did get two good photos though, on the way back :)

I'm with you John on O'Keefe's work. Makes me wonder it's some of the work supported by the CIA. Kind of interesting possibility if you ask me.

Actually, I rather think Karsh's reputation sagged in the years before his death, though the quality of his output remained consistent with the earlier, more famous work.

If anything, his reputation has recovered somewhat-it likely suffered during a period when many of us were attracted by the more 'contemporary' portrait work of the likes of Richard Avedon, or even (dare I say it here?) Annie Leibowitz.

"Karsh’s reputation has suffered since his death"

Count me among those wanting to know why it has suffered? Genuine curiosity here - I picked up Regarding Heroes (mentioned by Ken) and thought it to be sheer genius for portraiture.

I do not know of her or her work. Thank you for the introduction. The portraits make your argument for her as a good model. I agree very much.

Suspect Canada's Karsh was somewhat similar to O'Keefe.
Both people when photographed were as interesting as subjects as the images they themselves produced.

For which I have no qualms. My own personal feeling is Karsh was Canada's prize, Georgia O'Keefe the surprise of the US Southwest.

The by line "Karsh of Ottawa,' said it all.

One of the things that I love about TOP is the surprising introductions either the main posts or the comments give to topics I did not know about. Yesterday, we had the adobe church in Taos: it was completely new to me and after googling and looking around on the net I've learned a lot about New Mexico and it's history, and a reasonable introduction to 20th Century american art that I will build upon and enjoy.

I was struck most by Georgia O'Keefe's painting of the church: on my monitor the light and heat almost seem to pulse. In contrast was Ansel Adam's image, which to my mind is very disappointing (it's a new one on me). I stumbled upon a Flickr group http://www.flickr.com/groups/459459@N25/pool/ dedicated to it: some of those images are fairly arresting as well.

But why are the images always of the back of the church? The front seems to me to be equally interesting.

On Karsh, I remember seeing one of his big coffee table-type books around the same time as I saw the great Arnold Newman retrospective some years ago at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, DC. Granted it's personal preference, but I found Newman's portraits deeper and having much more to say than those of Karsh. Indeed, after looking through the Karsh book, I had the impression of Karsh thought process, "Yes, hands are very important, let's highlight the hands." Karsh's work, dramatic lighting and all and, yes, all those hands, seems stereotyped and pedestrian compared to the work of Newman.


I may have expressed myself poorly when I said that Karshs' reputation as suffered since his death, when perhaps I should have said, "since his peak." It was just a sort of shorthand on the way to a compliment -- that his portrait of O'Keeffe is absolutely wonderful.

To enlarge on the original statement just a bit, I would say that at the peak of his career, Karsh may have been the most famous photographer in the world. I knew who Karsh was when I was a kid, before I got interested in photography. I dare say my father, who had little interest in visual art or photography, would also have known, perhaps mostly because of his famous portrait of Churchill. But now, if you look just at that list of photographers who photographed O'Keeffe, he'd be considered one of the lesser lights, compared to Adams, Steiglitz, Strand, etc. And if you added to that list the other exceptional photographers of his time, and postwar and contemporary photographers, I doubt that he would make a list of, say, the top 25. (And please don't take that number too literally. I just pulled it out of a place where the sun don't shine...Well, okay, if you insist: Steichen, Strand, Hine, Coburn, Atget, Man Ray, Callahan, Lartigue, de Meyer, Kertesz, Moholy-Nagy, Cunningham, Outerbridge, Abbott, Bourke-White, Adams, Evans, Weston, Sudek, Sander, Cartier-Bresson, Lange, Newton, Newman, Avedon, Brassai, Haas, Eggleston, Capa, Eisenstadt, W. Eugene Smith, Doisneau, Frank, Model, Arbus, Winogrand, Friedlander, White, Siskind, Caponigro, Bravo, Meatyard, Bullock, Michals, and all the more recent ones like Mapplethorpe, Witkin, Sherman, Wall...to name just about fifty or so whose working life overlapped Karsh's.)

I know that much of "great" is in the eye of the beholder, but I think he fits better with a list of people like Cecil Beaton and even Annie Leibovitz who were known as much for their sitters as for their photography. But I certainly would not argue with anyone who considers Karsh among the finest of photographers.

As to my opinion of O'Keeffe. I really have no problem whatever with women artists; but I have an attitude toward art, and spend a significant part of my waking life looking at it. O'Keeffe simply doesn't make my cut; I just don't think the talent is there. I think, for example, that her contemporary Frieda Kahlo, though she has her own limitations, was much more of a talent with a more original eye. And I do look at O'Keeffe in context...and not only in the context of other painters of the time, but photographers as well. (Look at some of the early plant photo of Imogen Cunningham and ask which way the influence flows...)

All that said, I would not deny the insight or intelligence of people, like my friend, who love O'Keeffe and her work.


After posting my comment on Karsh above, I found the following Smithsonian Magazine article by Matthew Gurewitsch:


Here's the assessment, which is similar to my own:

How does Karsh's work stand up? Critics have praised and mocked his mannerist obsession with sculpturally posed hands. (He liked props, too, and could use them well: a clear drafting triangle for Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, a miniature Rodin Thinker for Bill Clinton.) But today's connoisseurs are apt to exclude Karsh from the company of such mandarins as Richard Avedon, Irving Penn and Arnold Newman. Karsh held a reported 15,312 sittings during the life of his studio. For every Walt Disney or Carl Jung or Madame Chiang Kai-shek, there were hundreds of mere paying customers: college graduates, brides and bridegrooms, or corporate executives dropping in for the name-brand official portrait, expecting the ceremonial old master lighting and monumental poise that were Karsh's bread and butter.

If the object of serious portraiture is to lift the mask, Karsh seldom pulls it off. He excelled at hagiography and left psychological penetration mostly in the eye of the beholder. But taken in bulk, the likenesses of his men and women who left their mark on the world add up to the record of a life richly lived—his own. As autobiography, though never intended as such, they are most revealing.


Well all of us here in NM are surely blushing from all of this sudden attention.

John, the only thing keeping you from becoming a prime candidate for a faux-dobe-colored can of whoop ass from the O'Keefe cultists is that few of them make much use of this new-fangled interweb thingy that all the kids are so fond of. They prefer the rustic authenticity of the telegraph. So consider yourself lucky.

As for the light and landscape here, it is a genuine wonder. But if you want to see the truly great places, make friends with a local. The only time I encounter other photographers is in Santa Fe or Bosque del Apache (where they swarm like flies). I feel like I have the rest of the place to myself most of the time.

That opening photo of Georgia and Orville has been a favorite of mine for a long time. It would most likely make my top ten peeps list. And her version of Ranchos de Taos beats the photographers versions hands down.

Pepeye said:

"As for the light and landscape here, it is a genuine wonder."

I think the place is nothing short of miraculous. People who haven't been to New Mexico can't really understand it. I've driven through the state lots of times, in a lot of different directions, and it's never failed to amaze. (Driving west out of Amarillo, Texas, it's almost funny how "Texas" ends and "New Mexico" begins, the minute you cross the border. Everything changes.) Another thing that many people may not appreciate: winter is a great time to go. I love the sight of the February snow storms coming in over Taos or Santa Fe. I also love that drive from the Albuquerque area to Phoenix down I-25 to Highway 60, through Show Low. I flew back to LA on Saturday, and almost strained my neck looking at the landscape along the way (right down I-10.) Great part of the country. And like you say, great light. The only other light I've seen as good (though it's different) was in Italy, in the Campania.


Probably most photographers and artistes get lost over time.
There aren't enough museums to hang every great photographer's work from the last 150 years.
My test for the "I love photography and want to be one" was -- so how do you like Ansel Adams work, 99% of the time the answer was -- WHO!...

A lot of people, and critics in their time, looked at Seurat, Monet, and Van Gogh as hacks too. You like the work or you don't I suppose.

Of course, obtaining the type of success O'Keefe did is going to take some business and career management skills as well, but personally I think her success was legitimate.

A minor nit; derivative, about art, would imply that there is some art that isn't referential or influenced by other art.

As to O'Keefe, I'm not as dismissive, though, I too "hurried" through the paintings, spending far more time in the room with the photos of her and her colleagues, at a recent exhibit I saw. The image of GO and OC is a delight in person, which brings me to the really interesting aspect of this great discussion. Why some art looks far better in reproduction. This was brought home by a show of the 3 Wyeths; NC painted for reproduction,of course, small scale Andrew, better in person, but his large egg temperas are better in reproduction. I think the monotony of his foreground textures disappears in reproduction. Jamie, however must be seen in person, as the subtle intensities of his "wondrous strange" work does not reproduce.

The points about Georgias involvement with her "image", and her personality, make me wonder about another artist, and how much his intense personality played in his fame, the much, for me, overrated Piccaso.

I'll stay out of the debate over the quality of O'Keefe's work; I've always enjoyed her pictures and will continue to do so. The Adams shot of O'Keefe has always been a favorite -- a delicious moment composed beautifully. The Karsh portrait has always been a favorite as well but I'd never seen the Halsman shot of her. The strange thing is that Karsh and Halsman seem opposites in their approaches. Karsh's portraits seemed always posed and formal while Halsman operated on his own theory of the psychological portrait. His technique involved a deep interaction between subject and photographer designed to break down the wall that often exists between the two. Yet that Halsman picture of O'Keefe fails on that score. It looks utterly posed. And I say that as someone who generally prefers Halsman's work and method.

Agree with John Camp and others on here about New Mexico, something about that place, drove a lot around the Southwest when I was thinking about moving there and have to say that you see/feel the difference between West Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, something about the light, mysticism, whatever, New Mexico seems to stand out among the bunch...no wonder the aliens crashed there, they were spending too much time gawking in wonder and not enough time on the controls! Tough state to find a paying job in tho, you find out pretty rapidly that a lot of people living the "gentle artistic life" there made a bundle doing something else, someplace else!

Love Karsh for the same reason I love Arnold Newman and Irving Penn, there's a difference between getting "snapped", and actually "sitting" for a portrait; a time consuming process asking plenty from the sitter as well as the photographer. Of course, there is that story about the couple of minutes he had with Churchill, and snatching the cigar out of his mouth! In the end, It's all about whose picture ends up on the top of the baby grand piano as the way they wanted the future to see them...betting Karsh is high on that list..

The less said about Georgia O'Keefe, the better! Yeah, I get it with the proto-feminism thing, but there were certainly better and more talented women of that era to get behind, leading less "male" dependent lives (like commercial artist Neysa McMein: google it!). Agree with a previous posters love of Freida Kahlo too...

...sounds petty, but I shudder every time I see pictures of O'Keefe. Having been ex-patriated to southeastern Wisconsin in my "tweens" (O'Keefe's home state), you can't swing a cat here without hitting some Germanic in-bred granny who's the spitting image of O'Keefe, and spent their lives chasing kids, like me, out of their yards with a rake, and stealing our balls and muttering under their breath at us and our parents. Just looking at these pics makes me sweat! While Steiglitz was patting himself on the back for getting involved with her (and dumping his family) and taking a few 8X10 nudes of her, Alfred Cheney Johnston was shooting Broadway showgirls on 11X14; who's was the chump there?

...yeah, yeah, petty, I know...

One does wish that more 'figurative' work by Ansel Adams received greater attention in his oeuvre complete. "Georgia O'Keeffe and Orville Cox, Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona, 1937" is an astounding and definitive example of Modernism and the American West. This particular photograph and its 'framing' can be see two decades later in the modernist cinematography of Floyd Crosby (High Noon), William C. Mellor (Giant), Winton C. Hoch (The Searchers), Russell Metty (Misfits), and continuing into 1970s Antonio Delli Colli (The Good, Bad and the Ugly) and beyond.


A quibble, but it is "Alvarez Bravo" not "Bravo."


Nothing to say about O'Keeffe. :)

But I'd like to second the opinion about the Karsh. And I'd like to add that the Halsman is not shabby either.

Like some others in these posts, I respectfully disagree, John, with your assessment of O'Keeffe. De gustibus non est disputandum. But to compare O'Keeffe with Britney Spears is quite a travesty, and I am even ashamed to put O'Keeffe's name in the same sentence with Spears, but I must. I also do not think it necessary to put her artistry, and much of her output is art of the highest order, IMHO, in the context of either her times or feminist art, to recognize that she was a groundbreaking artists.

You admit that you don't care for O'Keeffe, but that is no excuse to put her in the category of the likes of Spear. Whether or not one likes any really fine artist, says something about what that artist is able to evoke in them. But ones ability to recognize what they are capable of evoking and do with their images for others, even if they don't do it for themselves, is an important part of critique. I suggest that if the only exposure to Picasso that one may have had was the Picasso Museum in Paris, his astounding artistry might not be as appreciated as much as if the breadth of his work were seen in various other galleries and museums. Viewing many of O'Keeffe's originals at, for example, MOMA (NY), SF MOMA, and even in some of the better books of her art suggest that those who may have only seen her works in more limited exhibits may have a more "limited" view of her work. I dare say that some of the best artists and photographers who new her made images of her because they recognized a lot about her stature as a leading artist with vision.

You, of course, are entitled to your opinion, but gratuitous comparisons allow us to evaluate the critic, more than the subject of the criticism.


It IS just you.

You went to those two museums in Santa Fe, but did you go to the "Little Adobe Photo Shop?" 8^)

As pointed out, de gustibus, non disputandum.

I've always thought of O'Keefe as a painter of pretty paintings which often have a rather unsubtle reference to sexuality, who I could take or leave alone I've always thought of Frida Kahlo as... a talentless hack with delusions of grandeur.

Of course, you know far more about art than I do so if one of us is "wrong," it's me, but the more Kahlo works I looked at (I had an argument about her once with a co-worker and actually have looked at many of her paintings) the more utterly mystified I got about why anybody was paying her the least attention. Obviously when the revolution comes I will spend a lot of time in the re-education camps.

I dunno, everytime I see those pics i think..

Frau Blucher!!

Then I hear the horse whinny.

No doubt an interesting woman. I think John's being a bit hard, and, perhaps, a bit rigid in his assessment of her importance as an artist. The die is cast on O'Keefe, she's an artist who has made her mark in many a mind to this day,,,and she keeps on going..I'm not a huge fan but there are times when I stop and look and admire certain things in her work.

KeithB asked:
You went to those two museums in Santa Fe, but did you go to the "Little Adobe Photo Shop?"

You know, I think I saw it, if it's that place a couple blocks off the Plaza where you go down the stairs and they have a sign mentioning vintage cameras. Didn't go in.

MarkW said:

"I've always thought of O'Keefe as a painter of pretty paintings which often have a rather unsubtle reference to sexuality, who I could take or leave alone I've always thought of Frida Kahlo as... a talentless hack with delusions of grandeur.

Obviously when the revolution comes I will spend a lot of time in the re-education camps."

Takes a while to get into Frida. The longer you look, the more you get. With O'Keeffe, the reverse is true, IMHO. And yes, the re-ed facilities (as we would call them in California) have a reserved spot for you.

David said,

"Frau Blucher!!
Then I hear the horse whinny.
No doubt an interesting woman. I think John's being a bit hard, and, perhaps, a bit rigid in his assessment of her importance as an artist. The die is cast on O'Keefe, she's an artist who has made her mark in many a mind to this day,,,and she keeps on going..I'm not a huge fan but there are times when I stop and look and admire certain things in her work."

Made me laugh. And yes, she is an interesting woman, and if somebody wrote a serious, critical autobiography of her, rather than a disguised attempt at deification, I'd be pleased to read it, though not on a KIndle. I am perhaps hard and rigid in my assessment, but I cut famous painters no slack whatever. And I would deny that the die is cast in her case; I think her reputation will diminish as we get further from her living personality. I would also say that if you were to assess O'Keeffe from a European perspective, you'd find that many somewhat knowledgeable people there have barely heard of her. We have a joke in Minneapolis (Yes; we actually have several) that somebody is "World Famous in Minneapolis." O'Keeffe is "World Famous in New Mexico." I also admire some of her work -- in fact, that painting of the Taos church is about the best one of hers I've ever seen, and I like it very much. She was a good-enough painter, in some ways, but not great one, in my opinion.

There's no doubt that O'Keefe represents a sort of (adobe) cottage industry here in NM. Some of it comes down to local pride, I suppose. You can hardly throw a rock here without hitting a copy of Adam's photo of Hernandez either, except, of course, in Hernandez itself where they kind of hate that photo because of all the "photographers" who come to try to imitate it.

These are some amazing portraits of her that I've never seen before!

Gee John,

I have to completely disagree with your assessment of O'Keefe. And if I were you, I wouldn't hold my breath for another writer to pen her "autobiography," be it "serious" or otherwise.

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