Historic Portrait



Georgia O’Keeffe: A Portrait; Alfred Stieglitz 1918. Palladium print

From <http://www.mfa.org/collections/photography/tour/alfred-stieglitz>

Alfred Stieglitz made this portrait of Georgia O’Keeffe in 1918. It’s a palladium print from what would today be considered a ‘large format’ negative; for Stieglitz it was just a normal sized negative, one single sheet of film exposed and processed individually.

The picture is made against a plain background, light in tone but somewhat darker than the clothing worn by O’Keeffe. It appears posed, and carefully so. The lower corners seem to have been held back in printing, allowing them to almost bleed into the unexposed paper.

What we have, then, is a picture of a woman in her early thirties, fully aware of the photographer and collaborating in the pose he wishes her to make. She looks directly at the camera with slightly drooping eyelids; her hair is loose and she holds her arms quite closely to her, palms inwards and fingers slightly spread. The hands occupy at least as much space as her face. She wears what appears to be a loose fitting, wide sleeved garment of uncertain purpose, unbuttoned or untied to a point below her hands. These are the facts.

What can be made of the photograph, what ‘interpretation’ can be assigned? Possibly the most obvious is that she has recently woken; her eyes speak of a reluctant compliance, she would rather have been allowed an extra hour in bed. But no, Alfred is at it again so she might as well just go along with it. Supporting this scenario is her hair – loose, bed-head hair, slightly tangled and unbrushed. She appears without any obvious make-up, though she may not be inclined to wear it at any time. She’s wearing what might well be a bath robe, loose fitting fairly shapeless.

Her lips are slightly parted and appear relaxed as if she has recently spoken or is about to enquire how long this is going to take – she seems to be leaning slightly to her left – against a bed footboard? Her hands give the appearance of having been artfully directed. The thumb of her left hand slips between the fabric and her skin and her fingers are loosely splayed. All of this combines to imply that this is a portrait made in close collaboration – O’Keefe certainly looks at ease with the process.

It’s a gentle portrait, soft in the lighting and in the formal content – skin, hair, eyes and fabric all combine to convey a sense of intimacy. Which isn’t surprising, given the nature of the burgeoning relationship between photographer and sitter. I hesitate to refer to O’Keefe as a model because of the modern connotations. Stieglitz photographed O’Keefe almost obsessively throughout their association and their relationship was intense and complex – like most are, but through correspondence and photography they left an enduring and eloquent account of their time together.

It would be easy, with the knowledge of their involvement, to look at this picture and see evidence of the intimacy between subject and maker. I’m not convinced that this would be a tenable assertion – perhaps my view will change. In this course, I too am a work in progress.