You have to put this moment into context. It’s America – and from 1918 through to 1921 – three years time – there was the end of the First World War, the Spanish Flu Pandemic, and a punishing Economic downturn. The country was in sad shape – panic mode. American Puritanism – social, economic and political – came rushing to the surface – right-leaning, god-fearing, immigrant-bashing and ethnic-cleansing groups – demanded some kind of stability, some kind of security. And these well organized groups began to draw lines around anything that didn’t fit into their narratives – most notably – New York City Bohemia. The avant-garde that lived this bohemian life was extremely small, insular, suspect and considered Red – Commie fear and loathing was everywhere – and if you were an artist – particularly an artist looking to Europe for new ideas – you would have checked ALL of the boxes on the government investigators check list – and that puts you in a short line for all kinds of formal and informal nastiness. But even in this repressive social environment New York Bohemia continued to find ways to erase the lines drawn around their personal existences. Among the creative classes in NYC sex, drugs and rock & roll (though it was Jazz in that era) were indulged openly and practiced freely much to the shock and consternation of polite society.
February 7, 1921. A show of photographs opened that evening at the Anderson Gallery. It was meant to be a retrospective of Alfred Stieglitz’s career – a show of his life’s work celebrating a career of groundbreaking photographic innovations and arresting images. But it wasn’t the retrospective that took the town by storm. The show would have passed as just another gallery experience. But it was in the last room of the show where a group of unknown and unseen photographs – entitled A Demonstration of Portraiture – changed all the rules.
Stieglitz was among the first to use photography differently – a kind of photographic formalism – allowing the medium, the process, to determine the image – as a way to abstraction. He abstracted the figure by approaching it as form by specifically cropping the image in camera and moving the lens close. “I am at last photographing again. . . . It is straight. No tricks of any kind. — No humbug.— No sentimentalism. — Not old nor new. — It is so sharp that you can see the [pores] in a face — and yet it is abstract. . . . It is a series of about 100 pictures of one person — heads and ears — toes — hands — torsos — It is the doing of something I had in mind for very many years.” [Alfred Steiglitz on his portraits] This series of photos is filled with radical close ups – defining a subject through its parts, through the things never thought of as defining, important or expressive in their ways. Alfred also had to be close – very close – to the subject in order to accomplish this. But there’s a strange dichotomy in the images -this closeness and cropping creates a kind of visual intimacy even as it abstracts the subject. The photographer limits and simplifies in order to more completely define a moment, a sliding emotion, or a “slipping glimpse.”
“To be sure, a photographic portrait made with a large 8 × 10-inch camera, with its cumbersome set-up, use of umbrellas to reflect the light, and a long exposure time, requires a different kind of collaboration from painting or sculpture. A subtle change of expression, a slight movement in posture, even a shift of the eyes can alter the result. Obviously, O’Keeffe willingly held the poses and the expressions, and especially in the early years of their relationship, as she later stated, she was not only “flattered” by his attention, but deeply in love with him and as supportive of his art as he was of hers. Yet, in later years she distanced herself from the photographs. In 1978, she wrote, “when I look over the photographs Stieglitz took of me, I wonder who the person is.” Noting that “Stieglitz had a very sharp eye for what he wanted to say with the camera,” she continued, “I was asked to move my hands in many different ways—also my head—and I had to turn this way and that. There were nudes that might have been of several different people—sitting—standing—even standing on a radiator against the window.” With her dry wit, she added, “That was difficult—radiators don’t intend you to stand on them!” When asked if she collaborated with Stieglitz, she replied, “You had to collaborate . . . You had to sit there and you had to do what you were told.” And, when asked specifically if the creation of this massive composite portrait, which totaled 331 photographs by the time it was completed in the 1930s, was something she wanted to do, O’Keeffe emphatically replied, “It was something he wanted to do.” [Sarah Greenough The Key Set: 1918–1937]
“When crowds at the gallery gathered in front of a particular nude, O’Keeffe may have thought that they shared her belief in its spiritual significance. While she was perhaps naïve about the awed response to the nude pictures of herself, she could not have anticipated the rhetoric of those critics who had been primed by Stieglitz to discuss these pictures in his own language…. It was one thing to regard photographs of oneself as art objects and quite another to learn that the revelation of one’s body would be taken as evidence of the photographer’s “love of the world.” Coming from months of solitude at the lake, where she had reflected on relationships in her Apple Family series, O’Keeffe felt exposed once this kind of language began appearing in print. Becoming a newspaper personality (as McBride would write) not for her own work but because of the scandal ignited by Alfred’s was not the kind of attention she desired. And she must have felt doubly betrayed once she understood that Alfred had orchestrated publicity for the show in terms guaranteed to kindle the prurient interest of the public.” [Carolyn Burke Foursome]
The Anderson show became an infamous sensation in New York, and all manner of gossip and opprobrium followed – even among those of New York Bohemia. Everything changed for both Alfred and Georgia. In our contemporary terms – they became art stars – practically overnight. And Stieglitz who had orchestrated the media production for the show was extremely pleased with its outcome – consequences be damned. Not only had their reputations been enhanced – their fortunes had been made. But for Georgia there was something wrong – something off about this show – something unsettling about the public exposure of her private life and their intimate relationship. And artists – for both good and bad – began to court this kind of personality-fueled succès de scandale in order to promote their own careers. Here in the 21st Century careers thrive on this kind of Sexual Modernism, and we see similar scenarios of private relationships becoming public all through our Media and all over our electronic devices. It even has its own economy. But in 1921 this world did not exist. The deal we make with the devil might bring us our dreams, but it also comes with a steep price – and sometimes – that price is paid for with our own blood. The changes can come on all at once – or they might arrange themselves in slow motion – but either way once the deal has been struck – there’s no going back. What brings artists to success – the things their lives had been about – the relationships built and cherished – the emotional lives they lived – their own image of who they were – begins to change – for good or ill. And so it was for Georgia and Alfred.