BARBARA HASKELL: O’Keeffe’s first one-person exhibition at the Gallery 291, was the occasion of Stieglitz’ first photographs of her. When she moved to New York in 1918, their photography sessions became more intimate, and he began to photograph her nude or partially nude.
NARRATOR: Some of these photographs are traditional portraits. But in other cases Stieglitz focuses in O’Keeffe’s breasts, torso, and thighs. O’Keeffe not only modeled for the photos, but helped print them in the dark room. In the process, she saw how an artist can manipulate a representational image by cropping it to create an abstraction. In some of the rooms that follow, you’ll see the effect this discovery had on O’Keeffe’s work.
But the photographs did more than change the way O’Keeffe saw art. They also changed the way that people saw her. Stieglitz included about forty-five pictures of O’Keeffe in a 1921 retrospective of his own work. The highly sexualized nudes instantly made her into a notorious newspaper personality—in part because they verified that she was intimately involved with the much older, still married Stieglitz. When Stieglitz staged an exhibition of her work a few years later, her celebrity garnered a lot of attention—not all of it to O’Keeffe’s liking. Many critics emphasized the sexuality they perceived in O’Keeffe’s work to the exclusion of almost all else. The photographs convinced them that she was a sexual free spirit—and so, they reasoned, her paintings must be emblems of female sexual experience.