“It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis that we get the true meaning of things.” These words lie above a portrait of Georgia O’Keefe at the Denver Art Museum (DAM), a subtle but significant introduction to the work that graces the walls beyond. Her words describe not only the methods by which she created her world-famous artwork, but also how this beloved artist views the world at large.
On view from June 30 to November 6, 2022. Georgia O’Keefe, photographer explores a new side of her incredible artistic talents and inspires patrons to rethink the way they see the world around them.
A notable influence on modern art, many of us recognize Georgia O’Keefe’s work through paintings of New Mexico landscapes and bright colorful flowers. However, the breadth of her talent extends far beyond the canvas.
“The exhibition is unique in that Georgia O’Keefe is a world-renowned American artist for her paintings. Yet her skills in photography are quite unknown to most. It hasn’t been shown like this before,” said DAM director Chris O’Hastie. “Georgia O’Keefe, The Photographer offers a new look at her art, her creativity and her legacy.”
Featuring over 100 newly identified photographs, the four-part exhibition delves into O’Keefe’s lesser-known love of the camera.
“This kind of photography engages a different imagination than work in other media. With painting you have the freedom to move things around… Her approach to photography was to take things as she found them and do what she could with them,” said DAM Director of Photography Eric Paddock. “I think it was a form of very serious creative play for her, and she seemed to enjoy it.”
An homage to the New Mexico landscapes that have inspired much of O’Keefe’s work, the first section of exhibits is set against a stunning dusty orange. The photos tell the stories of her early days, her process of learning to master the camera and the people who guided her through it.
“This part of the gallery is about friendships that were instrumental in bringing fresh light and new interest to her photographic work,” said Paddock.
The gallery feels very personal, an inside look at the experiences and relationships that shaped the artist. Much of the work focuses on her friendship with photographer Todd Webb, who encouraged O’Keefe in her creative work and developed many of her prints. Viewers can see portraits of the couple, even handwritten notes from O’Keefe, believed to be from conversations with Webb, detailing how to load and unload a camera, general exposure and shutter speeds.
Ten of O’Keeffe’s paintings are interspersed throughout the exhibition, drawing attention to the relationship between photography and painting. The similarities are often slight, but very real. It is clear that her photographic works inspired much of her painting and vice versa, but often decades later.
“That’s one of the curious things about this show. She often photographs certain motifs, in some cases years after she painted them, which is intriguing to me because that means she was still thinking about it, still trying to resolve questions about the relationships of parts of the picture.” , Paddock explained. “I think the idea is that not every photograph necessarily informs or shapes a particular piece of art and other media. It has more to do with her constant interest in looking at it, sorting it, understanding not only the landscape, but also how to depict it.
Part II: Reformulation
Moving through this section of the gallery, you start to notice a lot of the same. The photos seem to repeat themselves, four photos of O’Keefe’s front door clustered on the wall. Slowly but surely you begin to notice the subtle differences between each picture: a centimeter to the left, half a step back, etc.
“By photographing the same thing over and over again, she really studies the relationship of all these parts. How does that stack of bricks relate to that bit of light coming through the building? How do the bushes frame it all? How about the dramatic look of Vegas under the roof?” Paddock said.
Obviously, this is just a sampling of probably dozens of photos just like them. O’Keefe’s work reveals an impressive obsession, exploring how easily we can completely change the world in front of us just by changing our perspective.
A fascinating part of the exhibition allows guests to experience this for themselves by transporting them to the courtyard of O’Keeffe’s own home. Complete with sounds and sights of the landscape featured in many of the photos, guests are encouraged to use the available rectangular and square cutouts to reformat the scene, truly understanding how a small space can have endless views.
Continuing the theme of repetition, O’Keefe is interested in the way light shapes and changes the work. She often took pictures of the same view spread throughout the day, exploring how the ever-changing balance between sun and darkness affects what we see.
Four photos in this section stand out in particular, a series of Polaroids taken while rafting through the canyons.
“When everyone else was preparing breakfast, pumping the boats and tying things up, O’Keefe was busy watching the light. As she watches, the sun moves and the shadows on the canyon walls just change completely. She takes this really breathtaking series of pictures,” said Paddock.
O’Keefe somehow formed a seemingly perfect gradient, the light moving perfectly to outline the massive canyon walls.
“One of the things I’m interested in has to do with the shadows, but also the shape of the sky against the edges of the cliff,” Paddock said. “The kinds of figure-based relationships and tonal relationships that you find in other works of art. For me, it’s an investigation that I’m sure found its way into the paintings she made.
Many of O’Keeffe’s famous works are odes to spring, blooming flowers and landscapes painted in pastel shades. However, O’Keefe was inspired by the changing of the seasons, the way the same view transforms into a completely different scene from summer to winter.
“O’Keefe works year-round, taking photographs, often of the same thing, in different lighting conditions at different times of the year to consider how the light changes, how the tonal conditions change,” Paddock said.
From snow to sun, it is clear how these studies have inspired her photography and paintings. From the winding roads of mountain landscapes to the blossoming of trees, O’Keefe understood not only the way she could manipulate a scene, but was fascinated by the way scenes could change themselves.
Georgia O’Keefe, photographer will have you going in circles, walking through each section over and over again, constantly noticing new similarities, inspirations and connections between each photo. Captivating and utterly compelling, the exhibition reveals the truth behind the infamous artist’s methods: Georgia O’Keefe didn’t manipulate the world to make it beautiful, she just looked at it a little differently.
“Georgia O’Keefe, Photographer” is on display at the Denver Art Museum (100 W 14th Ave. Pkwy.
Denver) through November 6, 2022. Admission to the museum is free for anyone under the age of 18 and $13 for senior Colorado residents. For more information, visit their website.