Georgia on my mind

How many is enough? Beginning in 1917, photographer Alfred Stieglitz began making portraits of his new squeeze, Georgia O’Keeffe. But he soon developed the idea that a single image could not adequately express the essence of a person. Over the next 20 years, he photographed the artist some 350 times, making what to Stieglitz counted a single, all-encompassing portrait of O’Keeffe. 

“To demand the portrait that will be a complete portrait of any person,” he claimed, “is as futile as to demand that a motion picture be condensed into a single still.”

As he took up the camera once more after several years of editing his magazine, he wrote: “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 — & yet it is abstract. … It is a series of about 100 pictures of one person — heads & ears  — toes — hands — torsos — It is the doing of something I had in mind for very many years.”

The series went well past the hundred pictures he mentioned, and became one of the signature events in the progress of American art photography. The photographs were shown in galleries and museums and a selection of them were published in a book issued by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. 

He photographed O’Keeffe nude, surly, playful, artsy and in snapshot mode. He seems to have had a thing for hands. There are a boatload of hands, all very arty. Certainly, they are expressive, but they are also a bit arch. And do they actually tell us anything about O’Keeffe, the woman who kept her privacy like a recluse, so that even when she seems to be opening up to us, she is really just assuming a simulacrum of candor? She simply doesn’t want us to presume we might know her. 

But despite his intent, it is obvious that while 350 images may be more varied than a single portrait, it is no more complete. To achieve his goal, Stieglitz would have had to film every second of O’Keeffe’s life from birth to death and show it unedited. Attempting to capture a personality in any finite number of moments requires that some editing and interpreting will be necessary. Is Irving Penn’s portrait of Carson McCullers any less an accurate version of the author than Stieglitz’s O’Keeffe? 

In fact, I might say that O’Keeffe, even photographed by her husband 300 times, is more reserved, and lets less of herself out into the frame of the picture than McCullers does in one single instant. There is infinite sadness in those eyes. 

As a “control group,” we might include the three versions of Truman Capote made by Penn over time: First in 1948, then in 1965 and 1985. Does the grouping tell us much more than any of the single images? Only that Capote got old. We knew that. 

There is some kind of naive innocence in Stieglitz’s attempt, that there is a possibility of “capturing” a person in an image. 

The problem is that an image has a reality of its own, a separate reality, which may or may not partake of the person photographed. Irving Penn’s famous image of Picasso becomes a piercing eye, but then, so does the eye of Richard Avedon, also photographed by Penn. Or, for that matter, a portrait of Pam Henry I made in the 1970s. 

The image carries meaning in and of itself. Consider that 1968 image of Capote, eyes closed, glasses carried lightly between his fingers. Both John Malkovich and Philip Seymour Hoffman have sat for publicity photos mimicking the Penn photo. The pose trumps the person.

Or take Malkovich trying on the 1948 Capote. Again, the image is instantly recognized, and if you were turning the page quickly in a magazine spread, you might just well assume you had looked at the writer rather than the actor. 

Malkovich seems to have had fun doing this. He has mimicked many overly familiar images, from Hemingway to the migrant mother photographed by Dorothea Lange in 1936. 

Avedon often said that all photographic portraits — including and especially his — are really portraits of the photographer. It is the version of the subject transmuted by the picture-taker, and made into a vision of how the photographer understands the world. You look at that lineup of Malkovich parodies and you can as easily — or more easily — name the photographer as the name of the sitter. Top row: Irving Penn, Yousef Karsh, Philippe Halsman, Arthur Sasse; bottom row: David Bailey, Alberto Korda, Dorothea Lange, Diane Arbus. Each a distinct style; each a distinct image. 

Surely many a celebrity has felt defined and constrained by the immutable image that has usurped the actual life. Could Norma Jean live up to the image of Marilyn? Either the Bert Stern, the Avedon, the Eve Arnold or the Cecil Beaton version (l. to r.)? 

We run into the same problem we have with language. It cannot bear a one-to-one relationship with reality; it is rather a parallel universe, which can imitate our perceptions but never fully embody them. The image exists in another reality; we can name what we see, but the name is not the thing. The photo is not the person. Stieglitz’s attempts are heroic but doomed to failure. None of those 350 pictures of O’Keeffe is O’Keeffe, and the whole together is no closer to being her. 

We are left to enjoy them, then, as works of art. The eyes of Carson McCullers are not her eyes, but the sadness in the photo speaks to us clearly. That has to be enough. 

Click on any image to enlarge

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