Todd Webb: On O’Keeffe

By April Rapier

Although the official title of Todd Webb’s Georgia O’Keeffe: The Artist’s Landscape is descriptive of what lies within, the reader is greeted, upon removing this handsomely bound book from its slipcase, by “O’Keeffe” only, in large black letters on white cloth. This strikes me as a very familiar introduction, and I am immediately altered to the possibility that liberties are being taken. In fact, Webb and O’Keeffe are old friends, and, in Webb’s words, the book is a collection of “snapshots of a friend and her surroundings… she encouraged it.” This is a provocative way to initiate a voyage into Ms. O’Keeffe’s habitat, her sanctum. What intention promoted such a promising and potentially enormous undertaking? There simply is no indication of closeness in the images, although the bibliography (part of a vast listing, in large typeface, of a selected resume a pretentiously laid-out addendum) certainly hints at it.
Sadly, the collection had solemn, after-the-fact feeling to it in part because only six of the images were made after 1969. The gaps betray an homage without the intimacy of continuity. It is the Southwest landscape Webb’s “revelation about the space, color, and simplicity” that dominates the pages. In a recent interview on National Public Radio, he talked about the years it took to be able to handle the harsh light, so different from that in the East; yet even that critical element is downplayed disadvantageously. The reproductions are not top-notch; that, however, doesn’t excuse the overall drabness of the pictures. Their empty dullness seems to portend age and frailty. Ms. O’Keeffe never saw the Southwest as barren 1938 her interpretations were filled with color and life. Although Webb carefully documented her terrain, her haunts, a lifetime’s worth of paintings, her presence is not clearly felt. The ubiquitous skulls and bones, slashes of light, clean lines referred to do not conjure up her strength. It is an artist’s rendering.

It is through the images of her living and studio spaces that the most precious and valuable information is imparted: those places where she has spent time have absorbed a great deal of her energy and character, and thus have the clearest voice. The details of her life are presented as poised tableau, and this does justice to the care with which she arranges her physical world. One senses the spareness, but does not translate it as meager. Many of the pictures seem not unlike what I would imagine her own sketchbooks to be filled with. Although she has been obsessively photographed over a lifetime she remains enigmatic, a bit more sculptural than lifelike.

Ms. O’Keeffe’s participation strikes one as the occasional, good-natured indulging of an old friend, a distant friend. As she ages, one is tempted to be sentimental, but her stance discourages this, as do her surroundings. As Webb photographs her movement through the desert the unforgiving terrain seems to acknowledge her passage. Yet, she is always walking across or away from the film plane 1938 she doesn’t seem aware of Webb. The insight of communication is omitted. The pictures that approach intimacy seem only invasive, or at worst, apologetic. Given the opening statement in her book of paintings entitled Georgia O’Keeffe. (“Where I was born and where and how I have lived is unimportant. It is what I have done with where I have been that should be of interest.”), the difficulties may not be entirely the photographer’s fault. The most powerful image in the book, plate 40, is also the most subtle, and least intentionally dramatic: a glimpse of her admiration for Juan Hamilton’s sculpture, expressively touched by a hand that appreciates completely. (It is also Webb’s favorite.) She is placed in front of a picture window, and the vista easily transforms into a painting in the viewer’s imagination.

It is to Webb’s credit that the portraits in no way emulate Steiglitz’s long study of Ms. O’Keeffe. On few occasions since that era has she chosen to present herself to the camera, fleeting passes cannot help but show her magnificence and strength of will. But the feeling that she is determined not to give herself to the photographs results in their reduction to furtive glimpses; there is a stubbornness to the pictures that is circular and curiously self-fulfilling. There is valor in Webb’s attempt, and fatigue in Ms. O’Keeffe’s patient resistance. The result is representational, neutral. However, any record of her life is of absolute value. Her self-containment compels; unwillingly our curiosity is satisfied.