Georgia O’Keeffe at 90 in color

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Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings are vast and liberal offerings of color, but the artist herself is remembered in black and white. Aside from a few color portraits taken of her here and there, “our images of her are largely black and white,” according to Ariel Plotek, curator at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Sante Fe. During her lifetime she was seldom seen in anything other than her black and white robes reminiscent of nuns, many of which she made or altered herself. She reportedly once stated that if she started wearing paint, she wouldn’t have time to paint anymore.

Malcolm Varon, Georgia O’Keeffe at Ghost Ranch (1977), archival pigment photograph

An exhibit at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum through October features 22 of the artist’s color photographs by Malcolm Varon taken during the summer of 1977 when the photographer was visiting Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu, New Mexico, where O’Keeffe lived and worked beginning in 1940.

They also represent some of O’Keeffe’s only photographs late in her life. “Malcolm was the only photographer O’Keeffe actually worked with since the 1960s,” Plotek told Hyperallergic.

Not a portrait photographer by trade, Varon spent two months on assignment at O’Keeffe’s ranch documenting her artwork for an upcoming Guggenheim Museum retrospective. But when O’Keeffe was asked if she had any recent photos of herself to contribute for an upcoming 90th birthday feature in ArtNews, she realized she didn’t have any and committed Varon to taking them.

Malcolm Varon, “Georgia O’Keeffe Laughing” (1977), archival pigment photograph

Living as O’Keeffe’s guest during this time allowed Varon to view her in a different, more familiar light. “It was an intimate situation,” he said in an interview. “We ate lunch quite often over those two months: O’Keeffe, myself, Juan Hamilton, and my assistant. It became more of a friendly connection and her iconic personality faded, at least for me, during that connection.”

Photographing O’Keeffe towards the end of her life would have been quite a daunting task. Throughout her life, she was captured by some of the leading artists of the time, including Alfred Stieglitz, her ex-husband, who made a number of portraits of her, including career-defining nudes, which Varon calls “some of the best photographs.” of a naked body that I have ever seen”; Andy Warhol, who made her a pop celebrity; and Todd Webb, who remained close friends with her for over three decades.

Malcolm Varon, Georgia O’Keeffe Sitting in the Portal at Ghost Ranch (1977), archival pigment photograph

Although Varon was “aware of the many hundreds of portraits that were made of her over the course of her life,” Plotek said, he was undeterred by the lineage of photographers who came before him. Instead, he focused on his own style.

“I had a way of showing people when I was taking photos,” Varon said. “It was kind of trying to get to the essential person. One of the ways of doing this wasn’t necessarily by taking candid photos, but by actually posing and having a person – either staring at the camera or maybe listening to music or letting them think about something in their life, simply they have left the context of being photographed – they are so oblivious to the camera that their facial expressions begin to show what really is the essence of who they are.”

“I tried that with O’Keeffe. The photos you see are the result of this way of photographing them,” added Varon.

Plotek has another hypothesis as to why O’Keeffe might have appeared so unconcerned about the photographer’s presence. “I wonder if that doesn’t have something to do with the fact that her eyesight has really deteriorated,” he said. He noted that by the time she was 90, O’Keeffe had lost central vision due to macular degeneration.

Malcolm Varon, “Candelaria Lopez and Estiben Suazo” (1977), archival pigment photograph

One thing Varon tried to counteract in his portrayal of O’Keeffe was the widespread notion that she lived a reclusive life.

“She was always surrounded by people,” he said, whether they were Abiquiu residents helping her with cooking, gardening, and housekeeping; her personal secretary Agapita Judy Lopez or her close confidante and studio assistant Juan Hamilton. If he had to guess, Varon surmises that her reputation as a hermit probably stemmed from her conscious effort to neutralize the sexualized fame she gained early on as Stieglitz’s nude object.

“She did a lot to negate this notion of herself as a sexualized person and her images as sexualized paintings,” he said. “So this idea of ​​her as reclusive, as iconic, just came out of celebrity status.”

Varon took special care to photograph O’Keeffe with Hamilton; At the time, there was a lot of coverage and speculation about the relationship in the art world. “My observation of them together was that they had a very, very deep and loving friendship,” he explained. “And that was unusual because he was sixty years younger than her. But it happens — and it happens legitimately, and doesn’t necessarily have to be a romance. No one knows if it was or not, and they certainly deny it. But it was still close and intimate, as we all know friendships can be.”

Malcolm Varon, “Georgia O’Keeffe and Juan Hamilton Strolling in the Fields of Ghost Ranch” (1977), archival pigment photograph

“I thought it was worth capturing in photos because people look at that kind of relationship the wrong way,” Varon added. “I saw it differently when I was there and I think my perspective was correct. I wanted to put that out as a record.”

While capturing O’Keeffe in Abiquiu, Varon also depicted landscapes that her followers may be familiar with. The blue Mesa Cerro Pedernal, which she painted many times, forms the background for a silhouette portrait of her. Another picture shows her side by side with Hamilton in front of a dry waterfall near her home, which she also once painted.

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