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Georgia O’Keeffe up-close in new book

Just in time for the holidays comes a new Georgia O’Keeffe picture book, this one by Malcom Varon. Georgia O’Keeffe: A Life Well-Lived gives us a glimpse into Varon’s experience with O’Keeffe when he was taking photographs of her paintings at her Abiquiu home in late summer/early fall 1977, when she was nearly 90. (Photographic reproductions of paintings are notoriously difficult to do well, and Varon proved himself the master.)

The pictures of O’Keeffe — some with Juan Hamilton, her friend and business manager — are intimate and relaxed, and so are the pictures of her homes in Abiquiu and Ghost Ranch. I particularly like these environmental shots — they seem more real and lived-in than the usual glossy souvenirs.

And I like Varon’s dedication:

“I dedicate this book to all of you who draw inspiration from Georgia O’Keeffe’s life and work and from whose example you have garnered the courage to lead a life of authenticity and self-fulfillment regardless of the obstacles you have encountered along the way.”

Malcolm is one of the dwindling number of people who knew O’Keeffe. Here’s what he shared with me about her:

What is your favorite memory of O’Keeffe?

It would have to be the several weeks in the summer of 1977 when I was a guest in her house in Abiquiu, there to photograph her paintings for an upcoming exhibition. That was when I took most of the photographs that are published in my book. I had lunch frequently during that period with O’Keeffe and Juan Hamilton. The conversation was casual, including ideas about proper nutrition, one of O’Keeffe’s many interests relating to health, as well as a keen interest of my own.

What is the biggest misconception we generally have of O’Keeffe?

I think the biggest misconception is of O’Keeffe as a reserved, reclusive, unapproachable, iconic, bigger-than-life personality. I think she was all of those things, but she was also a very amiable, approachable person on a very human level and a delight to be around because of her intelligence and curiosity. In her eighties and nineties, her face wrinkled and weathered with age, she emanated a totally unexpected youthfulness.

From a photographer’s point of view, what makes O’Keeffe so photogenic?

There is was an intensity about O’Keeffe and an enigmatic quality in her face that immediately caught my attention and that gave rise to my desire to try and capture that quality on film. As the subject being photographed, she was totally unselfconscious, and comfortable in her own skin. She knew how to pose without “posing,” and she had a body language that seemed to directly challenge the photographer to capture the essence of her identity.

After the experience of photographing her paintings, having such an intimate visual experience with them, did you come to understand them differently, or more fully?

In terms of technique, my many closeup examinations of her paintings during photography and the color corrections I made on my photographs afterward gave me an appreciation of her painting technique that I might otherwise not have have had. Her brush stroking itself was not something I was immediately aware of when looking at her paintings. The paint seemed to me thinned out to the point of appearing as flat on the surface of the canvas, as you would expect a watercolor to be on paper. But what was astonishing to me was that apparently by using this technique she was able to blend colors, or different shades of the same color, into each other seamlessly without hard borders or rough transitions.

I did not “understand” O’Keeffe’s paintings better after looking closely at hundreds of them, but I did get to like them better. Similar to how I got to like Chinese and Japanese traditional music after hearing enough of it, and how the repetitiveness of Ethiopian traditional music — which can at first sound tedious to a western ear — I ultimately found soothing.

Ann Daly PhD is an essayist specializing in women and women's history. She is working on a book about Georgia O'Keeffe.

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