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And every one of them words rang true
And glowed like burnin' coal
Pourin' off of every page
Like it was written in my soul from me to you
When Bob Dylan wrote these lines in his song "Tangled Up In Blue," he was probably referring to the love poetry of Dante or Petrarch, but he could just as easily have been describing the magic swirling rush of white-hot prose in "My Faraway One: Selected Letters of Georgia O'Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz," one of the most beautiful and surprising books I have ever read - and definitely one of the sexiest: D.H. Lawrence and Henry Miller - eat your hearts out!
When I first heard about this book my hopes were high - but I was also more than a little dubious: Hadn't these two people already expressed themselves best through their art - O'Keeffe in her paintings, Stieglitz in his photographs? Well, yes - they both said a great deal in their art, but they clearly had much, much more to say about the world, about themselves, and about each other, and the proof is in this book. The biggest surprise of all is what wonderful writers they both were.
Stieglitz certainly knew how to express himself in bold polemics and manifestos ("I was born in Hoboken. I am an American. Photography is my passion. The search for truth my obsession.") but the word "subtlety" had no place in his public vocabulary, and he would seem to be ridiculously ill-suited to writing a tender love letter. This book reveals, however, that the exact opposite is true. In these letters he drops his public mask, and the incredibly articulate Stieglitz can be as fragile and delicate as the flowers O'Keeffe painted, frequently expressing himself with an almost Chekhovian sensitivity to mood and detail, but much of the time his words are an overwhelming torrent of vivid, unfiltered passion - Jack Kerouac would be proud! - and if words were indeed burning coal, this book would spontaneously combust.
In most of the famous photographs Stieglitz took of her, Georgia O'Keeffe seems cool, aloof and inscrutable. It thus comes as an enormous shock that in her early letters to Stieglitz she could be as flirtatious as a smitten schoolgirl. Georgia's expressions of love are just as intense as Alfred's, although her style is "sparse and vibrant" (in the words of the book's editor) as opposed to the "fervent and lyrical" prose of Stieglitz. It is easy to see why she eventually felt stifled by the controlling and self-absorbed Stieglitz, who in turn was doomed to be driven nuts by the distant and independent O'Keeffe. Theirs was the kind of delirious love affair we all dream about having, but most of us are unable to attain such heavenly highs, and thankfully we are rarely forced to endure such hellish lows. It is a lot safer to experience this kind of mad love vicariously - between the covers of a book like this.
And Alfred finally does indeed go mad on p. 495. Already on the verge of a nervous breakdown, he mistakenly thinks that Georgia has left him for good and panics, becoming at once a hysterical teenager who's just been dumped by his girlfriend, and a suicidal middle-aged man who is certain that he has just lost the love of his life. I'm surprised that he didn't kill himself before he mailed the letter... Okay, okay - Stieglitz was an awful drama queen, but he did feel things intensely - and he just happened to be the Father of Modern Photography, so, like Georgia, we must be prepared to cut him a little slack...
These letters are not all soap opera and Sturm und Drang, however - lots of them are just plain interesting. On p. 125, for example, Stieglitz goes to a party in Manhattan in 1917 and bumps into an up-and-coming French artist who offers to show him an amazing work in progress: "Having his studio a flight up, he took me up to see his work -- He is doing a marvelous thing on huge glass -- about eight feet by twelve -- Has been over a year on it -- It's all worked out with fine wire & lead -- a little color -- very perfect workmanship..." And thus the perceptive and appreciative Stieglitz gets a sneak peak at Marcel Duchamp's legendary "The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass)."
We're all familiar with O'Keeffe's iconic paintings, but what did she think about them when they were works in progress? "I hate the back of my Ranchos church -- Tomorrow I must get out at it again -- It is heavy -- I want it to be light and lovely and singing..." (July 9, 1930) "Strand didn't like the 'paint quality' in one of my best paintings -- Made me want to knock his hat off or do something to him to muss him up -- The painting certainly has no resemblance to a photograph..." (July 10, 1931) "The horse's head with a pink rose over its eye makes me laugh every time I look at it..." (November 10, 1931). Such fascinating insights are found on virtually every page of this book.
But for me, the two most amazing letters in this book demonstrate the almost supernatural synchronicity between these two lovers and artists. The letters were written by O'Keeffe and Stieglitz on the same day, September 25, 1923, while she was visiting York Beach, Maine, and he was staying at their summer home at Lake George, New York, two hundred miles away. Unbeknownst to the other, of course, each had been utterly entranced by the same moonlit night - but O'Keeffe saw a colorful painting, and Stieglitz saw a black-and-white photograph.
O'Keeffe: "Last evening -- walking on the beach at sunset I saw a pink moon -- nearly full -- grow out of the gray over the green sea -- till it made a pink streak on the water -- very faint -- that told you where the ocean began and the soft gray blur of space was ended -- And the moon grew hotter and hotter -- and the path on the water brighter and brighter till it burned so that I didn't want to look anymore..."
Stieglitz: "It was a marvelous night. A white moonlight night. I never saw any night quite like it -- none more beautiful -- For a long while before going to bed I stood at your window looking lakeward -- looking at the white silences -- the white night so silent. -- Nothing stirred. Even the moon full & round seemed not to wish to disturb the stillness -- it seemed to be moving slowly upwards as if on tiptoes moving through a house of stillness at night when all inmates were fast asleep. -- All was so still -- & the whiteness so lovely -- The hills were not hills -- they were something bathed in an untouchable spirit of light -- the line produced where this spirit met the sky spirit was of rarest subtle beauty -- Really I never saw anything quite so beautiful -- I looked & looked & knew I was awake..."
Or, as their fellow genius and American original, Bob Dylan, might have explained their permanent predicament (again from "Tangled Up In Blue"):
We always did feel the same,
We just saw it from a different point of view
Finally, it must be noted that if the O'Keeffe-Stieglitz correspondence had been published in its entirety, this book would have been the size of a microwave oven. Those two exchanged 25,000 handwritten pages, and never crossed out a word - thus the key to the book's title is the deceptively simple word, "selected." Just wading through all of these letters would have been a monumental task for anyone, but the editor, Sarah Greenough, has also apparently consulted every letter they ever wrote... to ANYONE! Not to mention every letter they ever RECEIVED! Yet the superhuman task the editor set for herself has resulted in a highly enjoyable book of manageable size. Her annotations are invaluable: always informative, but never intrusive, they save the reader from drowning in a flood of words. She even had the splendid idea of providing an index of first names - a handy tool, since Stieglitz and O'Keeffe had a whole lot of friends to keep track of. Greenough is particularly informative about a young woman named Dorothy Norman, the scheming groupie who latched on to Alfred in 1927, and whose increasingly domineering presence in his life helped to poison Stieglitz's friendship with his brilliant protégé, Paul Strand, and damaged his relationship with Georgia forever.
According to the acknowledgments, O'Keeffe herself asked Sarah Greenough to edit these letters, and - not surprisingly - Georgia knew exactly what she was doing: Somehow she was able to pick out the young scholar who has become America's preeminent photo historian (just as a great baseball scout can spot the potential in a young Hank Aaron or Sandy Koufax) and Greenough's commentaries come as a welcome interlude before the fireworks between Alfred and Georgia start up again.
I'm a big fan of photo books, and I own quite a few of the books she has edited, but until this title came along, my favorite Greenough book - my desert-island photo book, in fact - was "Looking In: Robert Frank's The Americans (Expanded Edition)," a mind-bogglingly complete explication of the works of an artist very different from Stieglitz and O'Keeffe - but now I'll have to bring "My Faraway One" to that desert island. With Georgia and Alfred there to keep me company, things might get a little agitated at times, but I will certainly never be bored.