Kathleen Pyne —
In 1916 Georgia O’Keeffe received from the admiring New York photographer Alfred Stieglitz a group of photogravures he had published several years earlier. These pictures of nudes bound to dying trees or frolicking in refreshing mountain waters provoked O’Keeffe, in her own words, to an “absurd” level of excitement, and she wrote back to Stieglitz that they “almost took me through the roof.” The images that astounded her were made by California photographer Anne Brigman, already on her way to becoming an international star in photography.
In my book, Modernism and the Feminine Voice: O’Keeffe and the Women of the Stieglitz Circle (2007), I revealed how Brigman’s photography catalyzed the image of the free woman in New York’s nascent modernist culture that was coming to life in Greenwich Village around the issue of woman’s sexual and social liberation. Stieglitz, who was New York’s most powerful entrepreneur of the new artistic modernism, would eventually make use of Brigman’s model of the new liberated woman in presenting the public image of Georgia O’Keeffe.
However, I realized that I had not yet discovered Brigman’s own stories that would explain why she pictured mountain nymphs, struggling against grotesque, ancient junipers, high up in the Sierra. Nor had I been able to explain the cultural rituals and myths that she invoked to make them meaningful to her local audiences. In my new book, Anne Brigman: The Photographer of Enchantment, I elucidate the northern California myths that generated Brigman’s photography and made it look so foreign to Manhattan’s modernist culture..
Brigman’s background was unique even in terms of the San Francisco Bay Area where she had lived since her marriage to a Danish sea captain in 1894. She had been born and raised in the paradisal Nu’uanu Valley north of Honolulu, to one of the most important of American missionary families which established the colonial culture and propelled Hawai’i into annexation with the U.S.
In Brigman’s time, citizens of the Bay Area saw their West Coast culture as bringing together the best of Anglo-European civilization with the beauty and spirituality of Asian culture. The first breeding ground of this cultural myth lay in the dangerous, strange, and untamed terrain of San Francisco, a place that at its geocultural center harbored the dark flower of Chinatown, demonized as a “Mongolian” threat to the purity and imperial culture of Anglo-European San Francisco. After the earthquake and inferno destroyed the old wooden city in 1906, locals often referred to the event by conjuring the figure of a raging, fire-breathing dragon, wreaking its havoc on the city of sin. The apocalypse marked the end of the old romantic, picturesque city and sent a phalanx of artists and bohemians into an exodus across Berkeley’s hills and Carmel’s secluded beaches.
In about 1898 Brigman and her husband settled across the Bay, in Oakland, where she reigned at the center of local middle-class professional and artistic culture. Within Berkeley’s university precinct, just a short streetcar ride from Brigman’s house, the new intellectual elite welcomed her as a star performer. These poets, naturalists, scientists, students, professors, photographers, and painters convinced themselves that their community was forging a rebirth of Classical civilization on the edge of the Pacific. This sense of geocultural superiority was amplified in the local nature religion, led by the poet of the Sierra, John Muir, who encouraged the Berkeleyans to join the climbs organized by his Sierra Club and experience for themselves the mountains’ mysteries. For these intellectuals, Brigman was the very personification of a mystic whose communion with the Sierra’s wonders was crystallized in the photographs she made during her summer hikes around Donner and Lake Tahoe.
The earthquake marked a turning point in Brigman’s photography. Her trip to the mountains in summer of 1906, when she sought calm for her frayed nerves, plotted the beginning of her new vision of the Sierra. The summer previous to the earthquake she had posed her sister and friends as nymphs enjoying the cool, refreshing breezes and waters of mountain glades. As she now tramped through the wilderness near Tahoe, Brigman suddenly discovered it to be a place of mysterious caverns and sinister shape-shifting trees. She called these ancient and dying junipers her “dragon trees,” not so subtly invoking the “Chinese menace.” Brigman’s new drama of the Sierra featured the beautiful nude bodies of her dryads caught in the gnarled limbs of her tree-grotesques, as these ancient patriarchs struggled to take the dryads with them to their impending deaths. In this saga of beauty and the beast, the Sierra’s enchantment thus became darker and more complicated: in Brigman’s photographs the mountains no longer appeared simply as a place to find personal transformation in experiences of awe and renewal, but it was now also a place of encounter with sudden death—reverberating with the nightmare of destruction back home in the Bay.
Many of these developments I discovered in the long correspondence Brigman kept up with Stieglitz through these eventful years. These letters significantly also reconstruct her ten-month visit to Manhattan in 1910. The freedom of living there on her own gave her a clear perspective on the domesticity she decided was imprisoning her back at home. When she returned to Oakland, she separated from her husband—at that time, a shocking and scandalous act—and threw her energies into women’s suffrage, which the state of California successfully passed into law in 1911. Having achieved the ultimate freedom for herself, she consequently reframed the public narrative of her iconic photographs as the story of her personal struggle. The Storm Tree (1911) dates from this turbulent period of personal crisis and suffering over her transgression of middle-class codes. It is an angry image that immerses us in the terror of a woman who finds herself yoked to an ancient patriarch. At the same time, the blackened, hollowed out forms suggest the aftermath of a firestorm, echoing Brigman’s sense of her personal evolution as a burning out that allowed her to rise from the ashes as a new liberated being.
Brigman’s importance today not only circles around her legacy of independence for O’Keeffe’s later life and career, but it also resides in the way her photographs show us a natural world that is animated with a spirit life. Especially in her malformed trees, where Brigman suggests a complexity of human-like suffering and interdependent social life, she exposes a natural world that is also culture. Her vision of nature thus takes its place in our awareness of the Anthropocene, an era in which nature and human culture are inextricably melded. What has become increasingly evident to me, however, is the embeddedness of her photographs in the place myth of California as a cultural crossroads, an environment that engenders hybridity as the form of the new in multiple spheres of social life. It is in this West Coast variant of modernism, defined as a dynamic of openness, that Brigman located the enabling point of her own evolution, of her remarkable life and photography.
Kathleen Pyne is professor emerita of art history at the University of Notre Dame.