By Lisa Volpe and Betsy Evans Hunt
Yale University Press and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, are very pleased to publish the first book devoted to the photographic works of Georgia O’Keeffe. The catalogue—which accompanies an exhibition that opened in October 2021 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and will then travel to the Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, the Denver Art Museum, and the Cincinnati Art Museum—highlights for the first time the artist’s exploration of photography as a unique art form and practice during the latter half of her career.
O’Keeffe’s photographs would not have existed without the photographer Todd Webb, who taught O’Keeffe to photograph in 1956. The pair developed a deep friendship built on a foundation of mutual trust and support—O’Keeffe and Webb would take long walks and share cameras, photographing back and forth; Webb would set the camera controls for her; and O’Keeffe often depended on Webb to process her negatives and create test prints.
Lisa Volpe, curator and author of Georgia O’Keeffe, Photographer, and Betsy Evans Hunt, executive director of the Todd Webb Archive, had a recent conversation about the impact of Webb’s friendship on O’Keeffe’s photography. The transcript of that exchange is below.
Lisa Volpe: Betsy and I first met while I was researching for the catalogue and exhibition Georgia O’Keeffe, Photographer. It was clear by that point that Todd Webb was a huge part of Georgia’s story. I went to the Todd Webb Archive to look at his contact sheets and negatives, and I ended up falling in love with Todd while I was researching Georgia. And it seems, Georgia fell in love with Todd too.
Betsy Evans Hunt: I think that’s really true. Georgia and Todd met for the first time in 1943 when Todd was in town to show his photographs to Dorothy Norman, who was the assistant for Alfred Stieglitz [Georgia’s husband]. They were photographs of an African American family in Detroit, where Todd had lived. Both Dorothy Norman and Stieglitz looked at the pictures and loved them, but the next time that Todd went into the gallery, Georgia was working in the back room, and she had all of his photos propped up where she was working. So, he knew that she had taken a liking to them. As far as everyone can tell, they just seem to have gotten along right away. Todd was very much an “everyman”—a down-to-earth guy, no bones about him. I sense that Georgia really liked that about him. He didn’t care that she was becoming famous, he just liked her as a person. He was also very helpful, because that was in his nature. When Georgia was getting ready for her 1946 show at MoMA, he would photograph things for her, help carry things for her.
And while Todd met Georgia in 1943, he didn’t really get to know her well until 1945—and then Stieglitz died in the summer of 1946. It’s fairly clear from letters and journals that Todd was one of her very good friends during that difficult first year after Stieglitz died. So that’s the beginning of their friendship.
LV: We learn from Todd’s journals that he was the one who taught O’Keeffe to photograph. He first came to visit her in Abiquiú, New Mexico, in 1955 when he was on his Guggenheim fellowship.
BEH: Yes, Todd had been in Europe in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s and got back to New York in 1952 and, at that point, a number of his connections in New York had dried up, and he had trouble getting work. He’d always had a dream of walking across America, so he applied for a Guggenheim to walk across the country and photograph things as America was changing—it was 1955, and things were changing a lot, as the highway system was being built. We were fortunate to discover all this work in 2017 when I found a bunch of Todd’s archives that I hadn’t known about before.
LV: And O’Keeffe wrote one of his recommendations for the Guggenheim. I think that recommendation really speaks to what she saw in him as an artist and a friend. She wrote: “He is an artist of real ability—a sensitive, warm, friendly, healthy human being who makes contacts and friends easily and seems to be particularly fitted for this stated project.”
BEH: I’ve read that before, but now that you read it out loud, it speaks volumes.
When he was walking across America, and he finally got a bicycle somewhere in the middle of America, he biked up to Abiquiú to see O’Keeffe and received a hero’s welcome. He was only planning on staying a few days to wash his clothes and rest up, but he ended up staying weeks. That’s when I think their friendship really deepened even more because, up to this point, they’d only really been in touch by letter and a few visits in New York in the intervening years. O’Keeffe just loved having him as a pal—I’ve described it as a brother-sister relationship. She took him up to Ghost Ranch and they slept under the stars, she took him on hikes, and loved to cook him all her crazy meals. He was just a part of the fabric of her life there. She kept telling him he needed to come back, so he came back the next year, and then Todd and his wife ultimately moved out there to Santa Fe in 1961.
LV: In 1956, when Todd returns to Abiquiú, he starts teaching her how to photograph. In his journal, he writes: “I’m giving her a few lessons with the Leica and she will probably get one. Funny, but she knows nothing of the operation of a camera. She sees well, of course, and seems to have a sense of the photographic eye. Some of her paintings use the photographic perspective.” You can tell how close they were—she’s a true friend to him. She’s not the iconic, mythic character we tend to think of.
BEH: Obviously, technology changed a lot since Stieglitz was alive, but the fact that she was married to Stieglitz and she didn’t really know anything about how to operate a camera is really interesting.
LV: She was uninterested in learning how to operate a camera. What’s clear in her photos is that photography is a compositional exercise for her. She really likes framing and reframing the same scene, testing combinations of shapes. In the exhibition, we exhibit handwritten notes, borrowed from the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, that are clearly from one of Todd’s visits—my guess is from 1957—where she’s writing down aperture and shutter speed for various conditions around her home because she doesn’t want to learn to measure on the fly. She either wants Todd there to set the controls for her—that’s her ideal, to have him right next to her—or, she has the notes that he dictated to her.
I’m curious about the differences we see between Todd’s and Georgia’s photographs.
BEH: Georgia’s are more straight-on. She’s very focused on a central image or idea. Todd’s photos probably have a little more sophistication because he’s a photographer. But hers are beautiful in that they could only be by her—you look at them, with their formality and structure, and think, “Okay, that could be an O’Keeffe painting.” While Todd’s sometimes have a more oblique angle and lots of different subject matter.
LV: Yes, it seems there’s always one subject, one composition that she’s interested in: she’s investigating a flower; she’s investigating shadow in her roofless room; she’s investigating a kiva ladder. Todd’s images are multi-layered. He’s investigating history, people, and labor, all through a photo of a landscape.
BEH: And I don’t think either of them was really thinking that process out. It’s just part of the fabric of their being.
LV: There are also differences in the way they go about photographing. Georgia and Todd often traded cameras back and forth as they went out on walks together, but when we looked at Todd’s contact sheets, it was very clear as to who was behind the camera. Todd was a professional photographer. He frames, he knows what he wants, and he captures that image. Then, the next frame is something else—he’s on to the next thing. Whereas O’Keeffe, it’s three shots in a row. It was really fascinating to me how easily we could distinguish between the images—it was very clear which were taken by Todd and which were taken by Georgia.
BEH: Before you came to visit us at the Archive, we never thought these contact sheets contained anything but Todd’s photographs. It was such a treat for us to be able to look at them with you and to better understand. The differences became clear as we spent more time with the contact sheets.
LV: Another difference is in terms of printing. Georgia did not care about a print. There are some enlarged contact sheets that Todd made for her, or he would print things very small or make test prints for her, and she was fine with that. Todd, on the other hand, was a very serious printer. That was another way to distinguish their prints. He was very focused on making a print perfect.
During my research, photo conservator Paul Messier lent me paper samples so I could figure out what type of paper Todd printed on. He cut me little squares that I toted around with me so, if I found a photo I thought might be Georgia’s, the first question I asked was, “Did Todd print on this paper?” It was a great way to distinguish things I wasn’t quite sure about.
BEH: That’s great, I didn’t know that you did that—but of course you would because you’re such an amazing researcher.
LV: I really have a completely different understanding of O’Keeffe now that I see her through Todd’s eyes. Her myth is that she’s a lone figure in the desert who doesn’t want anyone around—she just wants to focus on her painting. That is so not true. A really interesting point of comparison is Stieglitz’s photos of O’Keeffe versus Todd’s photos of O’Keeffe. For me, Stieglitz’s photos are his vision—she’s a model, she’s kind of just a stand-in. When you see her in Todd’s images, it’s a different person entirely.
BEH: To be fair, I think Stieglitz’s are his vision, but they’re also love letters to her and to her beauty, which is a different gaze than Todd had. It’s also a different part of her life in terms of timing. But people should understand her more holistically—that she had lots of other parts of her personality, that she had a nice side, and she wasn’t just this intense, harsh personality. Todd’s pictures really do everything to humanize her. So many of her other friends also took pictures, but even they couldn’t help but idolize her in their photographs. Yet, Todd’s have none of that. It’s really refreshing.
LV: It was always kind of a shock to me because, in my research, I had all of Todd’s images of her in my head, and then I would read something that felt completely contradictory. For example, it’s written that she certainly wouldn’t let anyone in her studio while she was painting, that she didn’t really like anyone in her studio at all. Yet, there’s a ton of photos that Todd made in her studio, very relaxed. She’s eating soup in one of them! If barriers existed with other people, she didn’t put them up with Todd.
BEH: Todd told me once that Georgia wanted him to be the executor of her estate—this was before she met Juan Hamilton [her live-in assistant and caretaker]. Knowing Todd, he was probably just as happy to not have to deal with all of that, but that speaks to how much she trusted him.
BEH: The other thing we haven’t talked about is the two river trips they took together. In terms of cementing their friendship, what an intimate journey—with only eight or ten people—traveling down Glen Canyon. Some of the pictures from that time are beautiful, but some are just so funny—like one of Georgia in a hairnet mixing cocktails. You can’t make it up!
LV: And it seems like, from their letters, Todd is the reason she’s going on these trips. It’s a joint idea, but I’m pretty sure that if Todd wasn’t going, she wasn’t going to be on the trip either. She felt that he would take care of her. They never really separated on those trips either.
BEH: I would have loved to be a fly on the wall for those trips.
LV: Absolutely. Then, there’s the dog situation. Georgia always had two chows at a time. Chows are notoriously unfriendly dogs. They usually have one person they like, and that’s their person. But there are quite a few oral histories from people who were around Georgia—housekeepers and gardeners—that state the only other person those dogs liked was Todd.
BEH: Well, there you go. A dog knows, right?
LV: Exactly. And there are adorable photos on Todd’s contact sheets of her chows. He taught her to take photos of her chows as well. There’s one I’m thinking of where Georgia is in the background talking to Todd’s wife, Lucille, and in the foreground are the two chows. They’re sitting up looking directly at the camera, which is, of course, Todd. You can just tell they love him so much.
BEH: There’s also the story, in 1956, when her beloved chow Bo was hit by a car and he was paralyzed. The vet said to wait three days to see if he got any better, but he didn’t. So the decision was made to have him put down, and Todd was with Georgia when that happened. He then carried the dog out and buried him in the White Place. That’s something that Georgia never forgot. She wrote Todd a letter years later, in the 1980s, reminiscing about that.
LV: He actually postponed leaving—he was supposed to leave during the time this happened—and he knew he couldn’t leave her because the dog’s death was so emotionally tough for her. So he stayed to help her through that. She never forgot that kindness.
BEH: She really didn’t. To write about it almost thirty years later is amazing. It’s such a treasure to have those letters.
LV: She writes this one beautiful letter about how she watches him leave, his form moving over the hill until he’s gone. You feel the loss of her very good friend going away.
BEH: It was interesting, too, because Lucille was about as different from Georgia as you can imagine. Lucille was very much a sophisticated New Yorker. She always had her hair up in a bun, a hat, and high heels on. They couldn’t be more different, but Lucille and Georgia, thankfully, ended up getting along. I think that’s largely to do with Todd. And after Todd and Lucille moved to Santa Fe, they had about ten years where they were really able to spend a lot of time together—a couple of weekends a month at least.
LV: It was truly a one-in-a-lifetime friendship for them both.
Lisa Volpe is associate curator of photography at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
Betsy Evans Hunt is executive director of the Todd Webb Archive, Portland, Maine.