The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Will the Real Georgia O'Keeffe Please Stand Up?
It is always fascinating to see when and how professional image-makers choose to be photographed and seen. Not surprisingly, a number of click! photography changes everything stories explore that theme and pay particular attention to issues raised when women artists find themselves the object of a camera’s gaze. Jacquelyne Serwer, chief curator at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, contributed a piece to our project that describes how the 19th century American sculptor, Edmonia Lewis, circulated carte-de-visite portraits of herself to attract viewers and to market her work. And, in a newly posted click! story, Barbara Buhler Lynes, curator of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, describes how O’Keeffe at first benefited from, then shrewdly worked against, the controversial photographic portraits Alfred Stieglitz made of her in the early 20th century, and which established her as a public figure.
Throughout her career, O’Keeffe appeared willingly and often in photographic images, which no doubt contributed to her renown and assured her iconic status in American pop culture, at a time when accomplishment, visibility, and celebrity were becoming irrevocably entwined. O’Keeffe died over 20 years ago, and yet today, she’s still a vivid cultural symbol and presence. Only a few months ago, a much publicized Lifetime Channel cable TV movie dramatizing her life, starring Joan Allen as O’Keeffe and Jeremy Irons as Stieglitz, featured scenes depicting the making, exhibition of, and shocked public response to the photographs Barbara Lynes references in her contribution to click!.
If photographs of Edmonia Lewis and Georgia O’Keeffe raise important questions about the reasons women artists allow themselves to be represented, it’s worth noting that while times have changed, certain cultural traditions die hard, and controversies about the ways women artists are pictured continued on throughout the last century. Revisit, for example, the brouhaha surrounding Lynda Benglis’ notorious portrait that appeared in a 1974 ad in Artforum magazine. Look at the Google images that come up when you search for “Nan Goldin self portraits,” or “Cindy Sherman Film Stills," to see what took both art and photography worlds by surprise in the 1980s.
While jingles on soundtracks for Virginia Slims cigarette commercials in the late 1960s (you can see one here) loudly proclaimed “You’ve Come a Long Way Baby” suggesting that liberation had come, the way women are depicted in photographic images remains, to this day, an issue worth looking at and talking about.