Books: Stieglitz, O'Keeffe, Strand, and Salisbury, an Artistic "Foursome"

By David Schonauer   Monday April 29, 2019

One was the most famous photographer in America.

Then there was his protegee, muse, and lover, who would go on to become his wife — and one of America’s most beloved painters.

The third was a young photographer aspiring to a greatness he would eventually achieve.

The fourth, and least known today, was young woman whose father once managed Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show and who had artistic aspirations of her own.

The relationship between Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keeffe, Paul Strand and Rebecca Salsbury is the subject of a fascinating new book, “Foursome,” which, notes author Carolyn Burke, charts “the often contradictory pulls of personal and artistic life still speaks to us a century later.”

Burke, who has also written biographies of Mina Loy, Lee Miller and Edith Piaf, tells the story of a tangled web of artistic ambition and intimate bonds. At the same time, the book provides an insider look at one of the most exalted periods in the history of photography.

As The New York Times notes, the two couples helped ignite American Modernism.

The story begins in 1915, when Strand, then an unsure 25 year old, brought a selection of his photographs to Stieglitz’s influential 291 galllery, at 291 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. “The work gained Strand a favored position among the acolytes dedicated to the older artist’s mission of ‘offering new ways to see the world,’ notes The Washington Post.

A year later O’Keeffe sent charcoal sketches to the gallery. “Her swirling expressions of ‘a woman’s feeling' so overwhelmed Stieglitz that he put them on display without telling the artist,” adds The Post. O’Keeffe came to the gallery to complain, thereby launching an intense relationship with Stieglitz. “Their powerful sexual bond grew from Stieglitz’s inflamed response to O’Keeffe’s work as the embodiment of a new, distinctively female artistic sensibility, and he made it his business to support that work,” notes The Post.

O’Keeffe also posed for Stieglitz’s camera. His nudes of her caused an uproar.

Along the way, O’Keeffe developed a crush on Strand, and vice versa. Strand at one point followed O’Keeffe to Texas, where she was teaching. “And if it hadn’t been for his fear that Stieglitz would be hurt if he made a move, and O’Keeffe’s irritation with Strand’s worship of Stieglitz and his general dependence — she called him ‘the most helpless, slow, unseeing creature I ever saw’ — the course of art history might have been different,” notes The Times.

The final member of the foursome, Salsbury, married Strand in 1922. Burke tells The San Francisco Chronicle that the idea for the book came to her as she was reading Salsbury's letters, “in which the least well-known of the four sought to understand her role in their complicated web of relationships.”

“Accompanying Strand to an exhibit of Stieglitz’s scandalously intimate portraits of O’Keeffe, Salsbury saw ‘the kind of woman [she] hoped to become,’ uninhibited and free,” notes The Times. “Vaguely ‘artistic’ without knowing which particular art she might want to practice, she made a place for herself in the group as ever-helpful ‘Beck,’ typing manuscripts and organizing files while earnestly striving to develop the ‘creative seeing’ Stieglitz patronizingly claimed she lacked.” She also posed for Stieglitz nudes.

Although Strand failed at being Stieglitz and Salsbury failed at being O’Keeffe, they went on to change American art.

“Strand eventually found his way as a photographer and filmmaker in Mexico and Italy, and Salsbury found her way as a hard-drinking artist in Taos doing reverse paintings on glass,” notes The Times. “In the end, though, Beck did forge the final link among the foursome — with O’Keeffe. She and O’Keeffe traveled together to New Mexico, and they had the time of their lives. Salsbury divorced Strand and married a Westerner named William James. And O’Keeffe, who’d grudgingly married Stieglitz, only to find him a cheat, at last found her home alone in the desert.”


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