Photographing the hands that made art blossom


The image of Georgia O'Keeffe's strong, supple and expressive hands appears and reappears like the motif of a dance suite in the photography of Alfred Stieglitz.

A master photographer and a catalyst for modern art early in the 20th century, Stieglitz made his first pictures of O'Keeffe when he exhibited her early abstract charcoal drawings in 1916 in his Photo-Secession Gallery at its famous lower Manhattan address, 291 Fifth Ave.

He made hundreds more during their long life together. They married in 1924 after a long love affair, and in the next 22 years, Stieglitz photographed virtually every inch of her anatomy, clothed and unclothed. Dozens of his photos are of her hands alone, in many more they remain the focus of the picture.

One of his photographs of O'Keeffe's hands sold earlier this month for $1.472 million at a Sotheby's auction in New York, the second highest price ever paid for a photograph. (The highest price was set at the same sale: $2.928 million for Edward Steichen's photo of a moonrise at a Long Island Pond, which Stieglitz as a gallery agent sold in 1906 for $75, a relatively high price, according to Sotheby's.)

"Stieglitz' initial preoccupation with O'Keeffe's hands seems natural," the sale catalog said, "as they were the hands that created the drawings and paintings that had so overwhelmed him."

But, although Stieglitz made many portraits of other artists and photographers, "their hands rarely, if ever, play as significant role in the composition."

The photographer never lost his fascination for O'Keeffe's hands. One of his most famous studies shows her caressing the wheel of the new Ford V-8 convertible coupe purchased in 1933 with money she got for the sale of an artwork.

Another Stieglitz photo in the Sotheby's auction also bested the previous high for a photograph when it sold at the hammer price of $1.36 million. An "intimate, explicit study" of O'Keeffe nude, it may have been inspired by the sculpture of August Rodin. Stieglitz organized the first major show of Rodin's drawings in the United States at the Photo-Secession Gallery, better known as 291 Gallery, in 1908. He had also exhibited the works of Cezanne, Matisse and Picasso for the first time in America.

O'Keeffe recalled that when Stieglitz's nude photos of her were first shown, several men asked if he would photograph their wives or girlfriends, according to the Sotheby's catalog.

"He was very amused and laughed about it," she said. "If they had known the close relationship he would have needed to have to photograph their wives or girlfriends the way he photographed me -- I think they wouldn't have been interested."

The lesson, of course, is don't wish for too much. You might get it.


Prints of the hands and the nude torso photos are in the collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington. Neither photo is now on exhibition but they can be seen in the photograph study room by appointment made two weeks in advance. Call 202-842-6144.


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