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Foursome: Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keeffe, Paul Strand, Rebecca Salsbury

Carolyn Burke

Carolyn Burke’s Foursome follows the arc of two marriages – that of Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O’Keeffe and of Paul Strand and Rebecca Salsbury.

Stieglitz was the tastemaker and spiritual leader of photography as an art for much of the first half of the 20th century.

From 1903 to 1917, Stieglitz published Camera Work, a photographic quarterly that in just 50 issues became the most influential periodical on photography not only of its era but possibly of all time.  

Stieglitz’s influence went far beyond photography, promoting then controversial modern artists like Rodin and Matisse through his 291 Gallery in New York.

Today it is hard to imagine just how controversial these modernists were at the turn of the century, in part because Rodin has been mostly reduced in the general public’s mind to a single iconic sculpture, The Thinker. But Rodin’s impressionistic yet graphic drawings of nudes drew shock and outrage not only from the public but from the art establishment as well.

One of the visitors to the Rodin exhibit was a 20-year art student, Georgia O’Keeffe. Within a few years O’Keeffe would not only have her own artwork hanging at 291 but would become muse, lover and, finally, wife to Stieglitz.

In 1915 an occasional visitor to the gallery, Paul Strand, showed Stieglitz his own photographs. As Burke recounts, Stieglitz’s observations were life-changing, or at least career-making, for Strand. At the time, Strand was photographing in the pictorialism style that came into vogue at the end of the 19th century.

Burke writes that Stieglitz commented that, “Grass looks like water; water looks like it has the same quality as the bark of the tree; and you’ve lost all the elements that distinguish one form…from another.”

Taking the advice to heart, Strand pioneered a new style that built on the camera’s ability to render things as they are, and by 1916 he had produced two of the most iconic photos that still today define “straight photography:” Blind Woman, New York, 1916 and White Fence, Port Kent, New York.

The fourth member of the foursome, Rebecca Salsbury may be the least remembered, but perhaps most important partner. Salsbury was the daughter of Nate Salsbury, manager of William F. Cody’s Wild West Show. And, while Buffalo Bill was the namesake, it was Salsbury who was the mastermind behind one of the most successful ventures of the 19th Century.

While she was a talented artist, Salsbury emerges in the book as the most sympathetic character – the glue holding the foursome together.

This four-person biography follows their lives as they unite and ultimately break apart. It is the story of two marriages, the beginning through the middle until ultimately the end. Along the way we learn much about the art world of the time, but more about the complex and deeply intertwined relationships of this foursome.

Every good story needs a villain and if Rebecca Salsbury emerges as the heroine, Stieglitz comes closest to playing the antagonist.

One gets the sense that the tragedy of Stieglitz is that, like too many artists, he simply outlived his vision. Stieglitz discovered, promoted, influenced, and in some cases mentored, some of the greatest photographers and artists of the first half of the 20th century. He had the ability to make a break a career. But he can come across as resentful of those who chose to follow their own path and, especially, those who outshined him.

Today, Georgia O’Keeffe is by far the best-known member of the foursome, but it is too easy to dehumanize and define her as some kind of earth goddess floating above mere mortals. We have an image of her as a mysterious, silent and unapproachable figure in black.

One of Burke’s gifts to all of us is to paint a human portrait of O’Keeffe, whose talent and fame may have overshadowed her husband, but who was also a wife devoted to her husband and deeply hurt by his infidelity.

Alfred Stieglitz was in his 60s and Dorothy Norman was 22 when he initiated a seduction that began with what has to be some of the most cringe-worthy pickup lines ever. As Burke recounts, “Not long after giving birth to her first child, she found Stieglitz alone (in his gallery.)” Stieglitz asked her if her marriage was emotionally satisfying and asked “Is your sexual relationship good?”

As if that were not bad enough, he followed up with “Do you have enough milk to nurse your child?” Stieglitz then brushes her coat with the tip of a finger on her breast.

That this line of seduction actually worked seems proof that love, or at least lust, is not only blind but deaf as well.

If Stieglitz loved the limelight and thirsted for it until the end of his life, O’Keeffe comes across as an introverted, solitary artist who could easily become emotionally drained by people. She sought refuge in the American West and it was in the west that her artistic vision reached its apex.

While O’Keeffe and Stieglitz soldiered on in a broken marriage, Rebecca Salsbury’s and Paul Strand’s seemed to simply fade away. They retained mutual affection and a bond that endured even after they divorced and married others.

Strand, despite his talent and vision, struggled much of his life to earn a living. He felt great empathy toward working men and women, so much so that he would become a target of the FBI’s anti-communist witch-hunts, although never to the same degree as other victims of the purges.

Strand lived to be 86 and continued to photograph, concentrating mostly on documentary projects.

Rebecca’s second husband, despite being younger than her, died in 1967 of a heart attack. Rebecca, who had been in poor health for some years, was devasted and took her own life in 1968.

Ultimately, Burke’s biography humanizes these four artists and offers a compelling look into their intertwined lives. The story is not only for photographers and artists, but for anyone who cares at all about the people who influenced some of the most significant trends in art in the 20th century.

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