Sunday, July 14, 2019

Q&A with Carolyn Burke

Carolyn Burke is the author of the new book Foursome: Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O'Keeffe, Paul Strand, Rebecca Salsbury. Her other books include No Regrets: The Life of Edith Piaf and Lee Miller: A Life, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Vogue and The New Yorker. Born in Sydney, Australia, she lives in Santa Cruz, California.

Q: Why did you decide to write about these four artists in your new book, and how would you describe the dynamic among them?

A: When I was finishing my last book, a life of Edith Piaf, an artist friend told me about a recent art exhibition by a little-known “modern woman” named Rebecca Salsbury James—“your kind of subject,” he said. She was just that, I learned from the scant material I could find about her. 

After some preliminary research, it struck me that Rebecca’s perspective on her years with the group of creative spirits around the celebrated photographer and gallerist Alfred Stieglitz—as the wife of Paul Strand, his protégé, as the close friend of Georgia O’Keeffe (who would marry Stieglitz), and as Stieglitz’s muse and correspondent—called for a different kind of narrative, a group portrait set in the evolving contexts of twentieth century American art.

After introducing the cast of characters, Foursome concentrates on their changing relations in the 1920s and ‘30s, when sexual and professional imbroglios kept bringing them together and tearing them apart.

The dynamic among them was complex. Not long after the Strands married, their personal and creative lives became entangled with the older couple when Alfred began taking erotic photographs of Rebecca--in an implicit rivalry with Paul, his disciple--and when Georgia told Rebecca that she and Paul had once been so close that they considered living together.

Without Rebecca's encouragement, Georgia would probably not have settled in New Mexico, nor would Paul have left his marriage to attempt a more politically conscious photography in Mexico. And without Georgia as her surrogate sister, Rebecca would not have found her way to her own practice of art in the Southwest--the region that became, for both women, the antidote to Stieglitz's New York.

Q: You begin the book in 1921 at an exhibition of Alfred Stieglitz’s work. Why did you choose to start there?

A: All four were present at this long-awaited exhibition--the most controversial art event of the year due to its centerpiece, the nude portraits of O’Keeffe. That night, when Paul introduced Rebecca to Alfred and Georgia, saw the start of the intimate rapport between the two couples that would resonate throughout their lives and influence the course of home-grown American art. 

This event also saw the start of critical responses to O’Keeffe that described her as Stieglitz’s muse, the inspiration for his extended portrait, but failed to recognize her in her own right, as an innovative, uniquely modern American artist. 

Q: How did you research the book, and what did you learn that especially surprised or fascinated you?

A: I worked at the Beinecke Manuscript and Rare Book Library in New Haven, where the vast Stieglitz/O’Keeffe archives are held, along with most of Rebecca Salsbury’s papers, and at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, which holds Strand’s papers, including his letters from Rebecca. The Strand collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art was another invaluable source. 

Research in these archives was enhanced by the interviews with a number of people who had known the foursome, whose recollections allowed me to understand aspects of their story that might otherwise have escaped me.

I was fascinated by both the richness of sensual detail and sincere attempts at emotional honesty in the foursome’s correspondence. This period may have been a high point of letter writing, a period when people like my four tried to reveal themselves and their imaginations in their letters—unlike today, when letter writing is almost a lost art. 

In the same way, I was surprised by how well a close reading of their letters revealed the shifts and turns in their relationships, as well as their shared language of metaphor and wit-play. It was a delight to watch Stieglitz and O’Keeffe fall in love by mail, through their reflections on each other’s art works.

Q: What do you see as these artists’ legacies today?

A: On the one hand, there are their individual reputations; on the other, the striking fact of their commitment to a group vision. 

The gradual establishment of photography as a recognized art form might not have occurred without Stieglitz’s championing and his own superb body of work; Strand’s balancing of compositional concerns with conscious social engagement underlies what we perhaps take for granted as the role of the photographer today.

O’Keeffe’s independence of spirit and iconic uses of the American landscape continue to inspire legions of admirers: the work of Salsbury Strand James (to give her all her surnames) has now been rediscovered in the context of the Southwestern context that inspired her to adopt genres deemed “minor” by the art establishment—which, in recent decades, have been embraced by the mainstream.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: It’s too soon to say. I know that my next book will be much more personal than previous ones--not an autobiography but a narrative that has grown out of personal experience. It may take shape as a memoir, or it may become something else altogether.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Foursome could not have been written without the participation of Lance Sprague, the artist who introduced me to Rebecca Salsbury. As I grappled with the convergences and divergences of the foursome’s lives, our dialogue helped me grasp the affinities in their aesthetic practice and imagine ways for readers to experience them by retelling the story through the choice and arrangement of the illustrations.    

Our collaboration might have amused the four could they have watched us reweaving the tapestry of their lives. Collaboration is probably not the term that the Stieglitz circle would have used. Just the same, this process of writing Foursome showed me how thinking in terms of a group biography can reveal narrative patterns that portray each subject’s singularity while pointing up the serendipity of their encounters.

Readers who would like to know more or share their thoughts on these matters are welcome to write c/o my website. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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