Never-before-printed color photographs of Georgia O'Keeffe offer a different look at the artist - Albuquerque Journal

Never-before-printed color photographs of Georgia O’Keeffe offer a different look at the artist

Malcolm Varon “Georgia O’Keeffe at Ghost Ranch, Pedernal in Background,” 1977 (print date 2021) Archival pigment photograph, loan Malcolm Varon. (Courtesy of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum)

Georgia O’Keeffe smiled.

She laughed. And she wore colors other than black.

Those revelations stem from 22 never-before-printed color photographs taken by Malcolm Varon in a new exhibition at Santa Fe’s Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. The images contradict the artist’s carefully constructed image of the serious, black-clad icon.

“Georgia O’Keeffe, A Life Well Lived: Photographs by Malcolm Varon” began as a book until it was transposed into a small exhibit revealing candid photographs of the artist taken at her homes in both Abiquiú and at Ghost Ranch.

Varon first made contact with O’Keeffe in 1968 when he photographed one of her paintings in New York. At the time, he came with the stamp of approval by photographing artwork for both The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art. O’Keeffe spotted his work in a museum catalog. She had been searching for someone who could produce an accurate record of her color choices.

“He had a very good understanding of how to capture the feel of a painting,” museum curator Ariel Plotek said. “He had a very intuitive sense of how to translate works of art into this different medium.”

Varon had left a Columbia University doctoral program to take care of his family. Photography gave him the flexibility he sought. He mastered the then-new art of color photography by experimenting and reading books. In 1966, he photographed a show at MoMA with well-known painters such as Robert Motherwell and Frank Stella.

He never took a photography class.

“I figured out the lighting you needed. I figured out how to get the glare off the painting,” Varon said. “The people at the museums didn’t know much about photography.”

He soon became the only fine art photographer O’Keeffe would trust and his access to her would soon expand into portraiture.

O’Keeffe’s manager Doris Bry asked Varon to come to New Mexico to shoot a 16-foot-wide painting titled “Sky Above Clouds IV” (1965) hanging in her Ghost Ranch garage. It was his first visit to New Mexico.

“I set up my lights,” Varon said. “I shot the painting and I slept on a dirt floor on a cot.”

He left the next day.

He returned during the summer of 1977, staying in O’Keeffe’s Abiquiú home for two months. The artist was preparing for an exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum.

Working so closely with the icon showed Varon a softer side of O’Keeffe.

“They’re still human beings, whoever they are,” Varon said. “No matter how much of a genius they are, they function as human beings.

“She was very sharp,” he continued, ” – not very tolerant of people who tried to be something they were not. She was approachable. If you were not one of the people who wanted to touch her clothes because she was an icon. People would come to the house and just stare until she came out.”

He captured images of O’Keeffe smiling and laughing.

“That was because of Juan Hamilton,” Varon said. “Juan Hamilton was the only guy who could make her smile. They had a very close, easy friendship. They treated each other with a great deal of respect. He was joking a lot. Everything was very casual. It was like being a part of someone’s house.”

Varon captured the sense of community orbiting around her. Relaxed and comfortable, she shows no self-consciousness in front of the camera.

“He hesitates to call it a friendship with O’Keeffe, but he spent a lot of time with her at her houses,” Plotek said. “You feel that she almost forgets that he’s there.”

Varon’s photograph of O’Keeffe and Hamilton hiking in a field at Ghost Ranch reveals their closeness.

“Juan in his white outfit is towering over her,” he said. “That was very typical.

“Juan felt very protective about O’Keeffe,” he added. “For the 15 years Juan was there, he was on call for anything O’Keeffe needed.”

When Varon spotted an old cottonwood at Ghost Ranch, he asked O’Keeffe to sit on a gnarled branch.

“Those cottonwoods, they’re very dramatic,” Varon said. “O’Keeffe had a lot of wrinkles on her face and the bark on the tree countered that.”

Varon also set up a profile of O’Keeffe against her beloved Pedernal, a mountain she painted repeatedly.

“A lot of her paintings have the Pedernal in the background,” he said. “Because of the way the atmosphere reflects light, that mountain always looks blue. That was a big part of her vision of the Southwest landscape.”

Varon would continue to photograph fine art long after O’Keeffe’s 1986 death.

“I never intended to be a professional photographer,” he said. “It happened by accident. In another universe, I would be teaching philosophy at some university.

“I don’t think I ever showed these to her.”

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