Alfred Stieglitz was the most famous photographer in America, and a forceful advocate for advanced art of all kinds, when a nervous 25-year-old Paul Strand brought his photographs to Stieglitz’s influential Manhattan gallery at 291 Fifth Ave. in 1915. 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.”
The Stieglitz-Strand connection was the first in the tangled weave of personal and professional ambitions anatomized in “Foursome,” Carolyn Burke’s sharp-eyed group portrait of two artistic couples.
The year after Strand arrived, Georgia O’Keeffe dispatched a roll of her charcoal sketches to 291, inspired by the gallery’s exalted atmosphere. Her swirling expressions of “a woman’s feeling” so overwhelmed Stieglitz that he put them on display without telling the artist. When she stormed in to complain, it launched a charged relationship in which O’Keeffe played multiple roles as Stieglitz’s protegee, muse, lover and — reluctantly, in 1924 — wife.
Rebecca Salsbury, who married Strand in 1922, completed the quartet. 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. 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. Although Burke’s treatment of her four subjects is deliberately dispassionate, she does seem to empathize with Salsbury, insecure about her abilities and desperate for respect as an artist.
O’Keeffe, by contrast, would not be distracted from her drive to paint. Stieglitz liked to fill their homes with admirers and never seemed to need to be alone. O’Keeffe did: She firmly designated for herself a studio Stieglitz assumed they would share, and when the socializing made that an insufficient refuge, she left town altogether.