December 16, 2013
The photograph above shows the painter Georgia O’Keeffe engaged in conversation with Orville Cox, the head wrangler at Ghost Ranch, on the rim of Canyon de Chelly. Adams and O’Keeffe were part of a group of friends that had organized a monthlong camping trip, during which both artists created new work. Orville Cox acted as their guide.
The location of this photograph was of particular significance, with Adams once remarking, “Some of my best photographs have been made in and on the rim of the canyon.” Though Adams’s large-format photographs of American landscapes made him an icon, this portrait of O’Keeffe and Cox is unsurpassable.
Deep, heavy clouds loom over them, and her wide-brimmed hat and black coat pulled tight give the portrait an otherworldly quality. Adams shot this photograph with a discreet 35-mm. camera, and O’Keeffe and Cox seem unguarded, unaware of anything beyond this moment. O’Keeffe’s face, lit by a flash of sun and wearing a knowing smile, hints at a shared secret; Cox’s bowed head seems to confirm this.
Adams, writing about the photograph, gave little of the secret away:
I remember that we watched a group of Navajos riding their horses westward along the wash edge, and we could occasionally hear their singing and the echoes from the opposite cliffs. The cedar and pinyon forests along the plateau rim were gnarled and stunted and fragrant in the sun.
Ansel Adams and Georgia O’Keeffe first met in Taos, New Mexico, in 1929, and remained lifelong friends. His work and hers, both connected to natural forms and inspired by the land, have been published and exhibited together. O’Keeffe was particularly fond of Ghost Ranch and northern New Mexico, “such a beautiful, untouched lonely feeling place, such a fine part of what I call the ‘Faraway.’ It is a place I have painted before … even now I must do it again.”
Adams recognized how important this landscape was to O’Keeffe, and how she dedicated herself to it. “The Southwest is O’Keeffe’s land,” he once wrote. “No one else has extracted from it such a style and color, or has revealed the essential forms so beautifully as she has in her paintings.”
Adams was a master of tonal light, and the depth of this image and its flawless composition place it somewhere between the intimate and the expansive. The dichotomy between the two people creates a portrait that is incredibly compelling and seductive. The action of the picture—the nature of the conversation—is ambiguous, and this suggestive interaction is, for me, what makes the photograph. It has a quiet power, and I never tire of looking at it, or wondering about it.