Alfred Stieglitz/Georgia O’Keeffe Archive

A conversation with Nancy Kuhl

Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keeffe Paintings at An American Place gallery
Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keeffe Paintings at An American Place gallery, 1939 – YCAL MSS 85

Nancy Kuhl, of The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, talks with Choice about the Alfred Stieglitz/Georgia O’Keeffe Archive, an online archive documenting the prolific lives of Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O’Keeffe.

How would you describe the collection to a perfect stranger?

There are few couples more prominent in the universe of twentieth-century American culture than Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946) and Georgia O’Keeffe (1886-1986). Stieglitz attracted, encouraged, and promoted a wide circle of photographers, writers, and artists of all types through his exhibition galleries and the publications he produced. O’Keeffe, who married Stieglitz in 1924, was to become one of the most celebrated and influential American artists of the 20th century. The Alfred Stieglitz/Georgia O’Keeffe Archive at the Beinecke Library contains thousands of letters and hundreds of photographs in addition to a collection of literary manuscripts, scrapbooks, ephemera, fine art, and realia, primarily dating between 1880 and 1980, which document the lives and careers of Stieglitz and O’Keeffe.

Alfred Stieglitz, The City of Ambition photograph
Alfred Stieglitz, The City of Ambition, ca. 1910 – YCAL MSS 85

How did the collection come to the Beinecke Library?

This rich collection is frequently consulted by a wide range of researchers, from senior scholars to Yale undergraduates. Students of art history, photography, American studies, and literature consult the collection to learn about the lives and work of individual artists (including O’Keeffe and Stieglitz, of course, but also Marsden Hartley, Charles Demuth, Arthur Dove, Sherwood Anderson, Gertrude Stein and Mabel Dodge Luhan, to name only a few possibilities) as well as important events and trends in the Modernist Era (the 1913 Armory Show, for example, or the establishment and development of creative communities in the American Southwest). Notices about recent scholarship from the collection are frequently posted on the Library’s website — see: Fellow Linda Leavell; O’Keeffe’s Fan Mail.

The collection includes a large exchange of letters between Stieglitz and O’Keeffe. Which specific letters would you suggest that online visitors to the archive begin their explorations with? Do you have a favorite quote from these letters?

Image of letter from Georgia O’Keeffe to Alfred Stieglitz.
Letter from Georgia O’Keeffe to Alfred Stieglitz, April, 1917 – “It’s Sunday—Just after dinner—the sun is shining—the wind blowing—lots of medium-sized fluffy clouds in the sky—they make dark streaks on the plains…” – YCAL MSS 85

The Beinecke Library recently completed some extraordinary projects devoted to opening the correspondence in the Alfred Stieglitz/Georgia O’Keeffe Papers to scholars, students, and general readers in several new ways. Because Stieglitz and O’Keeffe were often in different places—Stieglitz in Manhattan or Lake George, O’Keeffe in Texas and later New Mexico—they exchanged many hundreds of letters, sometimes sending each other several letters in a single day. The couple wrote long and detailed accounts of their artists’ projects, the activities of their days, and their interactions with friends and other artists. The publication of My Faraway One: Selected Letters of Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz: Volume One, 1915-1933, edited by Sarah Greenough, begins to make this compelling correspondence available outside the Beinecke Library reading room for the first time — about: My Faraway One at Yale University Press.

Alongside the publication of My Faraway One, the Beinecke Library has completed digitization projects which make related Stieglitz and O’Keeffe archival materials available to scholars in the library and online. The projects include complete description and scanning of all the materials associated with the Stieglitz and O’Keeffe correspondence, and seamless online organization and access to both metadata and high resolution image files (Alfred Stieglitz/Georgia O’Keeffe Archive Finding Aid with links to images of Stieglitz/O’Keeffe letters). These projects simultaneously preserve and protect the fragile archival documents and make them fully accessible in their entirety to scholars all over the world.

Interested readers might start with Stieglitz’s January 20, 1916 letter to O’Keeffe, which begins, “My Dear Miss O’Keeffe: What can I say? It is impossible to put into words what I saw and felt in your drawings.…”

This archive includes more than just the works of Stieglitz and O’Keeffe—artists like Pamela Smith, Katharine N. Rhoades, Marion H. Beckett, and Charles Demuth are also featured. How does this archive characterize a community of American artists?

Image of letter from Marsden Hartley to Alfred Stieglitz.
Letter, 1912, from Marsden Hartley to Alfred Stieglitz – YCAL MSS 85

The archive includes not only examples of art works by many painters, it also includes extraordinary correspondence to both O’Keeffe and Stieglitz from writers, journalists, and influential figures in the art world. Together these artworks and documents offer a unique perspective on the communities of artists in New York and Europe in the first decades of the 20th century. O’Keeffe was a prominent painter who corresponded with other artists, and with curators, art collectors, and gallerists. Stieglitz was an advocate for aesthetic and Pictorialist photography, both in his own work and through his position as the editor of two significant journals, “Camera Notes” (1897–1902) and “Camera Work” (1902–17). He operated a series of four exhibition spaces in New York City—the Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession/“291” Gallery (1905–17), Anderson Galleries – Room 303 (1921–25), the Intimate Gallery (1925–29), and An American Place (1929–46)—in which he featured the work of international photographers he admired and a variety of modern artists he championed, including the American painters Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, John Marin, and Georgia O’Keeffe.

What can current student artists learn from this collection?

Students of the arts can find extraordinary resources in the collection for studying modern art and for understanding the ways prominent artists thought about and considered the work of their contemporaries in the early twentieth century. Among the personal letters from artists in the archive, many include impressions of the work of other artists and thoughts about emerging trends in the arts. In a letter sent from Paris in July 1912, for instance, artist Marsden Hartley discusses a recent exhibition of the work of Pablo Picasso and includes a small sketch of Picasso’s “Ma Jolie (Woman with a Guitar)” — See: Hartley to Stieglitz July 1912 page 15.

Photo of Katherine Stieglitz by Alfred Stieglitz.
Alfred Stieglitz, Autochrome Photo of Katherine Stieglitz, ca. 1910 – YCAL MSS 85

What are some challenges involved in converting the collection to a digital format? What, if anything, is lost in that transformation? What is gained?

The Beinecke Library is dedicated to making its collections accessible to readers in various formats—this includes scanning many documents to make them available online to readers at a distance. Digitizing large archival collections presents a great many logistical and technical challenges, but the availability of digital facsimiles makes our collections more widely accessible. The availability of digital facsimiles also helps to preserve fragile archival materials for the future, as many researchers can study the digital images and need not handle easily damaged original documents. We have made many documents from the Stieglitz/O’Keeffe Archive available electronically, and interested readers can find digital facsimiles of letters, photographs, manuscripts, and other documents from the collection in our Image Guide. The Library has also created an image guide specifically for our collection of Alfred Stieglitz’s autochromes, an especially fragile early photographic format. As with so many online resources derived from archival collections, serious scholars may still have to see and handle the original documents to fully understand their history, context, and significance. Nevertheless, curious viewers can learn a good deal about the collection from examining these digital facsimiles.

Photo of O’Keeffe with letter from Alfred Stieglitz.
Alfred Stieglitz, Photo of O’Keeffe with letter, 1936 – YCAL MSS 85

Where can Choice readers learn more about the Alfred Stieglitz/Georgia O’Keeffe Archive, the Yale Collection of American Literature, or the Beinecke Library?

Links to descriptive information and online resources related to O’Keeffe and Stieglitz can be found online: About the Alfred Stieglitz/Georgia O’Keeffe Archive. My Faraway One: Selected Letters of Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz: Volume One, 1915-1933, edited by Sarah Greenough, is available from the Yale University Press. Information about the Yale Collection of American Literature is also available online; look for collection information, notes about recent acquisitions, announcements of upcoming events, and more on our collection websites. If you wish to visit the Beinecke, explore collections online, or discover new information about collections, events, and library resources, visit the Beinecke Library online.

Nancy Kuhl headshot

About the interviewee:

Nancy Kuhl is Curator of Poetry of the Yale Collection of American Literature at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University; she is the author of exhibition catalogs, including, Intimate Circles: American Women in the Arts, and collections of poetry including Pine to Sound and Suspend. Information about the Yale Collection of American Literature can be found on the Beinecke Library web pages.

This interview was conducted by Emma Raddatz. She is a publishing intern at Choice and a student at Wesleyan University.