Yousuf Karsh’s Portrait of Georgia O’Keeffe

By the late 1950s, portrait photographer Yousuf Karsh had become as much of a celebrity as his sitters. During the decade he photographed the most famous artists in the world, including Pablo Picasso, Alberto Giacometti and Georgia O’Keeffe.

Karsh went to photograph O’Keeffe in Abiquiu, New Mexico, where the artist had lived for ten years. O’Keeffe was a pioneer of twentieth century art, known as the ‘mother of American Modernism.’ She is known for her distinct, bold depictions of flowers, dramatic landscapes and images of stark whitewashed bones in the New Mexico desert. Karsh greatly admired the legendary artist and was impressed that she was still working as she approached 70. Karsh’s use of theatrical lighting had come to define his style, with his sitters often illuminated by his multiplicity of flood, spot and background lights. In this photograph, though, he chose to photograph the artist her outside her home, in the natural light of the entrance, because she said that she fell in love with the house because of the doorway. In a departure from his usual dramatic style of stark studio lighting, Karsh utilised the natural light of the Southwest to illuminate her striking profile.

Speaking about O’Keefe, Karsh said: “I expected to find in her personality some of the poetic intensity of her paintings. I found intensity, but the austere intensity of dedication to her work.” The portrait was hung in O’Keeffe’s Abiquiu home, now a museum of the Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation.

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