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spacer Georgia O'Keeffe, Abiqui, New Mexico, 1977
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Georgia O'Keeffe, Abiqui, New Mexico, 1977

This was shot a few days shy of O’Keeffe’s 90th birthday, at the New Mexico home she called the Ghost Ranch. Perched at an elevation of 7,000 feet, it seemed almost like one of her paintings: spare, simple, ascetic. Furniture was covered with white linen. The walls and ceilings were totally white. Hundreds of sun-bleached animal skulls were scattered about. The dirt road coming up to the place passed several abandoned pueblos, and was marked with a sign declaring: “ROAD CLOSED DEAD END.” O’Keeffe had been invited to DC for her birthday, to attend a screening of a PBS special on her life. But she declined. “I can’t think of a worse way to spend a birthday, at a party in Washington,” she told me. I had been trying for years to meet the notoriously reclusive artist, and she had steadfastly declined. Ansel Adams slyly arranged to have her to dinner when I was staying with him in Carmel so that he could introduce us, and O’Keeffe ultimately invited me to visit her in New Mexico, with the express condition that there be no photographs taken. We had been out walking her two Chows in the rugged hills that afternoon, and I had made a couple of pictures of them with an SX-70. O’Keeffe, ever the artist, was fascinated by the camera, which was the first Polaroid that processed film without a protective, peel-off cover: the image slowly developed before your eyes, which she slyly noted was the way all art evolves, at least conceptually. O’Keeffe once burned forty of her paintings, disgusted with what critics had written about them. “There was one, ‘Horse Skull with Pink Rose,’ that people read everything into,” she said. “In fact, a friend who was staying with me had left some blue pajamas on the table. I had laid a skull on it. I was upstairs and the doorbell rang and I was holding a rose. I came downstairs and I thought it would be silly to answer the door holding a flower, so I stuck it in the horse’s eye. I had no great ideas about life and death. I just came back from the door and there it was waiting for me to paint it.” When we got back to the main house after out walk, O’Keeffe sat down on a bench to catch her breath, and asked if I could make an SX-70 snap of her, which I did. She watched the image of her face slowly materialize, and told me that the silver brooch she was wearing had been made for her by Alexander Calder a half century earlier. Then she said, “The other day I was looking at some old photos of me that Stieglitz had made. I looked at some of those photos and I thought, ‘If that person were that age today, it would be a different person.’ We do change so. And then I got up and walked past a mirror, and I had forgotten that my hair had turned white. I saw a person and I didn’t know it was me.” Eventually O’Keeffe asked, “Did you bring your real camera?” I rarely traveled anywhere without my Leica M2, and told her I had it. “You may make one exposure,” she said. I actually squeezed off two frames. When I returned home, I printed this image and mailed it to her. A few weeks later a one-sentence letter arrived in the mail that to this day I still consider the greatest thank you note I ever received: “Didn’t your mother ever tell you not to take pictures of women with their mouths open?”

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