By John Joss
Thirty-seven years is a long time to carry a small smooth stone.
“I’m still carrying the flat, black stone that artist Georgia O’Keeffe gave to me in 1974, the one she picked up near the gate of her Ghost Ranch studio in Abiquiu, New Mexico, just before she said good-bye after our remarkable photography session one day in September,” remembers Christopher Springmann.
“Here, you keep this one . . . it’ll bring you luck,” O’Keeffe said laughing to me, pressing the stone in my hand, then carefully curling my fingers around the cool object. I looked at her hands, then glanced up, leaning over to kiss her the check. “How sweet . . .” she said, feigning embarrassment, with a twinkle in her eye and a smile to break your heart.
Remarkably, photographer Christopher Springmann’s portraits of Georgia O’Keeffe have only been published once in a magazine. The original slides are in perfect condition, shot on archival Kodachrome film. “There’s never been a limited edition of any of the photographs, only a handful of small unsigned prints as gifts for friends,” Springmann said.
The pictures are elegant in their simplicity, showing O’Keeffe at age 86 at her Abiquiu home and Ghost Ranch studio, surround by her objects of artistic inspiration. O’Keeffe sits under a striking Alexander Calder mobile which floats above the Kiva-style fireplace at home, surrounded by rocks she collected. The dramatic cover portrait of O’Keeffe is hauntingly intense, her facial smile lines etched by shadow, her white scarf framed by a black dress, set-off by a silver spiral pin, a gift from artist Alexander Calder. Then, she walks among the textural landscapes and stunning vistas at Ghost Ranch, including Chimney Rock, accompanied by a beloved Chow. Scenes include native vegetation, plus stark trees, weathered benches covered with rocks, a trademark skull on the Earth-colored adobe wall. Often O’Keeffe is pictured accompanied by her companion, Juan Hamilton.
This unique body of work recently came to the attention of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe. The Museum’s Curator visited Springmann in San Francisco, acquired one image for their permanent collection and reproduction in the upcoming book (and show) “Georgia O’Keeffe At Home.”
“Georgia O’Keeffe was 86 and I was 29, on assignment for America Illustrated, an arts-and-culture publication,” said Springmann. “I was surprised to be there, especially given O’Keeffe’s reputation for turning down virtually every interview and photography request, leading to her well-deserved nickname, ‘The woman who said No!’ And why not? Rather than being reclusive, O’Keeffe was busy with work, yet she found America Illustrated appealing, especially the distribution to Eastern Europe, and thus took the time to be photographed by me.”
“One thing I’ll always remember was her graciousness,” recalls Springmann. “Here was a living legend, a national treasure, photographed by the greats of American photography: Arnold Newman, Life’s John Loengard, Yousuf Karsh, yet here I was at age 29. O’Keeffe treated me with such respect as a fellow artist. In fact, she inquired of me over and over again, ‘How can I help you? What would you like? Tell me more about your work . .. ‘”
“I can only hope that my photographs convey the feelings and opportunity I had that day with Georgia O’Keeffe. I treasure the stone but the real gift Georgia O’Keeffe gave me was her cooperation, passion and a sense of how to live with style. ‘Yes and Thank You’ were the words she used most often that day.’”
Post-Script: The O’Keeffe assignment that almost didn’t happen.
You know that cynical cliché? “No good deed goes unpunished?” That’s never been Christopher Springmann’s problem, as this intuitive photographer has always answered the door, often not knowing what or who was on the other side.
Springmann was in Santa Fe, New Mexico, finishing shooting a “city story” for America Illustrated. The project was done, the film secured, clothes were packed, the flight back to San Francisco left in three hours and . . . the phone rang in Springmann’s hotel room.
On the other end was Lee Battaglia, photo editor for America Illustrated, a seasoned-pro with a long, previous history at National Geographic, which Springmann had also free-lanced for. As Springmann tells it, he admired Lee, who was decent and fair, someone who loved photography as an art, an editor who prized personal initiative and creativity.
Lee had some news and he was excited.
“Chris, we just got permission to photograph the cover subject, an artist . . . she finally said yes, and, oh, man, has this been touch and go all the way. The shoot is tomorrow, little North of you, a place called Abiquiu.”
Springmann paused and listened carefully.
“But I gotta tell you, Chris, the budget is gone on this one, so I have to appeal to . .. your sense of patriotism, so here’s the deal. I’d like to ask you to donate a day of your photography . . . to your Country. That’s the best I can do.”
Springmann thought back to the year he’d spent in Vietnam as a freelancer for TIME, to the people he’d met who’d given lots to their Country, many, MANY days including, for some, . all the rest of their days. Seemed like the right thing to do, thought Springmann.
“Sure, Lee, no problem, I’ll change the flight and . .. oh, yeah, who’s this artist you want photographed?”
“Georgia O’Keeffe . . . .”
The rest, as they say, is history.