Georgia O'Keeffe Hands by Alfred Stieglitz
We recommend this book as a worthy addition to any photographer's library.
I've always been fascinated by photographs of hands and gestures. In the normal use of the word, "portrait" means a photograph of someone's face. The problem with this is, of course, is that most often a portrait of a face involves the two-way street of you looking at them and them looking back. A relationship is implied — and then complicated with the imposition of the photographer in the triangle. Photographs of hands sidestep this knotty relationship business and present a glimpse at the personality of the person photographed without all the layer upon layer of direct eye contact.
Referring to the above image, the National Gallery of Art describes Stieglitz's photograph as follows:
Stieglitz's decision to consider his photographs of O'Keeffe's hands "portraits" of her in their own right, rather than simply studies for a larger composition, is certainly indebted to the sculptural fragments made by Rodin and pursued to the point of abstraction by Rodin's one-time assistant Brancusi. Yet Stieglitz cultivated here above all the sense of photography as fragmentary, a partial viewing that lends itself to juxtaposition and serial development. Stieglitz called his ongoing studies of O'Keeffe a "composite portrait," meaning one that developed over time, piece by piece. This closely framed view of ecstatically clawing hands, sinewy fingers pressing into flesh, gives just one aspect of O'Keeffe's multifaceted personality as shaped through this portrait series.
Photographs of hands generally consist of two characteristics: the physical condition of the skin (which often gives us a clue to the person's life), and the gesture (which offers a clue to the person's emotion or mood at the time of exposure). We have no idea why O'Keeffe is making this odd gesture, but the photograph is filled with tension, possibly anger or anxiety. Stieglitz used a shutter speed to slow to freeze her hands and in doing so the motions gives us this slight blur — an enhancement that increases the emotional tension. We see a moment, as well as a portrait.
The emotional tension is wonderful, but it's not the whole story. I get the feeling that O'Keeffe is communicating more, but in a language of hand gestures that I don't understand. The circle made by her right thumb and index finger is more than a gesture — it's a symbol for something, distance, roundness, closeness, something. The way her left hand pulls on the skin of her right palm is so odd — is it one hand attacking another? There is a sense of fear or hiding. Wouldn't you love to know what O'Keeffe was saying at the moment of exposure? We don't know, and I think that mystery pulls us into the image. Because we cannot hear, we must see — so we look with greater intensity.
In the Orient, the gesture of hands is a study that dates back to the beginnings of civilization. Known as mudra, there are thousands of hand positions that symbolize various concepts or states of mind. I doubt Stieglitz many photographs of O'Keeffe's hands are based on any knowledge of mudra, but I wouldn't be surprised if some scholar discovered a long lost passage where Stieglitz waxes on about mudra positions.
And here is an idea for you gallerists and curators out there. So many photographers have made photographs of hands, why not assemble an exhibition or publication on this sub-genre? I think it would be fascinating.
Add your comments and observations to the discussion by using the "Comments" link at the bottom of this post.
Plus, bonus audio commentary about this image is available to members of LensWork Online.