“Foursome: Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keeffe, Paul Strand, Rebecca Salsbury” (Alfred A. Knopf), by Carolyn Burke
It’s been almost a century since Alfred Stieglitz scandalized polite society with nude photographs of his lover and soon-to-be-wife Georgia O’Keeffe.
One of the visitors to his 1921 exhibition was Paul Strand, the brilliant photographer who’d been part of the group of artists nurtured by Stieglitz at his legendary gallery 291 and in his magazine Camera Work.
Accompanying Strand to the show was his future wife Rebecca Salsbury, a wealthy young woman whose father had managed Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and who had artistic aspirations of her own.
Over the years the two couples would forge numerous personal and professional bonds that Carolyn Burke painstakingly explores in her ambitious group portrait titled “Foursome.”
Burke says the idea for the book came to her as she was reading Salsbury’s letters, in which the least well-known of the four sought to understand her role in their complicated web of relationships.
“I came to believe that my four characters’ search to conciliate the often contradictory pulls of personal and artistic life still speaks to us a century later,” says Burke.
But with four lives to account for, Burke, the author of biographies of Edith Piaf and Mina Loy, succumbs to the temptation to stuff too much in, stringing together one quote after another from letters, articles and other sources.
Salsbury comes across as feisty and smart — like O’Keeffe, she posed in the nude for the libidinous Stieglitz — but her accomplishments are dwarfed by those of the others, all giants of 20th-century modernism.
Yet Burke gives equal time to all of them, often dwelling on the intimate details of their private lives, especially their ailments, flirtations and infidelities.
We learn, for instance, that Stieglitz and O’Keeffe referred to one another’s private parts as “Miss Fluffy” and “Little Man” or “The Little Fella,” often abbreviated “T.L.F.”
Too much information? Good reporting? Or both? Certainly, the bibliography is extensive, and Burke has clearly done her homework.
She quotes early critics of O’Keeffe’s work, who tended to ascribe its power to a specifically female, rather than universal, creative genius.
Such sexist interpretations would seem to cry out for analysis in light of today’s more feminist-oriented criticism, but Burke just moves on.
While there’s much to admire about the book, ultimately it could use a sharper focus — more art history, and less gossip.