OGUNQUIT, Maine — "Todd Webb: Georgia O'Keeffe & the American West" has a rather grand title. That it's not a grand-scale show constitutes much of its charm and merit. It runs through Sept. 27 at the Ogunquit Museum of American Art.
The exhibition consists of just 20 photographs, all black- and-white, taken between 1961 and 1977. Only 14 actually include O'Keeffe. The others are of the painter's beloved Ghost Ranch and her home and studio, in Abiquiu, N.M. It's pleasing to note that the studio is as spare and desert-clean as O'Keefe's art.
A contradiction between grandeur and domesticity is the point here. Webb, a longtime friend, presents O'Keeffe (1887-1986) as person rather than personage. That seamed, seemingly wind-carved face belongs to one of the most familiar and imposing figures in 20th-century American art. It also belongs to an actual person — someone who might stand at her stove making stew, work an oar on a rafting trip, defer to her dogs in a portrait, lie on the ground while making a sketch. Webb shows her doing all of these things. Conversely, he also has at least one picture in which O'Keeffe stands beneath a Southwestern sky, her face framed by clouds, looking as monumental as any butte or mesa.
The most amusing picture shows O'Keeffe looking through a Leica. No painter ever had a more charged relationship with the camera. Alfred Stieglitz, O'Keeffe's husband, took more than 300 portraits of her before and after they were married. As a body of work, the images have an intensity nearly unrivaled in photographic history. O'Keeffe isn't alone in having been both artist and muse (think of Lee Miller with Man Ray, Dora Maar with Picasso, Frida Kahlo with Diego Rivera), but no other left such a camera legacy.
It was through Stieglitz that Webb met O'Keeffe. Just beginning as a professional photographer in the early '40s, he showed his work to an encouraging Stieglitz. After the older man's death, Webb remained friends with O'Keeffe. She urged him and his wife, Lucille, to settle in Santa Fe. Later, the Webbs moved to Maine, which adds a down-home (or Down East) element to the show.
The Webb exhibition makes for a revealing contrast with "The Painter of Maine: Photographs of Marsden Hartley," which runs at the Bates College Museum of Art through Oct. 24. Both shows are part of the Maine Photo Project (www.mainephotoproject.org). Over the course of this year, 37 venues — from Swan's Island to Eastport, Orono to Wiscasset — are mounting nearly four dozen photography exhibitions featuring Maine photographers or Maine-related subjects. "Todd Webb Photographs," for example, opens at the University of Southern Maine's Portland campus on Sept. 1.
The Ogunquit and Bates shows are similar in scale and subject: photographic portraits of an American Modernist painter who belonged to the Stieglitz circle. They chiefly differ in two ways: variety and, for lack of a better word, presence. The Bates show offers portraits of Hartley by multiple photographers; Ogunquit is all Webb. As for presence, well, Hartley had a striking face, but it wasn't Georgia O'Keeffe-striking. Of course, whose face is?
& the American West
At Ogunquit Museum of American Art, 543 Shore Road, Ogunquit, Maine, through Sept. 27. 207-646-4909, www.ogunquit museum.org
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.