Carolyn Burke: Rebecca & Paul & Georgia & Alfred

Carolyn Burke
photo: Paul Schraub

I first met Carolyn Burke in 1995, when we discussed her biography of the early 20th-century artist Mina Loy. A decade later, Burke and Hazel Rowley shared some of their correspondence about literary biography with me. I’m delighted to introduce you to her latest book, Foursome, a group history exploring the interlocking lives of the photographers Alfred Stieglitz and Paul Strand and the painters Georgia O’Keefe and Rebecca Salsbury James. Over a span of decades, their personal and artistic passions frequently overlapped one another, until each of them owed something of their development to the other three. Sorting that story out wasn’t easy, but, as Burke writes in this guest essay, it was an opportunity that came along at the perfect moment.

Writing my way to the end of No Regrets, I seemed to be lingering, in my imagination, at Edith Piaf’s grave—where I first felt the sense of communion with the chanteuse that prompted me to write about her. I enjoyed writing that book so much that I could not imagine devoting myself to another birth-to-death biography.

What I did not realize until later was that in bidding adieu to PIaf, I was sensing the need for a break from the linear model of life-writing. In retrospect, it seems that writing lives of Mina Loy, Lee Miller, and Piaf has pointed the way to the idea of a group portrait, the kind of book that emboldened me to embrace the role of story-teller.

When I was wondering what to do next, an artist friend told me about a little-known ‘modern woman’ named Rebecca Salsbury James— “your kind of subject,” he said. She was just that, I learned from the scant material I could find about her. Still, Rebecca’s perspective on her years with the group of creative spirits around the photographer and cultural impresario Alfred Stieglitz—as the wife of his protégé, Paul Strand, as the close friend of Georgia O’Keeffe (who would marry Stieglitz), and as Stieglitz’s muse and correspondent—allowed me to imagine a narrative that interwove the lives of its protagonists, a tapestry, or, as I would come to see later on, the Southwestern embroidery called colcha adapted by Rebecca once she moved to Taos.

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21 March 2019 | guest authors |