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Photographic Memory

WASHINGTON — This city has a flair for polishing up the public images of great national icons. Maybe that’s why artist Georgia O’Keeffe selected the National Gallery of Art 60 years ago to house the collection of photographs by her...

WASHINGTON — This city has a flair for polishing up the public images of great national icons. Maybe that’s why artist Georgia O’Keeffe selected the National Gallery of Art 60 years ago to house the collection of photographs by her late husband, artist Alfred Stieglitz.

Standing guard over Stieglitz’s flame is Sarah Greenough, the gallery’s photographic curator, who in turn works under the watchful eye of sculptor Juan Hamilton, the late artist’s personal representative. Over the years, the two have worked together on four major Stieglitz shows at the National Gallery. The most recent one, featuring never-before-exhibited nudes of O’Keeffe, is on display here until Sept. 2, when it moves to Houston.

But theirs remains a controlled version of the artist’s work. In all its shows, the gallery has never once exhibited an image of Stieglitz’s mistress, heiress Dorothy Norman, who died in 1997 at age 92.

A photographer, writer, editor and arts patron, Norman was newly married in 1927 when she wandered into Stieglitz’s art gallery, the Intimate Gallery on Park Avenue. Stieglitz became her lover and mentor, encouraging her interest in taking photographs. Norman, who later shot Lewis Mumford, Theodore Dreiser, John Cage and Jawaharlal Nehru, was a founding member of New York City’s Liberal Party, and an ardent supporter of liberal causes, including independence for India and Israel. In the Thirties, she even put out a periodical called “Twice a Year” that included stories she wrote about Stieglitz and recollections about events in his life.

In its current exhibition, the National Gallery not only omits any reference to Norman, but in an enormous two volume catalog, the Key Set, detailing the collection of the 1,642 Stieglitz photographs O’Keeffe bequeathed to the Gallery, Norman’s portraits are shown without a biographical explanation while Stieglitz’s relationship to everyone from his housekeeper to friends like author Sherwood Anderson and artists John Marin, Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley and Edward Steichen are detailed.

“That is a mistake,” says Greenough, who describes the artist’s mistress as “a devoted follower of Stieglitz who came to his Intimate Gallery frequently.”

Still, she denies that the omission was a political move. “I personally don’t think Stieglitz’s portraits of Norman are his better photographs,” says Greenough. “Norman appears very simpering in most of them.”

Instead of working with the images of Norman, which are smaller than other photos Stieglitz shot at the end of his life, Greenough included larger works in the current exhibition — shots of the landscape around Lake George, studies of New York City and portraits of an angry and betrayed O’Keeffe, whose subsequent breakdown caused Stieglitz to cool his affair with Norman.

But then, whether O’Keeffe would have wanted portraits of Norman shown next to her own is anyone’s guess.

“The only stipulation O’Keeffe made in donating the collection of photographs to the National Gallery was that it be kept intact, and that things such as Dorothy Norman not be added,” says Juan Hamilton, O’Keeffe’s former personal assistant, interviewed by telephone from his home in Maui, Hawaii.

But while Greenough writes in her preface to the catalog that photos of Norman were removed from the Key Set and given to Norman herself, “no doubt to spare O’Keeffe,” Hamilton insists Stieglitz need not have bothered.

“Miss O’Keeffe didn’t exclude them from the collection,” he says. “She was a very contemporary-thinking woman. She was not a jealous woman. She did not want to exclude the reality that Norman existed. She was getting on in her life, working on her paintings.”

Hamilton, who teasingly describes himself as “O’Keeffe’s Dorothy Norman,” was a 26-year-old potter in 1972 when O’Keeffe, 84, hired him as a handyman at her home in Abiquiu, N.M. He and Greenough, who are currently collaborating on a two-volume book called “Selected Letters of Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz,” due out in 2006, met when she was working on her dissertation on Stieglitz’s Cloud Photographs. Their involvement with both artists’ work has continued ever since.

Hamilton, who became O’Keeffe’s personal assistant and companion as she lost her eyesight, was granted power of attorney over all her affairs in 1978. And in 1986, Greenough became the National Gallery’s first research curator of photography. But that was also the year Hamilton — who along with his wife and two young children had lived with O’Keeffe — landed in the national spotlight. At the time of her death O’Keeffe’s will revealed she had bequeathed him 70 percent of her estate, including $65 million in art, thousands of valuable photo negatives from Stieglitz, and three homes. O’Keeffe’s family sued and out of the settlement came the nonprofit Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation.

Having devoted so much of his life to the ledgend of the O’Keeffe-Stiegliz partnership, it’s not suprising Hamilton, like Greenough, is quick to dismiss Norman as inconsequential. “Norman was a young woman who sat at Stieglitz’s feet, wrote down every word he uttered, and treated him like a god,” he says. “Stieglitz and O’Keeffe stayed married until his death. Dorothy Norman was just a blip on the screen, so to speak. In the end, Stieglitz loved O’Keeffe and she loved him.”