A Decisive Moment:
“Georgia O’Keeffe and Orville Cox”

“Georgia O’Keeffe and Orville Cox, Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona, 1937”
by Ansel Adams

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“It is impossible to explain or comprehend the miracle of the eye and mind in such feats as anticipating a “decisive moment.” We are concerned not only with a single aspect of the image, but with the complexity of the entire experience, a matter of the moment but also involving the realities of light, environment, and the fluid progress of perception from first glance to release of shutter.”– Ansel Adams

Ansel’s portrait of O’Keeffe and Cox was made at the rim of Canyon de Chelly. “I was walking around with my Zeiss Contax,” he wrote, “and I observed O’Keeffe and Orville Cox in breezy conversation standing on a rock slope above me. They were engaged in a bit of banter. The moment was now.”

In the spring of 1935, Dr. Carl Bauer, the U.S. representative of Carl Zeiss, had presented Ansel with his first 35mm camera, a Zeiss Contax. Filled with enthusiasm for the “miraculous instrument” and excited by the photographic possibilities of the small format, he spent the following summer in the Sierra in what he described as an “orgy” photographing “everything from clouds to water bubbles, people, mules, rocks, and flowers,” (Stillman, Chapter 8: Georgia O’Keeffe and Orville Cox in Looking at Ansel Adams: The Photographs and the Man, pp. 95-101). 

Ansel with his Zeiss Contax, near Bolinas, California, 1940
Photograph by Nancy Newhall

That winter Camera Craft magazine published Ansel’s article on 35mm photography with the title “My First Ten Weeks with a Contax.” He wrote: “The camera is for life and for people, the swift and intense moments of existence…,” and his lighthearted photograph of O’Keeffe proves the point… Unlike the formal portraits that Ansel carefully composed, this photograph was taken on the spur of the moment. O’Keeffe flirtaciously glances over her shoulder at Cox, who looks shly down. “This was one special moment requiring the spontaneous capability of my 35mm camera, not the cumbersome and time-consuming setting up of my view camera.” 

35mm proof sheet of images made at Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona, 1937

When I have a subject that I feel is unusual I try always to make a duplicate exposure simply because there might be an accident like this one or a defect in the image area. But if the subject is fleeting, like the facial expressions in this image, there is no way to make duplicates.” – Ansel Adams

Unfortunately the negative for the picture of O’Keeffe and Cox was badly damaged. The reel of film “slipped out of the clothes-pin on the drying wire, fell to the floor, and was stepped on [in the dark]! The only frame out of the thirty-six that was damaged was this one, by far the best of the roll,” Ansel wrote. The resulting scratches across the center of the picture must be meticulously spotted out in a fine print, a difficult task (Stillman, p. 97). Consequently, Ansel printed this image very infrequently over the course of his life.  

Few prints of this image exist, outside of the Museum Set. Ansel rarely printed from the negative until late in his career, and all most of the examples he made were in an 11×14 inch format. This superb example is in “Pristine” condition, with evidence of studio retouching typical of this image. This is the first time in over 20 years that The Ansel Adams Gallery is offering an original gelatin silver print of “Georgia O’Keeffe and Orville Cox, Canyon de Chelly, Arizona, 1937”.

Georgia O’Keeffe at Yosemite (1938)
by Ansel Adams

“Ansel’s portrait of O’Keeffe and Cox is one of his best, and it is one of the few portraits that he included in his major retrospective at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1974” according to Andrea Stillman. A 7×9 inch print of this image will accompany a number of other portraits by Adams, in the upcoming museum exhibition, “Ansel Adams in Our Time” at the de Young Museum, to show the breadth and diversity of Adams’ life’s work. 

For more information about this striking and historic photograph, please contact Brittany Moorefield by email or by phone at (857) 523-8100.

  “This photograph recalls for me the brilliant afternoon light and the gentle wind rising from the canyon below. I remember that we watched a group of Navajos riding their horses westward along the wash edge, and we could occasionally hear their singing and the echoes from the opposite cliffs. The cedar and the pinyon forests along the plateau ridge were gnarled and stunted and fragrant in the sun. The Southwest is O’Keeffe’s land; no one else has extracted from it such style and color, or has revealed the essential forms so beautifully as she has in her paintings.”