Kathleen Pyne's richly illustrated and well-documented volume dedicated to the life and work of photographer Anne Brigman (1869-1950) is the culmination of two decades of research on the part of the author. Anne Brigman: The Photographer of Enchantment is the first true biographical study of this fascinating woman, drawing on many previously unpublished sources as well as the work of Brigman's artistic and literary contemporaries. In the Introduction, Pyne situates Brigman's work relative to photographer and gallerist Alfred Stieglitz's evolving sense of modernism in the early 20th century, particularly his growing interest in the work of his future wife, Georgia O'Keeffe. At the same time, she demonstrates that Brigman's inspiration was very different from that of Stieglitz's New York circle, a topic the author, now Professor Emerita of Art History at the University of Notre Dame, explored in a 2007 book, Modernism and the Feminine Voice: O'Keeffe and the Women of the Stieglitz Circle; rather, she sites it in the geography, spirituality, and ethnic diversity of locations that played key roles in the photographer's life. Pyne's central thesis, that Brigman's creativity was shaped by the places in which she lived and worked, gives the book its structure. Each chapter focuses on a location that informed what the author calls Brigman's "psychogeography". (5)
Chapter 1 examines the lifelong influences coming from the photographer's birth and early years living in a paradisal setting on the island of O'ahu. Among the illustrations are family photos of Brigman's forebears as well as contemporary photographs of some of the areas of the Nu'uanu Valley where the photographer played as a child.
Brigman and her family left Hawai'i for California in 1885. Chapter 2 focuses on San Francisco and the cosmopolitan, multicultural society there that first shaped the artist. Married to a sea captain in 1894, Brigman spent several years traveling the Pacific with her husband before settling into life among the Bay Area's creative elite.
Her rise as a photographer began in 1902 with the acceptance of five of her prints at the Second San Francisco Photographic Salon. In 1903, Brigman was introduced to the work of Stieglitz's Photo-Secession, which had formed the previous year in New York. Under the influence of the Secessionists, she experimented with Symbolist-inspired themes of "etherealized womanhood" like those being explored by Gertrude Käsebier, Clarence White, and others in the group (30). However, it was Stieglitz's publication of Robert Demachy's study of a female nude titled Struggle in the January 1904 issue of Camera Work, the Photo-Secession's mouthpiece, that really captured Brigman's imagination, leading her to ultimately focus on "the struggle of the soul as a conflicted female body [...]". (27)
Pyne then gives her readers an in-depth look at the cultural, economic, social, and artistic characteristics of San Francisco at the dawn of the 20th century and situates Brigman within both the creative and social scenes. Much of the rest of the chapter focuses on what Pyne describes as the "hybridized humanity" of multi-ethnic San Francisco, a cultural dynamic that both reinforced and broadened Brigman's personal aesthetic (34). It ends with the 1906 earthquake and fire and the city's rebuilding and rebirth as the nexus of East and West epitomized in the Panama-Pacific Exposition of 1915.
Brigman is most famous for her dramatic images of female nudes among the trees and rocks of the Sierra Nevada, the focus of Chapter 3. She first photographed in the High Sierra in 1905, one of a growing number of Bay Area women who took to hiking and camping in the mountains, but her images shifted from idyllic to highly charged the following year. "In her origin story of these photographs, it is the traumatic experience of the earthquake and firestorm that catalyzed her imagination [...]," notes Pyne (57). Like fellow California photographer Ansel Adams a few decades later, Brigman was deeply influenced by Edward Carpenter's Towards Democracy, initially published as a complete edition in 1905. Pyne explains that "intellectuals, artists, and social liberals seeking to throw off the chains of convention were exhilarated by his understanding of nature as profoundly sensuous as well as spiritual". (69) It was this quality in Brigman's images that so captivated Stieglitz. Pyne also sees Brigman's Sierra images as at once joining her childhood sense of the magic and wonder of nature with the destruction she witnessed in San Francisco as a result of the earthquake and fires.
Chapter 4 explores the East Bay towns where Brigman lived and worked. Oakland was her physical home, but Berkeley was her "spiritual home, providing her with the life of the mind that sustained her imaginary world". (91) Included are photographs of Brigman's Oakland home studio, of friend and architect Bernard Maybeck and his family, as well as naturalist Charles Keeler. Berkeley, the "Athens of the West," served as a counterpoint to San Francisco, "the black flower of sin". (95) Like fellow Photo-Secessionist Eva Watson-Schütze on the East Coast, Brigman affiliated herself with the Arts and Crafts Movement, where Maybeck played a central role. The chapter goes on to explore parallels between Brigman's imagery and modern dance in outdoor settings, which was then being popularized by Isadora Duncan, a San Francisco native, and Ruth St. Denis.
In 1910, Brigman left the Bay Area to spend ten months in New York, the focus of Chapter 5. She had already gained great acclaim for her photography on the West Coast but sought to improve her technical skills - especially the platinum printing process - and longed to play a more central role in the Photo-Secession. She arrived at a time when Stieglitz himself was going through an aesthetic transition, leaving behind the misty romanticism that characterized pictorialism in favor of a modernist vision. Stieglitz found in her High Sierra nudes (the only images by Brigman that ever interested him) an expression of unfettered female sexuality. This sexualized reading of Brigman's work anticipates Stieglitz's response a few years later to O'Keeffe's abstractions. It also provided a stark contrast to Gertrude Käsebier's 19th century vision of idealized womanhood. The timing of Brigman's trip may have been related to her negotiations with Stieglitz for a one-person show at his gallery. Up to that point, Brigman had not supplied Stieglitz with what he considered to be a sufficient number of high-quality prints; in particular, he wanted her to master the platinum technique. Unfortunately, by the time she did so, Stieglitz had shifted the gallery's focus away from photography to the exhibition of other art forms, so her solo show was never realized.
In the summer of 1910, Brigman joined fellow Secessionist Clarence White's summer school of photography in Georgetown, Maine; it was there that she perfected her platinum printing. She returned to Oakland in the fall, and not long after, the Photo-Secession fell apart as a result of Stieglitz's new focus on modernism and declining desire to promote the work of pictorialists like Käsebier and White. The following year, that in which California women won the right to vote, Brigman permanently separated from her husband. While her nudes elicited for Stieglitz his fantasy of the modern, sexually-liberated woman, her photographic techniques, and especially her manipulation of her negatives, were at odds with his growing taste for straight photography. Nonetheless, Pyne notes that her groundbreaking images of women fused with trees and rocks went on to inform the series of nude photos Stieglitz made of O'Keeffe in the early ears of their relationship and even the photos of trees that he took at Lake George in the 1920s.
The final chapter of Anne Brigman: The Photographer of Enchantment focuses on her later years in Southern California. In 1929, Brigman moved to Long Beach to be near her ill mother, who died the following year. Following the First World War, pictorialism seemed anachronistic as a new, sharply-focused style of photography based on modernist formalism rose to dominance. Earlier in the decade, prior to moving south, Brigman had become friendly with some of the photographers who would go on to form Group f/64 - most notably Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham, and Willard Van Dyke. At something of a creative crossroads, Brigman took up etching and linoleum-block printmaking during the 1920s seeking new means of expression. She also embraced Theosophy, the influence of which Pyne explores in some depth. Yet she continued to photograph - her lens now turned towards sand and ocean.
In the 1930s she began two books pairing poetry she was writing with her photographs. The first, Songs of a Pagan, was published in 1949, the year before her death. The second, "Wild Flute Songs," remained unpublished. Pyne sees her as coming full circle, returning to the early influence of Waikiki Beach. At the time of her death on February 18, 1950, Brigman was working on a children's book about Hawai'i, the enchanted land of her childhood memories. A brief Afterword addresses the disposition of Brigman's work in her later years and concludes by drawing parallels between Brigman's photographs in the High Sierra and Georgia O'Keeffe's paintings of New Mexico - asserting that the excitement O'Keeffe felt when Stieglitz first showed her Brigman's photos "presented an intoxicating dream that resonated with O'Keeffe's aspirations to a completely independent life [...]". (198) While Anne Brigman: The Photographer of Enchantment meanders and repeats itself at times, it more than compensates through the rich context it provides, deepening the reader's understanding of the many influences - geographic, cultural, literary, spiritual, and artistic - shaping the creativity of this unique and extraordinary photographer.
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