The Marginalian
The Marginalian

The Unphotographable: Georgia O’Keeffe on the Grandeur of Machu Picchu and Peru’s Otherworldly Mountains

Sometimes, a painting in words is worth a thousand pictures. I think about this more and more, in our compulsively visual culture, which increasingly reduces what we think and feel and see — who and what we are — to what can be photographed. I think of Susan Sontag, who called it “aesthetic consumerism” half a century before Instagram. In a small act of resistance, I offer The Unphotographable — a lovely image in words drawn from centuries of literature: passages transcendent and transportive, depicting landscapes and experiences radiant with beauty and feeling beyond what a visual image could convey.

The summer before turning seventy, Georgia O’Keeffe (November 15, 1887–March 6, 1986) left her home in New Mexico and set out to fulfill her childhood dream of visiting Peru. Upon returning home, she recounted the experience in letters to her most intimate friend, found in Lovingly, Georgia: The Complete Correspondence of Georgia O’Keeffe and Anita Pollitzer (public library) — that fount of insight into her inner life, which gave us her fierce wisdom on art, life, and setting priorities.

With a gasp of the unphotographable, she writes.

There is something oddly unreal and dreamlike about it. — The days were so wonderful — it was so beautiful one was often left speechless — and by night one thought maybe it wasn’t real — maybe it was a dream — it was desert of all colors — and sizes — little hills, big hills — mountains — all of sand — or bare rocks — mountains of rocks as we think of it.

Ascending to 16,500 feet into the mountains of Peru, she found her vibrant love of the American Southwest eclipsed by these landscapes beyond all imagination:

Up there in the heights there was the most astonishingly beautiful colored earth I have ever seen. I hate to own up to it but the natural scenery is way beyond anything I know in this country.


Everything in Peru in some way seems to be a peak. The desert is more desert — the mountains are more high —

Nothing captivated her more than Machu Picchu and its surrounding landscape:

The great ruin of Machu Picchu… is in the most beautiful green sheer mountains — When you get up to the sundial — the most holy place — a river roars all around it so you always hear it what seems to be at least a mile below and a peak rises up above the big ruin, across the river — terraced so that I wouldn’t dream of trying to go up it — it is so sheer — the mountains were to me more wonderful than the ruin. The finest Inca stone work is magnificent — powerful in feeling — exact in execution — for me the finest thing I saw from the hand of man.

But O’Keeffe understood that these transcendent, unphotographable encounters with beauty and grandeur are not reserved for the remote wonders of the world. In another letter to Anita, she writes:

I believe one can have as many rare experiences at the tail end of the earth as in civilization if one grabs at them — no — it isn’t a case of grabbing — it is — just that they are here — you can’t help getting them.

Previously: The Unphotographable #4: Iris Murdoch’s Portal to Transcendence, from the Sea to the Stars

Published August 27, 2022




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