The Unphotographable #5: Georgia O’Keeffe on the Grandeur of Machu Picchu and Peru’s Otherworldly Mountains

Sometimes a picture is worth 1,000 words. 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 — every Saturday, 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.

Just before she turned 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.

She writes with a gasp for the unphotographable.

You feel something strangely dreamlike and unreal about this. — 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.

She climbed to 16.500 feet in the Peruvian mountains, and found her passion for the American Southwest was overshadowed by the breathtaking landscapes.

There was a stunningly beautiful color earth up there at the highest elevations. It is hard to believe, but this natural beauty surpasses anything that I have ever seen in the United States.


Peru seems like a mountain in every way. The desert is more desert — the mountains are more high —

Machu Picchu’s surrounding landscape was what most captured her attention.

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. She wrote another letter to Anita:

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

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Over the past decade, I spent hundreds of hours and thousands each month writing. MarginalianThe magazine, which bore for fifteen years the unsettling name Brain Pickings. Thanks to the support of readers, it has been free from ads and still exists. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. Donations are a great way to make your life better. It makes a huge difference to support this cause.

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