"Foursome: Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keeffe, Paul Strand, Rebecca Salsbury" chronicles the artists' shared friendships with Paul Strand and Rebecca Salsbury, but gives the latter duo short shrift.

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Book review

Try as she might, veteran biographer Carolyn Burke can’t escape the lopsided feel that accompanies her latest effort, “Foursome: Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keeffe, Paul Strand, Rebecca Salsbury.” It’s not exactly giants against minnows, and yet you can imagine how the egotistical Stieglitz and the fiercely independent O’Keeffe might have responded to Burke’s decision to give two lesser-known artists equal billing.

In Stieglitz and O’Keeffe’s minds, if not public perception, they operated on an entirely different plane.

Stieglitz, a master photographer intent on legitimizing his craft as an art form, is credited with bringing modern art to America in the early 1900s. He not only recognized the genius of Picasso at a time when most people were acclimated to John Singer Sargent, but he also acted on it, starting publications and galleries that promoted his new way of seeing. He was a temperamental, Barnumesque figure, but he had talent and knew talent when he saw it.

O’Keeffe, meanwhile, was Stieglitz’s muse and later wife, but so much more: He recognized her own artistic ability from the time she stood in front of his lens, posing for nude photos that scandalized New York in the 1920s.

He actively promoted her work and defined her reputation (as she would later shape his). Yet she blazed her own trail. She painted calla lilies and sun-bleached animal carcasses and became a feminist icon, even while rejecting critical opinion that credited her for depicting a distinctly female perspective.

And then there’s Strand and Salsbury (known as “Beck”): a beguiling pair of young marrieds, for sure, but with lives and accomplishments that are diminished next to the outsized reputations and lives of the Famous Couple. As a young photographer, the earnest Strand longed for Stieglitz’s approval but found himself ricocheting between the roles of protégé and rival. Salsbury couldn’t match O’Keeffe in either artistic vision or conviction.

The Strands were undoubtedly close friends of the better-known pair, and maybe more. Salsbury served as Stieglitz’s muse and posed nude for him in much the same way as O’Keeffe had done. She might have been his lover, as Strand could have been O’Keeffe’s. Salsbury and O’Keeffe also may have had an affair. Strangely, Burke remains silent about the role sex may have played in their “foursome,” and her story seems incomplete without it.

At times even Burke is dismissive of the younger pair. Of Salsbury’s artistry, she writes: “Her medium was friendship.” A harsh judgment, given that Salsbury eventually established herself as a regional artist in the Southwest.

Strand, meanwhile, gradually drifted away from Stieglitz’s orbit toward film documentaries and a commitment to socially relevant art. Despite his progressive politics, he often had difficulty touching the soul of his subjects. As one colleague observed, “He loved humanity in the abstract rather than the specific.”

It’s an understatement to say that Stieglitz and O’Keeffe are well-covered subjects, meaning that any prospective biographer needs a new angle to justify yet another book on their work or lives. Burke found hers in the treasure trove of letters the foursome left, as well as Salsbury’s annotated personal archive — a project Salsbury herself, with an eye to posterity, completed in later life. With this wealth of primary sources, the author confirms the profound influence that Stieglitz and O’Keeffe had on the Strands. What remains less apparent is how much the Strands influenced their famous mentors.

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“Foursome: Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keeffe, Paul Strand, Rebecca Salsbury” by Carolyn Burke, Knopf, 419 pp., $30