One grows as a human being, and the art cannot help but grow, too. When I was young, it was art that impressed me most: the forms, textures, colors, the transformation of stimuli into esthetic forms. Don’t blame me — it was the times in which I grew up; Modernism was in the ascendency and we all mouthed such platitudes as “art changes nothing,” and “Subject matter? The subject doesn’t matter, only what you make from it.” In those years, life drawing ceased to be taught in most art schools; students were asked merely to “be creative.” The divorce between life and art was complete. The prejudice was that the subject, say in my chosen medium, photography, was only there to catch light and make for a splendid arrangement of greys and blacks printed out in rich silver on glossy paper. Anything else was pretty pictures for calendars or chamber of commerce brochures. A kind of puritanism set in. If you are old enough, I’m sure you remember it: No cropping, previsualize, etc. So, when I was younger, I concentrated on the beautiful print, in black and white, and archivally processed. Zone system, anyone? My life turned in a different direction. Instead of a photographer, I turned out to be a writer. And lucky for me, it was on a newspaper and not in academia. I never had to slog through the atrocious trends of literary theory then current (still current). When asked to lecture to writing classes, I always had one lesson to give: Good writing is having something to say. Writing in fancy words or jargon, clever euphues, gongorisms, or acrostics or esoteric allusion only get in the way. One can be so caught up in the allure of a classic Bugatti that you forget its purpose is to get you somewhere. Fancy writing is that shiny Bugatti sitting unused in a garage, cherished and polished but useless. I continued to make photographs, nevertheless. And I have had gallery shows. But as I got older I came to see that the Bugatti was there to drive somewhere, not to show off. Subject matter not only counted, it was the reason for making the picture in the first place. But — and this is a big proviso — not to share the subject with your audience so you can all go “Ooh, what a beautiful sunset.” That really is a calendar photo. No, the entire purpose of art, if it can be said to have a purpose, is to make a connection with the world. To reconnect with what habit has made invisible. To see what you normally ignore, to find the glow of liveliness in the experience of being alive. Few people need to be told that a sunset is pretty; there is no art in that. But to find the chispas — the sparks — in the crack of a sidewalk, or the bare winter trees, or the clouds that sail over us every day — this is not so much a finding of a source for perfect prints to hang on the wall, but rather the illumination of a hidden fire. These things are all alive: Every bush is the burning bush. That is what makes Van Gogh’s landscapes so alive. They burn from within. This is not something he has applied from the outside; it is something he was able to see as the scales fell from his eyes. And so it can be for anyone willing to look, to see. It is what makes life drawing so indispensable for an artist. Drawing is not simply making an art object, drawing is learning to see, to break through the cataracts of habit. And so, when I come back to clouds as an old man, I see in them not merely abstract shapes from which I can make suitable art. I don’t care about art. I see something that wakes me up, and I try to capture it with the snap of my shutter. For me. Not for some appreciative audience. For me. I am the one I want to keep awake, alive. Others have helped me in this; if I can pass this on to others, all to the good. But I no longer care about making art. (Note: All but three of these photographs were taken on the same day during monsoon season from my back yard in Phoenix, Ariz.)
In the 1920s, a fundamental change occurred in the part of photography that was attempting to be seen as art. What had always previously been seen as a picture of something became a picture of its own.
In this, it followed the progress of Modernism in other media. What had been a photograph of a house or a boat, and judged by how well it set off the house or boat, it now became an arrangement of grey and black, of line and form.
If anyone could claim to be the leader of this shift, it would be Alfred Stieglitz. “I was born in Hoboken. I am an American. Photography is my passion. The search for truth is my obsession.”
His first work, from the late 1890s through the 1920s was mostly figurative, but he became dissatisfied with the idea that his photographs were praised for their subject matter.
In 1922, he began photographing clouds and turning them into the equivalent of abstract paintings.
“Through clouds to put down my philosophy of life — to show that my photographs were not due to subject matter — not to special trees or faces, or interiors, to special privileges — clouds were there for everyone — no tax as yet on them — free.”
These first series of cloud abstractions he called “A Sequence of Ten Cloud Photographs.” When he showed a new series in 1924, he renamed them “Songs of the Sky.” He continued making these prints, usually exaggerated in contrast and printed quite dark, making the blue sky black. He made them by the dozens, and by 1925, he was calling them “Equivalents.”
“I have a vision of life and I try to find equivalents for it sometimes in the form of photographs…(Cloud photographs) are equivalents of my most profound life experience.”
This idea of “equivalents” was later taken up and expanded by photographer Minor White and others, but in essence, the abstraction of the clouds were to stand for “equivalent” emotional and intellectual experiences.
There is certainly a grandiosity to Stieglitz’s language, indeed to his person. But the photographs remain and many of them are deeply moving, perhaps compared to the late quartets of Beethoven.
But the underlying idea was that the medium of photography, rather than the subject matter the camera is pointed at, could be expressive: that the surface of palladium printed paper, or silver prints, and the blacks and whites of the silver on its surface, and the shapes they make, almost as if a Rohrschach test, could be sufficient for art.
Abstraction became a subset of 20th century photography, and even when there was a subject, such as a portrait or landscape, the photographer, whether Edward Weston or Paul Strand, or White or Bill Brandt, would insist on its essential abstraction as the basis of its value.
But there is a problem with this: Those Equivalents that Stieglitz made are still clouds, and clouds carry with them all the baggage of subject matter. From the clouds in Renaissance paintings through the glorious cumulous in the seascapes of Aelbert Cuyp to the drawings of Alexander Cozens and countryside of John Constable. Clouds are an endless source of inspiration for the imagination of shape.
In photography, it is almost impossible to eliminate subject matter, short of making photograms. The forms, colors, shadows, textures of the recognizable sensuous world keep intruding, no matter how extracted from context. When I was a teacher, one of the assignments I gave my students was “to photograph something so that I cannot tell what it is.” I expected them to get ultra close, or turn something upside down, or extend the contrast. But, try as they might, I could always tell what I was looking at.
I do not see this as a deficiency in photography, but a strength. Photography can keep us tethered to the world when we might wish to float free; it reminds us that our primary obligation is to the existence we occupy and work in.
Put this way, it seems obvious, a commonplace. But this “double vision” is one of the things that keeps art lively, and informs our interaction with the everyday — keeps us aware that the world is alive, not inert.