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Many years ago, my late wife bought me a copy of A Book of Clouds, published in 1925 by author William A. Quayle. It is a hefty clothbound volume, primarily of old black-and-white photographs of clouds, layered with Quayle’s particular garish encomia and reminiscence about the glories of skywatching. 

Clouds seem to bring out the gooey and poeticizing cliches in a writer. “I was kinsman of the clouds,” Quayle writes. “And as I grew, the clouds still sailed their crafts of  snowy sail across the blue sea of my heart. Clouds, so to say, were indigenous to my soul. I did not begin to notice them: I always noticed them. I did not learn to love them: I always loved them.” 

The book is fervid with such expostulations: “When clouds give reports of portentous skies, of prepending tempests, when they are black as pools of midnight water, their eminences wrinkled as if zigzag lightnings had been the shears which cut their patterns, then as the sun lurches behind their darkness, the fine fire that rims them and seizes all their peaks gives a touch of delirium to the soul.”  

I love this book, for all its gushy writing, because Carole gave it to me, and because, in an era of irony and unbelief, there is something utterly sincere under the purple prose. 

A few years later, she gave me another book, The Cloud Collector’s Handbook by Gavin Pretor-Pinney, a small volume and kind of a field guide to cloud identification — almost a Peterson guide. In it, Pretor-Pinney gives genus and species names of various formations, implying that a taxonomy of anything as gaseous and impermanent as a cloud might be spoken of almost as if it were a wildflower or a bunting. 

And so, there are is a list of Latinate names, not just the familiar “cumulus” and “cirrus,” but also “lenticularis,” “castellanus,” “radiatus,” and “undulatus.” Carl von Linné would have been proud. Each page is devoted to another cloud form, or cloud-related or -adjacent subjects: “pileus,” “virga,” “nacreous,” “noctilucent,” etc. It’s lots of fun. 

Pretor-Pinney, it turns out, is a veritable cheerleader for cloud watching. His full name is Gavin Edmund Pretor-Pinney, son of Anthony Robert Edmund Pretor-Pinney and Laura Uppercu, daughter of George Winthrop Haight — in other words, he’s British and has the “twitcher’s” enthusiasm, but for clouds rather than finches. And in 2004, he founded the Cloud Appreciation Society and two years later, wrote both The Cloud Collector’s Handbook and The Cloudspotter’s Guide. In 2019, he wrote A Cloud A Day, which features 365 cloud images accompanied with a short piece of cloud science, an inspiring sky quotation or a detail of the sky depicted in a classic painting. 

The Society has its website (link here) and features galleries of cloud art by painter-members, collections of cloud poetry, and many, many photographs. The paintings are especially entertaining, and hugely varied in approach.

Artists L-R — Top: Peter Nisbet; Carol McCumber; Elizabeth Busey. Bottom: Judy Friesem; Jethro Buck; Barbara Miller. 

And there is a Cloud Appreciation Manifesto (of course, there is): 

“We believe that clouds are unjustly maligned and that life would be immeasurably poorer without them. We think that clouds are Nature’s poetry, and the most egalitarian of her displays, since everyone can have a fantastic view of them.

“We pledge to fight ‘blue-sky thinking’ wherever we find it. Life would be dull if we had to look up at cloudless monotony day after day. We seek to remind people that clouds are expressions of the atmosphere’s moods, and can be read like those of a person’s countenance. We believe that clouds are for dreamers and their contemplation benefits the soul. Indeed, all who consider the shapes they see in them will save money on psychoanalysis bills.

“And so we say to all who’ll listen: Look up, marvel at the ephemeral beauty, and always remember to live life with your head in the clouds!”

Of course, Pretor-Pinney isn’t alone. 

There are loads of books, including a raft of children’s books, all about clouds. 

 

The sky is a slate upon which we can project our sense of beauty, our sense of meaning, the expanse of creation, and the progress of time. We look up and always, it is new. Always it is moving. To rephrase Heraclitus, you can never look at the same sky twice. 

And the sky has been there in painting for centuries, but usually as a background for more important goings-on in the foreground. Then, in the late 18th- and early 19th-centuries several artists began studying the clouds and the sky for its own sake.

Most famously, a series of cloud studies by John Constable and sketches by Alexander Cozens. 

Cozens:

Constable:

“Clouds, for Constable, were a source of feeling and perception, an ‘Organ of sentiment’ (heart or lungs) as much as meteorological phenomena,” writes author Mary Jacobus in the book Romantic Things: A Tree, a Rock, a Cloud. “If painting is another name for feeling, and the sky an organ of sentiment, then his cloud sketches are less a notation of changing weather effects than a series of Romantic lyrics: exhalations and exclamations, meditations and reflections, attached to a specific location and moment in time.”

In other words, the clouds, either painted or merely watched, become a subject for contemplation, even meditation. Beginning in the 20th century, paintings became increasingly abstract and the point being not subject matter but the substance of paint — color, shape, line, form, design. To look at a Jackson Pollock painting, or one by Mark Rothko, you are asked not to name a subject matter, but to relate the canvas to human affect, i.e., what does the painting make you feel?

A number of artists and photographers have turned to clouds to make images that are both abstract and descriptive. The clouds themselves provide the abstraction. 

At the beginning of the 20th century, Modernist photographer Alfred Stieglitz made a tremendous series of images of clouds, which he titled, “Equivalents,” meaning that the visual was an equivalent of the emotion. 

He made more than 200 such images, with the intent that they could express emotions, much as music can, purely by abstraction. They are images of actual clouds, but they are also shapes on a piece of photographic paper. You can see them as photographs of the sky, or as pure abstractions. Either way, for Stieglitz, the important part was that an emotion be evoked. 

 

Another photographer, Edward Weston made pictures of clouds through his lifetime, less consciously manipulated than Stieglitz’s, but cloud abstractions nonetheless. 

The German painter Gerhard Richter made a series of cloud paintings in the 1970s. A Sotheby’s catalog said, “the clouds are caught in a moment of confrontation between the painterly and the photographic, the representative and the abstract, the natural and the supernatural.” Much of Richter’s art is political or otherwise Postmodern tricks about the nature of art itself. As for the clouds, Richter himself said, “I felt like painting something beautiful.”

He kept a notebook of images, which he called “Atlas,” in which he kept many sketches, photos and paintings of everyday items, and a whole section on nothing but clouds. 

I have made countless photographs of clouds. I step out of the house pretty much every day, just to look up and watch clouds. They keep my eyes fresh and my mind invigorated. I have two books I have made: one of images of landforms and clouds seen from my airplane window; and a second of clouds pictures made all on a single afternoon in Arizona during the rising and waning of a monsoon storm. They can be viewed online here and here

When we spend as much time indoors as most people have these past two pandemic years, it is a relief to refocus our eyes outward (and upward) to a distance beyond the four walls. The clouds are far enough that our stereoscopic vision interprets the distance as indistinguishable from infinity. That refocus is necessary to keep us in touch with the greater things. Too often our eyes are focused on electronic screens held less than arms distant. Stretch your eyes back out. Look up. Keep watching the skies. 

Click on any image to enlarge

clouds134In 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.”

Despite his tendency toward oracular declamation — or perhaps because of it — Stieglitz became the prophet of a new type of photography in America. Modernist. Stieglitz equivalent 1

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.”stieglitz equivalent 2

“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.

constable cozens pair 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.

charlie brown and clouds 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.

clouds105 Given that, photographs of clouds still has a powerful attraction: We can see that abstraction and reality are not necessarily in opposition: We can have both at once.

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.

And so, I have made my own cloud photographs. The first series, seen here, are a rank imitation of Stieglitz’s Equivalents. The next blog installment will follow with the development of the idea. clouds116 clouds129 clouds115 clouds119

clouds130 clouds131 clouds139 clouds142 clouds145

okeeffe landscape cross

You can’t drive up the Chama River Valley in northern New Mexico and not feel the snap of recognition.

It doesn’t matter whether you’ve ever been there before, it looks familiar. The reason is not hard to guess.

It is this area north of Santa Fe that painter Georgia O’Keeffe recorded in her work, beginning in 1929, when she first started to visit the state with regularity.

”This is wonderful,” O’Keeffe said on first seeing the sage and sandstone landscape. ”No one told me it was like this.” okeeffe san jose church copy

The surprising thing is that so little seems to have changed. You can still see the adobe churches, the penitente crosses, the occasional cow skull with its corkscrew horns. All of which became familiar icons in O’Keeffes paintings. okeeffe ghost house at ghost ranch copy

In fact, a drive up U.S. 84 from Espanola to Abiquiu is as close as you will ever get to driving through an O’Keeffe painting. It is all around you.

Although O’Keeffe is permanently associated with New Mexico, she was born in Wisconsin in 1887. Her family moved to Virginia when she was 14 and she later studied art in Chicago and New York.

She didn’t see New Mexico until she was 30, and then only briefly. She didn’t move to the state permanently until she was 62.

She first achieved note as a painter in New York at the art gallery run by Alfred Stieglitz, who later became her husband.

She took solo vacations to the West for many years, leaving Stieglitz behind and renting and then buying property, first at a dude ranch called the Ghost Ranch about 65 miles north of Santa Fe, and later in the tiny village of Abiquiu (Aba-cue) about 15 miles south of that. okeeffe abiquiu home copy

Her paintings, which simplified and mythologized the land around her, have become iconic for both Americans in general and women in particular she was one of the first women whose work was taken seriously in the ”man’s world” of art. okeeffe church golden NM copy

The stretch of U.S. 84 from Espanola to the Echo Amphitheater, north of the Ghost Ranch, offers the most insight into O’Keeffes work. You can see just how she translated what she called her ”back yard” into paint. okeeffe echo canyon copy

”I wish you could see what I see out the window,” she wrote to a friend in 1942. ”The earth pink and yellow cliffs to the north the full pale moon about to go down in an early morning lavender sky behind a very long beautiful tree-covered mesa to the west pink and purple hills in front and the scrubby fine dull green cedars and a feeling of much space It is a very beautiful world.” okeeffe ladder ghost ranch copy

O’Keeffe was a stubborn woman, and she stubbornly refused to leave this life until she was a few months short of turning 99.

”When I think of death,” she wrote, ”I only regret that I will not be able to see this beautiful country anymore … unless the Indians are right and my spirit will walk here after I’m gone.” okeeffe tesuque pueblo copy

No one driving along the Chama River can doubt the presence of O’Keeffe’s redoubtable spirit. okeeffe skull on eave