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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

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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