photography is [history]

I don’t think I have ever talked about how much I love the history of photography. It was one of my favorite subjects when I was studying photography-right up there with alternative processes. I love to follow the progression of the medium technically and artistically. It helps to know where the art form has been and where it might be going-especially if you are going to be a contributor to it.

I think of all the knowledge you need to be a professional photographer, the history of the medium is so important. It makes me sad that a lot of people who are working in photography these days have never had any courses in the history of photography. So, if you want to better understand how significant photography is in the history of our world pick up The History of Photography by Beaumont Newhall.

I could actually do much better studying and understanding world history if it was taught through the history of photography.

I personally loved learning about Pictorialism and the Photo-Secession and draw inspiration from several artists in the movement including Alfred Stieglitz (I can’t imagine not knowing about or never seeing Camera Work as a photographer) Edward Steichen, Paul Strand and Gertrude Kasebier. It is because of these artists that I knew some day I would eventually come to make photographic portraits. I also love the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson (his ‘decisive moments’ continue to inspire the way I try to create images of people on a daily basis) and of course Ansel Adams who has always influenced my work-especially when I practically lived in the Sierra Nevada for almost a year.

I have been fascinated with the series of photographs Alfred Stieglitz made entitled Equivalent or Equivalents. I have a series of images after his and am always learning more about the significance of this work of his. The new cloud studies I have included with this post are just that-studies for my own understanding and interpretation of ‘equivalents.’

The Equivalents are generally recognized as the first intentionally abstract photographs. It is difficult to look at them today and understand the impact that they had at the time. When they first appeared photography had been generally recognized as a distinct art form for no more than fifteen years, and until Stieglitz introduced his cloud photos there was no tradition of photographing something that was not recognizable in both form and content. Art critic Hilton Kramer said that Equivalents “undoubtedly owe something to the American modernist painting (Dove’s and O’Keeffe’s especially) that Stieglitz felt particularly close to at the time. Yet they go distinctly beyond the pictorial conventions that governed avant-garde painting in this period by reaching for the kind of lyric abstraction that was not to enter American painting until the 40’s and 50’s. In the line that can be traced from the paintings of Albert Pinkham Ryder to, say, those of Clyfford Still, it is in Stieglitz’s Equivalents – rather than in painting itself – that we find the strongest link.”[8]

One of the reasons that the strongest of these photographs appear so abstract is that they are void of any reference points. Stieglitz was not concerned with a particular orientation for many of these prints, and he was known to exhibit them sideways or upside down from how he originally mounted them. Photography historian Sarah Greenough points out that by doing so Stieglitz “was destabilizing your [the viewer’s] relationship with nature in order to have you think less about nature, not to deny that it’s a photograph of a cloud, but to think more about the feeling that the cloud formation evokes.”[9] She further says:

“The Equivalents are photographs of shapes that have ceded their identity, in which Stieglitz obliterated all references to reality normally found in a photograph. There is no internal evidence to locate these works either in time or place. They could have been taken anywhere—nothing indicates whether they made in Lake George, New York City, Venice, or the Alps—and, except for the modern look of the gelatin silver prints, they could have been made at any time since the invention of photography. And because there is no horizon line in these photographs, it is not even clear which way is ‘up’ and which way ‘down.’ Our confusion in determining a ‘top’ and a ‘bottom’ to these photographs, and our inability to locate them in either time or place, forces us to read what we know are photographs of clouds as photographs of abstracted forms.”[10]

New York Times art critic Andy Grundberg said The Equivalents “remain photography’s most radical demonstration of faith in the existence of a reality behind and beyond that offered by the world of appearances. They are intended to function evocatively, like music, and they express a desire to leave behind the physical world, a desire symbolized by the virtual absence of horizon and scale clues within the frame. Emotion resides solely in form, they assert, not in the specifics of time and place.”[11]

Photographer Ansel Adams said Stieglitz’s work had a profound influence on him. In 1948 he claimed his first “intense experience in photography” was seeing many of the “Equivalents” (probably for the first time in 1933, when they met).[12]

It’s because of the history that I feel more and more drawn to contributing to photography as an artist and technician-and I feel a part of something bigger than me. I can truly say that I am trying to add to the history of images in the best way that I know how-utilizing ongoing education about how to make the most of the medium and the use of light and design elements.

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2 Comments

  1. Reply

    Tytia

    January 30, 2011

    Awesome post. I love it, and couldn’t agree with you more. Although I have studied the history of photography, it has not been in depth. I plan on picking up the book you suggested. Maybe I can learn a little more.

  2. Reply

    kristianne

    January 31, 2011

    This is what is so wonderful about photography-there is always more to learn. I recently pulled that book off the shelf as well as Looking At Photographs by Szarkowski to delve even deeper. Thanks for the comment.

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