It’s a cry heard from the mid-1800′s until today, a position taken athwart photography’s path to museums, exhibitions, juried shows, fine print books and all other forms of visual presentation. Art comes from the person, the cry continues, photography from machines. How can we consider as art an image that accurately reflects a moment in time not filtered through the higher consciousness of an artist?
Probably not something most of us consider in the modern world but it created quite a stir around the start of the 20th century as photographers began moving from detailed, accurate photographs of reality and into more crafted images representing their opinions about reality. Just as the Impressionists found their entrance in to the Salon of Paris blocked by the traditional painters of the day, photographers using their craft to interpret the world around them found equally staunch barriers manned by painters and illustrators intent on protecting the battlements of art presentation.
One of the American leaders of this effort to recognize photography as an art form (not a replacement for paintings/drawings but a uniquely different expression) was Alfred Steiglitz. A man straddling the end of the Victorian era and the start of moderism, Steiglitz took great pains to promote photography as art by creating the Photo-Secession group, publishing finely crafted journals, setting up and managing galleries where photographers could display their work, and making his own photographs as the means to express his philosophy.
As his philosophy developed, Steiglitz sought a way to show how photography could transcend the accurate representation of reality, a way for it to portray and express an emotional content that could be independent of the subject portrayed. He called this Equivalence and as his means to express it he crafted a series of photographs of clouds he named the Equivalents. With these compositions he sought to provide a framework for viewers to share the emotional state that pressed him to make the images or to impress upon the images any emotional state elicited by them. Considered the first major attempt at photographic abstraction, the Equivalents continue as the subject of discussion among artists and critics of photography.
What do the Equivalents mean? Aside from one man’s attempt to stretch the then-acceptable bounds of fine photography? Steiglitz would probably say they mean whatever you think they mean, as any abstraction should. Gaze deeply enough into the image and you can search through your emotional responses as they come out. Isn’t that what watching clouds is all about?
Or as Freud would say, sometimes it’s just a cigar……