Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Clouds, Stieglitz and O'Keeffe

Over the last few months, I have been working on a new digital project, photographing clouds, evocative of Alfred Stieglitz's "Equivalents". At first, when I saw these Stieglitz photographs, I did not find them as interesting as his earlier works. They seemed so empty of any 'big' ideas, and I thought perhaps they were byproducts of his advanced age, an indication that he was going 'soft in the head' producing these saccharine images. With more research however, I discovered that his motivation for this project was a desire to do something 'hard', to test his knowledge and mastery of photography. They were first presented in 1923 as "Music: a sequence of 10 cloud photographs", later "Songs of the Sky", and in 1925 he started to use the term "Equivalents".  Stieglitz stated that these pictures were the equivalent of certain human emotions, documents of eternal relationships, perhaps even philosophies. They were lyrical abstractions and he would turn or flip them as needed in their presentation to express the emotion he was portraying. He went on to say that essentially, all his photographs were 'equivalents'.
Alfred Stieglitz: Equivalent (Set H, Print 1), 1923; gelatin silver print; 4 5/8 x 3 5/8 in.; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Alfred Stieglitz Collection

I have come to see them as expressions of his happiness, passion and love for/with Georgia O'Keeffe. There has been much discussion on this famous art world love story, and I firmly believe that O'Keeffe, with her sensual relation to the natural world, impacted him to move his work in this direction.  There is a particular painting of hers that was produced around the same time as these photographs by Stieglitz, and the similarities are striking.

A Celebration, 1924. Oil on canvas. Georgia O'Keeffe American, 1887-1986 34 7/8 x 18 in. (88.6 x 45.7 cm) 36 1/4 x 19 3/8 (92.1 x 49.2 cm)  in the permenant collection of Seattle Art Museum

Alfred Stieglitz, Equivalent, 1924 - 192
"I was told yesterday that I seemed to be faraway all the time yet seemingly in contact with all that's here. I had to laugh. When one is playing with the clouds & one's best part is far so faraway - near the endless sea - one cannot be entirely amongst those who know little about clouds - little about sea - "

" - I still continue to learn - There is so much to learn. - Not in the ordinary sense - not the knowledge talked of & which it is said one should have - but a learning about something which very few seem to know much about - "

Alfred Stieglitz, in a letter to Georgia O'Keeffe, (Lake George, NY, September 25, 1923)

From "My Faraway One", Selected Letters of Georgia O'Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz, Volume 1, 1915-1933, edited by Sarah Greenough, Yale University Press, 2011.

Other references: "Equivalence: The Perennial Trend", Minor White, PSA Journal, Vol. 29, No. 7, pp. 17-21, 1963