Alfred Stieglitz’s: Equivalents

2nd February 2021

Alfred Stieglitz’s (1864–1946) cloudscapes, the Equivalents, illustrate Burgin’s point. They don’t appear to be composed at all; instead they’re ‘equivalent’ in that any section of the sky would seem to do as well as any other. Because there’s no sense of composition our eye is drawn to the edges, to the frame. For its time, this sense of a cropped rather than a composed view made the Equivalents feel uniquely photographic.

OCA Expressing Your Vision course folder p.28

The above quote puzzles me, ‘…our eye is drawn to the edges, to the frame.’ I disagree with this statement, my eyes move around the picture and plane and in may of Stieglitz’s cloud images I have found leading lines formed not just by edges/lines of the clouds but their formation of tones which range from black through to white. If we take, for example, the image below

I had a very satisfying couple of days looking at Stieglitz’s cloud images. My photography interests fall into a couple of themes and one of them is looking at abstract qualities in the world around us, taking closer look at subjects, their parts, textures, patterns or shapes for example. I have taken images of clouds but have never contemplated making a series. Steiglitz work has stimulated me into thinking about ways I can develop my cloud photographs into a series and how to reproduce them, for instance Stieglitz’s clouds are produced darker than life, almost black with some contrasting whiter areas.

Stieglitz called these photographs Equivalents. More than describing the visible surfaces of things, the works could express pure emotion, paralleling the artist’s own inner state. Stieglitz, along with many of the artists of his circle, argued that visual art could assume the same nonrepresentational, emotionally evocative qualities as music. Indeed, music was an inspiration for the Equivalents, and this is reflected in the early titles he gave them: Music: A Sequence of Ten Cloud Photographs (1922) and Songs of the Sky (1923). 

Art Institute Chicago (accessed 02.02.21)
Alfred Stieglitz Equivalents
images: Google search snapshot Alfred Stieglitz clouds (no url available)

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.

Greenough, 1995:132 cited in Wikipedia (accessed 02.02.21)


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