Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Equivalents - photographing the sky

Alfred Stiegliz photographed his Equivalents series of sky abstractions during the 1920's and into the 30's. His series coincided with the advent of panchromatic film emulsions that allowed photographers to begin recording the full color spectrum of light. Prior to this film was orthochromatic and more sensitive to blue and green colors, which in turn meant that sky blues recorded darker on a negative and consequently came out white when printed. It is difficult today to appreciate how exciting it must have been for photographers in that era to have available for the first time a film that could capture details of the entire color spectrum.

With the new panchromatic film, Stiegliz tilted his camera skyward and recorded what he considered pure, abstract photography, which he initially referred to as "Music" and later as "Equivalents". The abstract nature of the Equivalents series was more shocking in its day, and Stieglitz would often re-orient the photographs by hanging them sideways or upside down to emphasize their abstract nature.  In a 1923 article for Amateur Photographer and Photography, Stieglitz wrote: "I wanted to photograph clouds to find out what I had learned in 40 years about photography. 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."

At the time Stieglitz was moving away from the pictorial style that dominated photography at the turn of the century with photography attempting to mimic painterly techniques, and into a phase where photography would look like photography not simply imitate painting. As he put it: "My aim is increasingly to make my photographs look as much like photographs that unless one has eyes and sees, they won't be seen—and still everyone will never forget them having once looked at them."

I began my own series of sky photographs years ago after reading about Stieglitz. Periodically, I have published some of them on this blog. Here are two more I did of milky clouds I discovered while cycling along the Hudson River one morning last week.

What I like about sky photography is the freedom it allows to create in pure photography. There is no "right" way to re-create the scene. You can choose the cropping and tonality of the image to coincide with the inspiration of the moment. You can, as Stieglitz suggested, create photographs that look like photographs.

Many examples from the original Stieglitz Equivalents series can be seen in the collection of the George Eastman House.

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