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In going through some older negatives this week, I found several images that were rather abstract and it was hard for me to initially remember the subject matter. As I stood over the light table, I thought about Alfred Stieglitz’s Equivalence work.
Influences by Wassily Kandinsky, Stieglitz was interested in understanding how to push photography into a new realm. At the time photography was not really considered an art, and while Stieglitz worked hard to get photography elevated to an art, it was still in many ways stuck in the science and chemistry of its creation. Most images were, in what today’s terms would be considered straight photography. The images were often of the real world and didn’t expand the medium. Between 1925 and 1934, Stieglitz photographed a number of images of just clouds. He was interested in the emotional, feeling and meaning of the images as abstracts rather than focused on the subject of the clouds. Most of the images were taken without key reference points to aid the viewer in understanding the context of the image. This lack of context forced the view to work with the abstract nature of the photograph to attempt to find meaning. He would eventually call this series of images Equivalence.
Minor White and the California School of Photography
Many photographers associated with the California School of Photography (Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind come to mind) were heavily influenced by this idea of using photography to create abstractions of the real world to convey meaning. Minor White wrote considerably on the topic and broke down much of the ideas and notions we have today of equivalence in photography into understandable chucks. Focusing in on the meaning that the viewer creates when looking at the photograph creates the equivalent moment, White was able to create a framework to understand how and why these images work.
A couple of exercises to help you create some of your own work that focuses on equivalents.
- Create a series of 10 images where the subject is unknown. What emotion, feelings or metaphors do you want to use to create meaning in the work. Focus on the feelings first and how your framing can help or hinder your efforts.
- Look back at your work work and see what images you consider equivalents. What makes them such? Is there a pattern to those images? What story does that work tell?
- When looking at images (your own or others) that you consider to be equivalents, what shape, form, compositional elements are used to invoke a response. Do you respond more to abstraction, color, form, patterns, or lines? What elements could you add to your own work to make your work stronger.