‘Equivalent to What? Alfred Stieglitz’s Clouds in Context’, Art Gallery of New South Wales Alfred Stieglitz Symposium, June 19, 2010
‘A generation that had gone to school on a horse-drawn street car now stood under the open sky in a countryside in which nothing remained unchanged but the clouds, and beneath these clouds, in a field of force of destructive torrents and explosions, was a tiny, fragile human body.’
Walter Benjamin The Storyteller, 1936
In Walter Benjamin’s remarkable image of post-war Europe the indifferent aerial nature of the clouds serves as a figurative contrast to the cataclysmic historical changes on the ground. But today I want to argue that, contrary to Benjamin, the clouds did in fact change in the early part of the twentieth century. They didn’t change meteorologically of course, that would take another seventy years, but what they meant to those who gazed up at them and photographed them, that certainly did change.
In fact, the ways in which clouds were perceived had been changing for a hundred years even before the destructive torrents of the early twentieth century. In the early1800s the scientist Luke Howard began to paint watercolours of the clouds in order to classify them. In his 1803 Essay on the Modification of Clouds he applied a Linnaean system to their ever-changing shapes, naming three main cloud types: cumulous, cirrus and stratus.
His extraordinarily popular work informed romantic painting and poetry. Percy Bysshe Shelley’s 1820 poem The Cloud reproduces the newly-discovered scientific knowledge of cloud formation, while also animistically linking clouds to the eternal but ephemeral verities of birth and death, construction and destruction. The final stanza reads:
I am the daughter of Earth and Water,
And the nursling of the Sky;
I pass through the pores of the ocean and shores;
I change, but I cannot die.
For after the rain when with never a stain
The pavilion of Heaven is bare,
And the winds and sunbeams with their convex gleams
Build up the blue dome of air,
I silently laugh at my own cenotaph,
And out of the caverns of rain,
Like a child from the womb, like a ghost from the tomb,
I arise and unbuild it again.
By the twentieth century this romantic vision had become commonplace in popular culture.
One fan of Percy Bysshe Shelley was the Blue Mountains photographer and printer Harry Phillips. Phillips was a publisher of tourist view-books about the beauties of the mountains, and in 1915 he published one which illustrated every stanza of Shelley’s famous poem. The book was simultaneously a tourist souvenir and a deeply felt personal statement. And it reveals clouds, and his interpretation of what they might mean, as being central to Phillips’ life. In the book he also printed his personal testament, Clouds in my life and how the were dispelled, in which he recounted in detail his peripatetic life as a journeyman letterpress machinist over twenty years, during which time he strayed away from God and fell into drinking, before being converted into the Baptist Church, givng up the grog, and finding peace in the Blue Mountains. The Mountains provided him with evidence of the inseparable mingling of Spiritual phenomena and natural phenomena. For instance once, while photographing the mist rising out of a valley early one morning, the rising sun suddenly cast his shadow onto the cloud as it rose up before him. Phillips said:
‘I stood spellbound. Before me, about 200 feet away, a figure stood upright, and encircling the head was a beautiful rainbow-coloured halo. I had my camera under my arm, but my thoughts were too fully occupied with the realization of the possibility of Christ having a halo round his head when on earth. Twice since, with others, I have seen our own shadows cast down into the valley of mist, with rainbows or halos round our heads, but these were not so convincing as the first figure I had seen standing upright over the top of the a Blue Mountains.’
So, for Phillips, the Blue Mountains provided proof positive that if sunlight, shadow and clouds could produce a natural halo, then Christ could have worn a halo while he was on Earth.
An even more startling revelation, and an even more specific message, came from another image Phillips photographed, this time in the late afternoon, rather than the early morning. As he reported in The Cloud:
… on March 25th, 1909, whilst fully conscious of the presence of Christ, I took a photo of a remarkable sunset scene. Three large black clouds were drifting about as if sparring for certain places. For some time it was impossible to take the photo, owing to the glaring of the sun into my lens; but immediately one ominous looking cloud obscured the sun I made my exposure, and secured the now remarkable picture called ‘War Clouds’. Rushing to my dark room, I developed the plate, and was then fully aware that it was a sign that I had to deliver to the proper authorities.
He posted copies to Lord Kitchener, the King, Lord Roberts and Sir George Reid. Telling them that the clouds were a sign that there would soon be a war with Germany. He did not hear if the parcels were received, but felt confident that they were.
When Lord Kitchener was in Australia on his tour of inspection and preparation for possible invasion, I posted some copies to him, one of which was marked explaining and showing the representatives of the several nationalities. I also sent him several other cloud pictures to show that the one was a most unusual effect. Then again, shortly before the coronation of King George, I posted to Sir George Reid in London a large parcel containing books of views and several cloud photographs; also three 15 x 12in enlargements of the ‘War Clouds’, one each to the King, to Lord Roberts and to Sir George Reid. I marked another photo for identification, and wrote a guarantee on the back of it, stating that it was absolutely free from faking or retouching in any way, and that I felt quite sure that it was a sign that there would soon be a great war with Germany. I did not hear if these parcels were received, but feel confident that they were.
Phillips described in enormous detail the specific prophecy the clouds held:
Directly in the centre of the photo, and obscuring the sun, is a cloud resembling the German Eagle poised with outspread wings. Securely clutched in its talons is a figure that appeared to me to represent Belgium. The eagle’s head is turned to the right of the picture, looking defiantly at the second black cloud, which represents the British Lion. Between the eagle and the Lion is a light spook-like cloud symbolising the War Spirit. It is facing and looking down on the Eagle as if pondering whether to wedge itself between England (the Lion) and Germany (the Eagle) or to withdraw and let them wage war upon each other. England and Scotland are represented in one cloud, the latter by a fully clad Scotchman, who is anxiously looking to see what Russia’s representative, the Bear, will do. On top of the third black cloud is a chicken or ‘young Turkey’. Directly beneath the Scotchman’s knee is an anxious face looking towards the German eagle. Does this represent Ireland. Turn the picture upside down and on the other end of the black cloud and almost muzzle with the Russian Bear is the head of a Leopard. The Leopard is used prophetically as a type of the Grecian Empire and of the anti-Christian power (Dan. Vii.6; Rev. xiii. 2). Turn the picture right way up and near the centre on the left hand side two faces can be seen; one represents a corpse, with a face immediately above. This represents the horror of a battlefield. Directly above there is a cloud like an exploding shell. Here are five distinct human heads and faces. One resembling the Czar of Russia, with a woman looking over his head, and a Jew is depicted with a flowing beard. Now turn the picture with the left corner to the top, and a typical Russian face is seen, the hair of the woman and the beards of the Jew and the Russian are represented in the same black spot. Next to the Russian is a head resembling our late beloved Queen Victoria with a white cap on her head. I am strongly impressed with the opinion that this apparently exploded shell represents the past, and that the future is clearly shown on the opposite or right hand corner. Turn the picture right way up, and over in the right hand top corner a dark skull like face is seen. This black cloud is like a skull with patches of white, and reminds one of the pictures of Mephistopheles or Satan, about to be loosed on the earth.
The Cloud, Harry Phillips, 1914, reprinted in Phillip Kay, The Far-Famed Blue Mountains of Harry Phillips, Second Back Row Press, Leura, 1985.
1909 was a big year for Phillips. As well as converting to the Baptist Church and photographing War Clouds, he befriended Sydney’s youngest and most exciting postcard photographer Frank Hurly. Hurley came from the area, Lithgow and, just like Phillips, was an outdoorsman and a self-made businessman in photography. In 1909 Phillips sent Hurley a photograph of valley mists near Katoomba, and Hurley promptly used it to create a combination print of an aeroplane crossing the Blue Mountains, which he returned to Phillips. Hurley’s collage uncannily predicted the end of the Ross and Keith Smith Flight from London to Sydney ten years later. Hurley joined the flight on its last legs within Australia in order to produce a film about the adventure. He photographed their plane in a single exposure heroically emerging out of the clouds.
Montages such as these were not unusual. The amateur photographer H. M. Cockshott created one the same year as the Ross and Keith Smith flight to illustrate his article ‘The Gentle Art of Faking’, seventy years before Photoshop. These combination prints were part of a general fascination with aircraft in the period, which even Alfred Stiegltiz shared, taking two photographs of aircraft against clouds in 1910. These uncanny images signalled a changed valency for both human machinery and natural phenomena. The clouds endow the planes with a Wagnerian supernatural drama, and the planes connect the clouds directly to human affairs.
Like Phillips, Hurley had also had personal epiphanies connected to meteorological phenomena. He had personally experienced at least two occasions where weather effects seemed to both signal to him, and create within him, some kind of personal revelation or message. In 1910 his Sydney postcard business had collapsed, but one night after climbing up the stairs to his premises feeling overwhelmed by his misfortune he saw “a silvery beam that shone through a window and flooded the stairway with light”. With that he felt a renewal of energy to carry on and “turn the corner”. Soon after, he was off to the Antarctic as an official expedition photographer for the Mawson expedition. On that expedition he and some companions were caught by the weather whilst returning from an attempt to reach the Pole by sled. All seemed lost, but then the weather suddenly cleared and the exhausted party found themselves looking at Commonwealth Bay:
A strange feeling came over me, infinitely comforting. Some indelible force seemed to be beside me and guiding me on. In a state of high exaltation I knew we were going to win through. Our jaded bodies, still and frostbitten, rebelled, but WILL won.
Hurley went on to use clouds again and again as holy-card tropes for his propaganda photography, signifying a divine benediction to earthly Australian will. Often these images were combination prints. The most famous example of this is the image Morning after the Battle of Paeschendaele produced from two negatives, and exhibited in London and Sydney. Throughout his life Hurley added to his library of cloud plates, which he used again and again. Sometimes the same cloud manifests itself on two different pages of the same book!
Spectacular clouds were very commonplace within both the popular photography and the Pictorialist photography of the period, where they were extraordinarily accretive of extra connotations and associations, much more so than other Pictorialist conventions such as trees, or laneways. For example the doyen of Australian Pictorialists, Harold Cazneaux, mentored a young photographer called William Fell who was his studio assistant. After Fell joined up and was killed in 1918, he left his war negatives to Cazneaux, who printed up a negative of an Australian Fleet at rest in Albany before its departure for Egypt in fine Pictorialist style. Here the clouds are more than just a simple Pictorialist convention, they are the sombre presages of disaster.
After the war Cazneaux made another Pictorialist image, Peace After War, and Memories, about a returned soldier attempting to return to a nostalgic agrarian yeomanry as part of Australia’s doomed soldier settler scheme. The clouds in the background, made smoky by the burning off of scrub, refer the soldier’s mind back to the battlefields of France. This fine-art Pictorialist photograph plugs directly into all of the uncanny cloud, bomb-blast, gas and smoke imagery of the Great War which was frequently reproduced in newspapers, magazines and books during the period. Some were part of the meteorological hermeneutics which read shapes and signs into clouds. Others reproduced uncanny new sites and scenes peculiar to Modernity which, contrary to Benjamin, directly connected terrestrial and atmospheric events in a terrible symbiosis.
However in a photograph Cazneaux took ten years later, The Old and the New, the clouds have changed their valency yet again, they are now thoroughly optimistic and forward-looking. The image is diagonally bisected — nineteenth century slums are shrouded in shadow in the lower left half, and twentieth modernity thrusts up into the upper right half, towards the bright, fresh, watery clouds of the future.
At this point it is reasonable to ask: what does all this have to do with Stieglitz? Stieglitz was an avant-gardist, not a populist. By this time he had seceded from the conventions of Pictorialism. He would have despised the crazy patriotic pieties of Phillips, the overwrought melodramas of Hurley, and the stolid conventionalisms of Cazneaux. The provincial earnestness of Australian photographers would have been an irrelevance to him. In any case Stieglitz’s cloud photographs weren’t about anything other than themselves, totally unlike the clouds in Phillips, Hurley, Fell or Cazneaux, which were dripping with semiosis. However, if there was such a strong popular discourse around clouds in Australia, there was certainly one globally as well. This is because, I think, the destructive torrents of modernity had refigured the conventional role of the sky as the home of God, and allowed humans in their aeroplanes and with their explosions to co-exist with the clouds in heaven. I hope my examples from Australia have established the extraordinary magnetic power clouds had to accrete symbolic meanings to themselves during this period. And I claim that Stieglitz must inevitably have been part of this field of accretive force which clouds had.
Yet if you read accounts of Stieglitz’s photography his shift to clouds in the 1920s is entirely internally driven. Stieglitz’s career must be the most documented of any photographer on earth — by himself, his acolytes, and subsequent historians. In each of the accounts in this procession which has led up to his current heroic status, the cloud pictures are seen the zenith of his career, and in some cases the end point of modernist photography itself. The details of the accounts vary, but in each of them — from his own self-mythologising of ‘How I came to Photograph Clouds’ of 1923, to Waldo Frank and Lewis Mumford’s America and Alfred Stieglitz of 1934, to Dorothy Norman’s hagiographic Alfred Stieglitz: American Seer of 1960 — personal libido and heroic destiny have driven a move forward, and upward, to an endpoint in the clouds.
Some accounts put the clouds in a wider high-art tradition. For instance Mike Weaver has pointed out the Equivalents owe a profound debt to the German Romanticism that Stieglitz steeped himself in during the 1880s. Weaver sees the photographs as forming part of a continuum from the overt allegory of the nineteenth century, exemplified by Adolf Menzel, Joseph Koch and Albert Pinkham Ryder, to the non-symbolic abstraction of the twentieth, exemplified by the member of Stieglitz’s own circle Marsden Hartley. Weaver concludes that Stieglitz remained a German Romantic throughout his life, fantasizing about himself as a ‘solitary horseman, traveling through the landscape by night with only the music of a silent universe to accompany him. An internal alien in America, alienated by it automatism and mechanicalness….’ (H of P p302)
However most others commentators, beginning with Lewis Mumford in the 1930s, have seen Stieglitz’s libidinal drive as the key to his work. There is plenty of evidence they can point to. Amongst the vast volume of Stieglitz’s constant stream of words about photography there is plenty of evidence that he saw his career in libidinal terms. Everybody quotes the thing the sixty-two year old photographer told the 21 year old Dorothy Norman shortly after they met: ‘When I make a picture I make Love’ (Norman p13). Others point to his formidable pornography collection, or quote another comment of his: “Woman receives the world through her womb. That is the seat of her deepest feeling. Mind comes second”. And I counted three separate occasions when he used the penile strength of his own erection as a measure of aesthetic quality. Although it is easier to over-emphasize the importance of small sound-bytes, plucked out of larger contexts, I think it is safe to say that in common with many male artists of the period art making was part of a libidinal economy.
Commentators such as David Peeler and Jay Bochner have cast the clouds as the final act in a libidinal drama of sublimation and transcendence which played itself out at Lake George. In these accounts this drama begins with the sudden re-eroticization of Stieglitz’s photography in a series of Ellen Koeniger in her bathing suit taken in 1915, when Stieglitz was 51. It continuing with his extended portrait of Georgia O’Keefe, in which an intense intellectual, artistic and emotional dialogue is glued together with a strong eroticism. But Stiegliz’s visual libido was promethean, because at the same time as he was photographing O’Keeffe he was also photographing his 16 year old niece Georgia Engelhard, as well as Rebecca Strand, the wife of his protégé Paul Strand.
But then, in the early 1920s, his mother died and his estranged daughter Kitty suffered a mental collapse. He turned to nature, and lifted his head away from the earthy bodies of the females around him and towards the sky. By 1924 (when he was 60) he had made almost his last nudes of O’Keeffe (except for one valedictory session in 1931) and was photographing the sky. However whether his libido was sublimated or transcended in these photographs, all the commentators agreed it nonetheless remained present as a driving force in the overall trajectory of his career.
Does this libidinal understanding of Stieglitz’s drive as America’s leading art photographer inform the ways in which symbolic meaning accretes to his cloud studies? Jay Bochner has pointed out that the name for the cloud pictures went through three stages: first there was Music, when the earth still grounds the sky; then Songs of the Sky, when a hint of terrestrial incident maintains a force of gravity; then the Equivalents where all reference to time and place is lost. As Bochner points out, this transition also favours the different meteorological cloud types which were first named by Luke Howard. Although not strictly chronological, those originally titled Music tend to favour cumulus clouds, the cloud type favoured by Hurley and Phillips into which we are most used to projecting recognizable shapes and symbols, or creating scenarios of Wagnerian passion out of. These clouds can still seem like human bodies projected up into the sky, and at one stage Stieglitz was talking about making a film in which shots of clouds were intercut with close-ups of women’s bodies. Many of the Songs of the Sky are wispy cirrus clouds, not amenable to the imaginative pictorial projection of cumulus clouds, but redolent nonetheless of light brush-strokes, or the delicate tactility of human hair. One of these was for a time re-named Equivalent: Portrait of Georgia No. 3, 1925. However the full-blown Equivalents are of stratus clouds which, many commentators point out, owe much to the ascetic rigors of modernist seriality.
In these ultimate Equivalents the photographic frame has, in Rosalind Krauss’s words, ‘the effect of punching the image … out of the continuous fabric of the sky.’ Stieglitz takes the picture by choosing an instant out of a constantly changing field, so both the sky and Stieglitz make the picture together. These final images, devoid of horizon, terrestrial incident or gravity are, according to Bochner, gestural. Yet the expressionistic, abstract gesture belongs to Stieglitz and to the cloud at one and the same time. It is this which licenses the viewer to produce their own affective response to the abstract images, which are nonetheless of real things. Bochner says: ‘It is their quality of appearing found that frees the viewer.’ (p264) These rigorous, rhythmic, grid-like stratus clouds seem to have finally transcended the Wagnerian drama of the cumulous clouds, or the sensual sweeps of the cirrus clouds.
Yet, to return to my segue from the Australian clouds to Stieglitz’s clouds, in considering the ascetic rigour of the Equivalents, I don’t see how we can ignore the wider popular discourse around clouds at the time, where they were semiotically pregnant with meaning, and always on the verge of having something important to say to us.
And no matter how hard Stieglitz tried to abstract his images and remove them from the symbolic realm, the question of meaning just refused to go away. In the final and fully developed theory of the Equivalent meaning is certainly produced, but only within the reciprocal relationship of viewer and image. In that respect it is rather like Roland Barthes’ ‘punctum’. The ‘equivalence’ exists only for the single viewer, it is ineffable, it can’t be explained or communicated by one viewer to another, and it is created when the viewer invests meaning in the image, just as the image generates emotion in the viewer.
A solitary viewing by Nancy Newhall of a solander-box full of Equivalents reduced her to tears, she came out with a thunderstorm in her head. ‘Oh Stieglitz’, she said, ‘there must be a way to lead those who don’t understand into these things…’. He replied to her: ‘You will have to make your own Equivalents’. Yet nonetheless in 1941 he went through a set off Equivalents being acquired for the Museum of Modern Art and explained to Newhall what they were equivalent to for him. Not surprisingly, themes of birth and death predominated.
Of one he said: “This, as you know, is the Immaculate Conception. I can tell you that because you understand—you don’t misinterpret me.
Of another: “And that—that’s death riding high in the sky. All these things have death in them.” “Ever since the middle Twenties,” Newhall said. “Exactly,” he said, “ever since I realized O’Keeffe couldn’t stay with me.”
Of another he said: “And that’s reaching up beyond the sun, the living point, into darkness, which is also light.”
Of an image which wasn’t of clouds, but of apples and a gabled roof, but which nonetheless ended up being included in the Equivalence series, Stieglitz said to Newhall: “My mother was dying. She was sitting on the porch that day. O’Keeffe was around. I’d been watching this thing for years, wondering, ‘Could I do it?’ I did, and it said something I was feeling.”
However earlier, in discussion with another viewer, he had been even more specific about how the death of his mother produced, in this image, a symbolic ‘Equivalence’ for him. He had said:
‘Perhaps the raindrops are tears. And perhaps that dark entrance that seems to you mysterious is the womb, the place whence we came and where we desire when we are tired and unhappy to return …That is what men desire, and thinking and feeling and working in my way I have discovered this for myself.’
This highly metaphorical reading by Stieglitz of his own photograph returns us to libido. It’s clear from a survey of his nudes that Alfred was a tit-man. As he wrote to the novelist Waldo Frank: ‘I’m hyper-sensitive about Woman and Breast myself’. For me Stieglitz never really achieved lift-off from the earth, he never left the currents and desires of his own body. So, can I tentatively offer a equivalence of my own, a metaphorical reading of Stieglitz’s high-art clouds made from the point of view of the more popular interpretations of cloud messages which were prevalent at the time. If he himself can see raindrops as tears, and a shuttered window as a womb, then I feel justified in seeing his clouds as equivalent to his semen spread out against the sky. Or, if not his semen, then the maternal milk of the women he photographed.
I make this claim rhetorically, rather than gratuitously, in order to maintain that the Equivalents needn’t just be Stieglitz’s and Stieglitz’s alone, they can also be seen as part of a wider visual discourse in the early twentieth century that goes, literally, from the sublime to the ridiculous.
In conclusion: what of clouds now? The process of the loss of innocence which began with the Great War has only continued. After a century of nuclear explosions, cloud seeding, a hole in the ozone layer, pollution, and global warming, the clouds are as sullied and compromised as the rest of us. Yet they retain their redemptive power. In 1991, when she was eighty, the great Australian photographer Olive Cotton took a photograph which looks very much like a ‘Song of the Sky’. But it’s of a vapour trail from one of the commercial jets which flew over her property Spring Forest near Cowra on the Sydney to Adelaide run. Nonetheless it is as elegant as anything Stieglitz did, and speaks of transience and the permanence of impermanence as powerfully as he ever did. This photograph, like all cloud pictures, allows us to put ourselves in two places at once, on the ground and up in the sky, in the here and now and in a space of transition between past and future. But they are no longer the product of the natural respiration of vapour and water as they were for Shelley, but are the result of jet engines hurtling through the sky. Yet on the ground, here in Australia, we remain tiny fragile bodies under clouds which are unchanging in their changeability.