Present Tense: An Imagined Grammar of Portraiture in the Digital Age

‘Present Tense’, National Portrait Gallery, Real Time Media Arts, August, 2010

National Portrait Gallery Until 22 August

What has become of the genre of portraiture in the digital age? What actual works have artists made in response to that vague list of usual suspects we all automatically reel off whenever contemporary media technologies are mentioned: social networking sites, mobile phone cameras, 3D scanners, rapid prototypers, tomography, and on-line avatars? This show answers that question with a diverse collection of strong works by twenty-seven well-established Australian and international artists, which are installed with intelligence and wit. It’s good to see a show of photography and digital media which has been fully thought through and tightly selected by a proper curator, Michael Desmond, who has a broad knowledge and an international horizon. This show is a refreshing change from those loose surveys ‘around’ themes which appear to be chosen mainly for their convenience, or even worse, those ubiquitous but lazily conceived competitions which we get too often.

A good way of looking at the show as a whole is that it is about the interaction of new technologies with the traditional methods of portraiture — painting, sculpture and photography — which already have their own pre-established ‘grammars’. Thus we have Jonathan Nichols’ flat, though engaging, paintings of young girls, each with a slight air of ambiguous familiarity. But wait, these aren’t paintings of the girls themselves, but of their Facebook thumbnails. The tug we feel is not towards their offering of themselves to us as individual viewers, but the offering of themselves to the generalized gaze of the world wide social network.

In another breathtaking remodalization of an old technology, both Chuck Close and Aaron Seeto work with daguerreotypes, that primeval photographic process where all of photography’s uncanniness seems to manifest itself most magically. From the point of view the twenty-first century, Close’s daguerreotyped heads and bodies remind the viewer a bit of a holograms. And as viewers move their head from side to side to get the right angle, and the image wells up from the visual depths like a surfacing whale, that familiar tingle up the spine they get, that simultaneous feeling of proximity and distance, is no longer configured historically — back into the depths of the mid nineteenth-century — but existentially, from one human presence to another. In contrast, Aaron Seeto’s daguerreotype translations of right-click grabs from web reports of the 2005 Cronulla Riots make a more overt, even arch, point about the permanence and impermanence, the legibility and illegibility, of historical memory when it is entrusted to the oceanic swirls and currents of the internet.

The viewer has to do fair bit of head wiggling in this show. Installed across from the daguerreotypes there are two anamorphic skulls, both referring to the Holbein’s famous vanitas intervention at the bottom of his 1553 portrait of The Ambassadors.  In a diptych the painter Juan Ford bravely confronts an X-Ray of a skull. From our point of view, in front of the diptych, the skull is safely distorted and in another space. But, we realize, from his point of view within the diptych it would be restored to its correct, archetypal shape of warning and fear. The American Robert Lazzarini’s anamorphic skull is a life-size three-dimensional sculpture made of actual bone material embedded in resin. As we circle warily around, it fleetingly looms out of its anamorphic parallel universe and into our own.

In a similar way, the faces of Justine Khamara’s angry and surprised parents suddenly pop out at us when we stand directly in front of the bulging aluminium constructions on which their flat images have been printed. It is the viewer’s exact position at the apex of the constructions which animates them, seemingly jolting them out of some kind of two dimensional repose.

This show foregrounds the fundamental image-making actions which have now become proper to contemporary portraiture. No longer just the snap the of camera’s shutter or the incremental description of the painter’s brush, but now also the trundling progress of the flatbed scanner and the circular pan of the 3D scanner.

Stelarc, in classic techno-narcissist style, stretches the skin of his head across a flat acrylic table that measures 1.2 times 1.8 metres, to invite us to delectate on every one of his pores and bristles. The German artist Karin Sander makes exact, three dimensional, indexical sculptures of her subjects at one-fifth scale by using three-dimensional scanning and rapid prototyping technology. What are these mini-thems? Three-dimensional photos? Optical clones? Plastic avatars? Whatever they are, one isn’t enough. I found myself wanting the artist to be true to her namesake, August Sander, and methodically create an army of miniature German people.

In contrast to the indexical, technologically produced three dimensional portrait, the Korean artist Osang Gwon takes hundreds of small photographs of every inch of her young, punky, Korean subject, and glues them on to hand-carved life-sized Styrofoam figure in a loose collagistic style. This produces a strong but unstable sense of the physical presence of her subject, as if her skin and clothes, and indeed her whole persona, is on the verge of peeling away with nothing left beneath.

There are plenty of hits of humanist sympathy to be had from this show. In 2008 the Dutch artist Geert van Kesteren collected mobile phone shots SMSed out of Iraq and Syria. Enlarged, framed and gridded up the wall, these ephemeral and off-the-cuff of images become a monumental document of geo-political conflict where snapshots of happy family gatherings and friends at play, sit insouciantly beside shots taken out of the windows of moving cars of dead bodies by the road or the interiors of burnt out houses.

The masterful Dutch photographer Rineke Dijkstra provides the emotional centre of gravity for the show. Her simple nude photographs of startled young mothers clutching their newborn babies like bags of shopping about to burst remind us again of the power of the straight photo. But her stunning two-gun video installation, The Buzzclub, LiverpoolUK/Mysteryworld, Zaandam NL, also from the mid-nineties, confirms the pre-eminence of the video portrait. Dijkstra has, presumably, momentarily pulled young off-their-faces clubbers straight from the dance floors of the two clubs and put them in front of her video camera in a bare white space off to the side. But the laser lightshows and the duff duff are obviously still going on inside their skulls. As they continue to work their jaws and jig robotically we get full voyeuristic access to them and, even though their interior individualities have temporarily gone AWOL, we nonetheless feel an extraordinary tenderness welling up for them.

The theme of interior and exterior slowly emerges as a thread in this show. For instance Scott Redford videoed fellow artist Jeremy Hynes performing a private, improvised homage to Kurt Cobain by writing his name on a cigarette and inhaling its now transubstantiated smoke deep into his lungs, before sobbing with genuine loss and longing. In a sucker punch for the attentive reader of the catalogue we learn that Jeremy Hynes was himself killed in a road accident a few months after the video was shot. Across the way from this projection is Petrina Hicks’ Ghost in the Shell where we silently circle around a pure, innocent young girl — or perhaps she rotates before us? Then, ever so discreetly, ever so elegantly, a tendril of smoke or mist escapes from between her lips. Her spirit? Her soul? Just her ciggy smoke? She just continues to rotate without answer.

In the end this is a humanist show, about ghosts more than shells. It argues that despite all of the cold digital technology in the world portraits are still about the promise of finding the warm interior of a person via their exterior. The show’s inclusion of some three-dimensional ultrasound images of foetuses in the womb could have easily been over-the-top and obvious in its point about our intimate adoption of new imaging technologies. Until we see one intrauterine image of twins in which one foetus is caught sticking its toe into the eye of its sibling. A rivalry which, we think to ourselves, will no doubt continue for the rest of their lives.

Martyn Jolly

Martyn Jolly is Head of Photography and Media Arts at the Australian National University School of Art.

Photographies: New Histories, New Practices

Foreword for unpublished book based on PHOTOGRAPHIES: NEW HISTORIES, NEW PRACTICES conference at ANU

As a discipline, the history of photography has undergone significant transformation in the past few decades. It has long since overflowed the channels of traditional art history which it first followed. and has now become concerned with more than establishing the canonic artists of the medium, or tracing the teleologies and genealogies of its visual styles or artistic genres. Scholars in disciplines as diverse as anthropology, history and cultural studies have found many uses for photographs and much to explore. Since the early 1980s these developments have been chronicled in such signal articles as Douglas Crimp’s ‘The Museum’s Old / The Library’s New Subject’.[1] It could be argued that the particular ubiquity of photographs has driven the whole ‘pictorial turn’ in philosophy where, as W. J. T. Mitchell describes it, ‘pictures form a point of peculiar friction and discomfort across a broad range of intellectual enquiry … emerging as a central topic of discussion in the human sciences in the way that language [once] did …’.[2]

This broad pictorial turn in the humanities has been complemented by a cultural and social turn in the history of photography itself. The histories which are now most commonly referred to by photography students, such as Mary Warner Marien’s Photography: A Cultural History or Michel Frizot’s A New History of Photography, tend to follow the innovative model established by books such as Giséle Freund’s Photography and Society, with its separate sections each tackling a different aspect of the medium, rather than once classic texts such as Beaumont Newhall’s History of Photography, with it cumulative teleology of styles and techniques.[3] Current photographic histories approach the problem of photography from a variety of different directions, and discuss the medium by taking different slices through it, or core sample from it, rather than telling it as a unified story. Chapter headings in generalist histories of photography are now more likely to be conjunctive phrases such as ‘Photography and War’, Photography and Science’, or ‘Photography and the Body’, rather than the bald labels of particular genres or periods within photography. Another new approach to photographic history, exemplified by Singular Images: Essays on Remarkable Photographs, is to focus down to a small selection of key images as the starting points for broader investigations into the various ideas that every photograph mobilises.[4]

Anthologies such as Christopher Pinney and Nicolas Peterson’s Photography’s Other Histories have gone even further towards breaking apart the pre-given mold in which photographic history has been cast.[5] In books such as these, photography is a powerful cultural practice performed differently by different cultures, at different times, and in different private or public contexts. It produces meanings which are far from being self-evident or universal, but which can nonetheless empower cross-cultural dialogue. Other anthropologically orientated anthologies, such as Elizabeth Edwards’s Photographs Objects Histories: On the Materiality if Images, have focussed not on photography as an ever-widening pool of images, but the photograph itself as a discrete anthropological artefact.[6] This shift of critical focus away from interpreting the visual content of images towards understanding the social exchange of images as objects, is characteristic of recent photographic scholarship.

Perhaps this shift has been accelerated by the fact that photography has finally ceded to new media its position as the ultimate medium of theoretical contemporaneity. Several decades ago the photograph, with it ubiquitous presence throughout culture and society, was the very sign of contemporary experience within cultural theory. Now the explosion of new media has eclipsed it. But even within new media the single photograph survives, pretty much in tact, as an absolutely crucial and fundamental component of the accelerated trajectories of mobile and on-line technologies. Today photographs are taken in their billions to be emailed or uploaded, but in the nineteenth century they were also taken in their hundreds of thousands to be circulated amongst individuals. The discourses generated by new media therefore continue to owe much to the history and theory of photography, while the study of photography itself continues its close attention to the continuing reality of photographs in our lives.

None of the disciplines that have recently turned to photographs for new sources of meaning have been able to use them as simple, unproblematic evidence for historical research or cultural discourse. Photographs are, and remain, not just slippery semiotically, but also ambiguous ontologically; so their simultaneous status as historical documents, physical objects and time events continues to be explored and re-explored by a widening range of theorists, philosophers and writers. Even literary writers are undergoing a photographic turn. Photographs have become literary objects, as much as artistic objects, found in novels as well as in art galleries. The photograph has long been used as a figurative metaphor or a plot device for novelists exploring the memories or desires of their characters, but now actual photographs are being used, not as extraneous ‘illustrations’, but as textual operators. W. G. Sebald is the most famous of a range of writers who have recently used the deadpan allusiveness of the photograph as an integral, if not entirely comfortable, component of their texts, to be read by the reader in the same poetical mode as the words in which they are embedded. Sebald’s literary photography is now even beginning to have an impact back onto art photographers.[7]

Photographs have therefore been the grist to many mills. They have given rise to an extraordinarily rich and varied quantity of research, writing and speculation — from historical research to imaginative creative writing — in an extraordinarily diverse range of theoretical contexts. Photographs are convenient because there is no shortage of them and they are all around us all the time. Nothing is simpler than plucking some out and turning them to work. But often in this work the photograph itself is considered with only enough attention to make a larger point, before any further investigation of it is dropped. The specificity of the individual photograph itself, along with all of its attendant uses and re-uses over time, its transformations and modifications as both physical object and mobile image, are often left far behind. The meanings of particular photographs have formed a key currency of critical thought in disciplines such as history, cultural studies, anthropology, and so on. But once those meanings get caught up in the theoretical streams within whatever discipline they are serving, they sometimes seem to flow over and around the actual photographs themselves, forming larger currents that, through their own dynamic turbulence, obscure the original objects beneath.

Lately, however, a wider and wider range of scholars are turning back to the photograph itself, as both a semiotic event and a material artefact. They work from the photograph up, rather than the theory down. They do this not to re-invent some kind of connoisseurship of the artefact, or to reduce the image to a static collection of facts, but to assert that much remains to be learnt by returning as often as possible to the source of photographic meaning, which is not just particular photographers, nor just particular reproductive technologies, but both of them together. Photographs are dense complex things in their own right, and these scholars want to slow our attention down to give that density its due. Each of the authors, irrespective of their interest or approach, have been primarily driven by the particular qualities of particular photographs. This turn to the specificity of the photograph itself is the first of three themes which run through the chapters in this book.

For instance, Geoffrey Batchen’s research re-embeds photographs in the context that gave rise to them in the first place, which is never just the rarified thoughts and feelings of the photographer, or their visionary ambition, but often complex commercial imperatives and technological realities. From this basis he has been able to propose an alternative model of photographic history which puts photography as work at its centre. In discussing the rivalry between Talbot’s photographic business in Reading which used his own process, and the first studios in London which licensed the daguerreotype process, Batchen establishes that photographs are never just the product of one local context, they were always, right from the moment of their origin, embedded in international currents.

As well as the importance of a close attention to the photograph as object, the currents through which these photographs circled the globe form the second dominant theme of this book. But in addition, we shift the focus of these global currents southwards, away from the dominant presence of Europe and America as the site for photographic history, towards Asia and the Pacific. For too long the photography of these regions, where the global politics and social change of the last two hundred and fifty years has been at its most raw and intense, has only been seen reflected in the mirror of European and American photography. Questions were often framed merely in terms of how Asia and the Pacific changed European and American photographers as they passed through the region, or how the careers of Asian and Pacific photographers could be stitched into larger global narratives generated in Europe and America. The writers in this collection are not interested in such an approach because they start from specific photographs in specific contexts.

Ken Hall, for example, starts with an almost forensic examination of a partially obscured inscription on an early studio group portrait depicting a British colonist settler and a group of South Island Maori, and then proceeds to open the image out to a large and complex story. John L. Tran looks at Taisho Pictorialism, a Japanese strain of the global Pictorialist movement, which used Pictorialist nostalgia to help construct an emerging Japanese identity. Likewise, Victoria Garnons-Williams casts a new and surprising light on the well-known Grafton Aboriginal portraits of J.W. Lindt. These images have long circulated in Australian history almost as icons of the colonial treatment of Aborigines. However Garnos-Williams returns to their source in Grafton, to the almost microscopic surface of the photograph itself. Other chapters read and analyse well-know photographs with an unprecedented closeness, and with an unprecedented access to the original context of their production to offer new and more complex understandings. For instance Shelley Rice’s survey of the evolution of political directorial photography and masquerade within American photography, and its complex relationship to photography’s more usual ‘documentary’ and touristic function, is given even more complexity in terms of the globalised currents of identity politics when photographers such as Australia’s Fiona Foley and Samoa’s Shigeyuki Kihara are added to the discussion.

These chapters reflect the recent burgeoning scholarship from Australian and New Zealand Universities, and reveal the fresh perspectives that are still being opened up by the close reading of key photographs and collections. For instance through Tim Smith’s detailed work on the glass plates of the photographer Paul Foelsche, a more complete understanding of the circumstances behind the photographs emerges which complicates the historical narratives they have previously been used to justify. Max Quanchi analyses a large collection of postcards from four Pacific colonies in the late nineteen and early twentieth centuries. His quantitative analysis of the various categories of subject matter, as well as his analysis of individual images, reveals a unified visual construction of the colonial world which was posted back to various metropolitan centres, irrespective of whether the colonies were German, British, French or Australian.

In a more poetic meditation on the ontology of photography, Australian novelist Gail Jones, who is well known for using the idea of photography as an element in her fiction, considers the encounters with portrait photography of a wide range of writers, from Henry James to Don DeLillo. All of her literary sources have responded in various ways to the subtle, yet compelling mysticism of photographs, which for them comes from the ambiguous and mysterious relationship in each of the images they encounter between fixity and flux, presence and absence.

In this final chapter Jones homes in on what has emerged as a third major theme of this book: that is, that the return to the specificity of the photograph as object, and the increased attention to the networks and flows in which those photographs are embedded, only brings us closer to the photograph’s ultimate ineffability. No matter how forensically close we get to actual images, to the faces and the eyes of their subjects, and no matter how detailed and sophisticated our analysis of the specific conditions of their production and dissemination, it is still the narrow but unbridgeable fissure between reality and the uncanny copy of that reality that drives our fascination with the photograph. As Jones quotes Giorgio Agamben, the photograph remains the site of a gap, a ‘sublime breech’ between what we can see and what we can know.

Martyn Jolly and Helen Ennis

Crimp, D. (1989). The Museum’s Old/The Library’s new Subject. The Contest of meaning : critical histories of photography. R. Bolton. Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press: xix, 407 p.

Edwards, E. and J. Hart (2004). Photographs objects histories : on the materiality of images. London ; New York, Routledge.

Freund, G. (1980). Photography & society. London, Fraser.

Frizot, M. (1998). A new history of photography. Köln, Könemann.

Marien, M. W. (2006). Photography : a cultural history. London, Laurence King.

“This survey of international photography, which examines the discipline across the full range of its uses by both professionals and amateurs, has been expanded and brought up to date for this second edition. Each of the eight chapters takes a period of up to forty years and examines the medium through the lenses of art, science, social science, travel, war, fashion, the mass media and individual practitioners.”–BOOK JACKET.

Mitchell, W. J. T. (1994). The Pictorial Turn. Picture theory : essays on verbal and visual representation. Chicago, University of Chicago Press: 11 – 34.

Newhall, B. (1997). The history of photography : from 1839 to the present. New York

Boston, Museum of Modern Art ;

Distributed by Bulfinch/Little Brown.

Patt, L., Dlilbohner, et al. (2007). Searching for Sebald : photography after W. G. Sebald. Los Angeles, Calif., Institute of Cultural Inquiry.

Pinney, C. and N. Peterson (2003). Photography’s other histories. Durham, Duke University Press.

[1] Crimp, D. (1989). The Museum’s Old/The Library’s new Subject. The Contest of meaning : critical histories of photography. R. Bolton. Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press: xix, 407 p.

[2] Mitchell, W. J. T. (1994). The Pictorial Turn. Picture theory : essays on verbal and visual representation. Chicago, University of Chicago Press: p13.

[3] Marien, M. W. (2006). Photography : a cultural history. London, Laurence King.
Frizot, M. (1998). A new history of photography. Köln, Könemann.
Freund, G. (1980). Photography & society. London, Fraser.
Newhall, B. (1997). The history of photography : from 1839 to the present. New York Boston, Museum of Modern Art ; Distributed by Bulfinch/Little Brown.

[4] Howarth, Sophie, (Ed.) (2006) Singular Images: Essays on Remarkable Photographs, New York, Aperture

[5] Pinney, C. and N. Peterson (2003). Photography’s other histories. Durham, Duke University Press.

[6] Edwards, E. and J. Hart (2004). Photographs objects histories : on the materiality of images. London ; New York, Routledge.

[7] Patt, L., Dlilbohner, et al. (2007). Searching for Sebald : photography after W. G. Sebald. Los Angeles, Calif., Institute of Cultural Inquiry.

Equivalent to What?

‘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.

Martyn Jolly