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“Behind All of Us Stands Stieglitz”: On the Photographer's Later Obsession with Clouds, the Subject That No One Else Cared For

“Behind All of Us Stands Stieglitz”: On the Photographer's Later Obsession with Clouds, the Subject That No One Else Cared For
Alfred Stieglitz. Image via Widewalls.

Credited with helping make photography a credible form of art, Alfred Stieglitz (1864 - 1946) is one of the most important photographers of the 20th century. In addition to redefining the medium over his 50-year career as a photographer, Stieglitz also promoted art, running several galleries in New York in the early part of the century, and was also married to Georgia O'Keeffe, his most common model. Below is an illuminating excerpt from Alfred Stieglitz: Taking Pictures, Making Painters by Phyllis Rose, published this month by Jewish Lives. For more on the fascinating biography of the revolutionary artist, visit Jewish Lives.

There is a tendency, as artists age, to narrow their focus. One is naturally less likely to race around in search of material, but, at a deeper level, one tends, aging, to see more in less. Steichen spent his last years photographing one shad bush in his back yard. Some artists—Monet comes to mind—moved gently towards abstraction. As he got older, Alfred Stieglitz wanted increasingly to de-emphasize the subject and concentrate on the interaction of darkness and light in his prints. That is one among many reasons he turned to photographing clouds.

Although he continued to make portraits, especially of young women, of friends, and, above all, of Georgia O’Keeffe , the major new projects of his later years were the photographs of Lake George, especially the clouds, and photographs taken from windows in New York City. Both depend on the immobility of the photographer and the constant motion of the world beyond. Both show Stieglitz fascinated by change from moment to moment and with the drama of light. The movement of the clouds, the intensity of sunlight behind them, the shadows on the facades of skyscrapers, the rhythm of lit and unlit windows—all condensed visual life to a pleasure that was essentially musical. Every change in momentum between light and shade pleased him in a way that seemed related to his inner states.

Alfred Stieglitz, Equivalent, 1926. Image via The Met. Alfred Stieglitz, Equivalent , 1926. Image via The Met.

At first, he used his beloved view camera to photograph the sky, but this presented him with difficulties. First of all, the clouds had to be framed and focused on the viewing glass, to be followed by the insertion of a film plate and removal of the cover plate. By the time the emulsion was actually exposed, the clouds would have moved from where he had first seen them. We are talking of seconds: the time it took to expose a plate with a view camera would produce a completely different configuration of clouds. The view camera’s other problem was that it only could be tilted slightly. You could not simply pick it up and aim it at the sky. It had to be on a tripod. The total disorientation Stieglitz sought in photographing clouds could not be achieved that way. What the big camera did provide were eight by ten negatives, but eventually he decided to give up that nice size for flexibility.

When, in 1923, he switched to his handheld (but still fairly cumbersome) Graflex, he could point his lens directly at the sky and eliminate all signs of terrestrial orientation, creating images that read as considerably more abstract. The Graflex was a single-lens-reflex camera, meaning the image stayed in the photographer’s view until the shutter was tripped: Stieglitz could see on the glass exactly what image he would be capturing. Even with that, photographing the fast-moving clouds was tricky business. Stieglitz did not have a telephoto lens to size and frame them. He had to wait until exactly what he wanted appeared on the viewfinder. The technical challenge was great. Either the brightness of the clouds and of the sky were very nearly the same, or, even harder to work with, the range of brightness was extreme, perhaps including the disk of the sun itself. This was the kind of problem—technical—that Stieglitz had loved from his earliest days as a photographer. You can see how photographing clouds must have been fun for him. Although he never would have admitted to having fun. As John Szarkowski said, it was “similar to, but better than, shooting clay pigeons, since in that game one scores a simple yes or no (the clay saucer is either broken or not); whereas in photographing clouds the result falls on a long and open-ended scale from tedious to electrifying.” 1

Alfred Stieglitz, Equivalent, 1925. Image via The Met. Alfred Stieglitz, Equivalent, 1925. Image via The Met.

The cloud pictures have a hard time living up to the weight of meaning Stieglitz imposed upon them when he presented them as “ equivalents of my most profound life experience, my basic philosophy of life.” 2 In claiming so romantic a justification for his work, Stieglitz unwittingly threw down a gauntlet to critics and photographers who value photography for its objectivity and consider pompous and ridiculous the pretense of spiritual content in a photograph of clouds.

One young photographer went to the print room of the Met to see the Stieglitz pictures shortly after they arrived there. He found three or four of them very exciting, including an O’Keeffe print he called “one of the best things I’ll ever see.” This young man, Walker Evans , had paid visits to Stieglitz at the Intimate Gallery, the first time bringing with him a box of his early work, in the form of 2 ½ by 4 ½ snapshots. When he arrived, Stieglitz was out, but Georgia O’Keeffe was there, and she spent some time going over Evans’ work, to his immense satisfaction. She showed a great understanding of photography and told him he could get more out of some of the negatives. But when Stieglitz came, perhaps unhappy to find O’Keeffe tête-à-tête with a young man, perhaps unimpressed with a box of small snapshots presented as photographic work, he was not encouraging. He told Evans his work was “very good” and to “go on working,” but he was not particularly warm and he did not buy anything as a gesture of support, as he frequently did with young artists.

Evans reciprocated the disdain, turning Stieglitz into someone he could usefully reject, defining himself by his difference from a Stieglitz he simplified into a romantic pictorialist. He especially hated Stieglitz’s personal manner—his old world affections like the loden cape he often wore, his aestheticism, his philosophizing. He went back to the Intimate Gallery a few times but with a marked lack of sympathy for the proprietor. He wrote a friend, “Saw Stieglitz again. He talked at length. He should never open his mouth. Nobody should, but especially Stieglitz.” On that visit, Stieglitz showed Evans some photographs the young man considered excellent—clouds, grass, the rump of an old white horse, the bark of a tree. But he hated the pretentiousness of what Stieglitz said about his work—for example, that it was years before he dared to do the pictures of the tree bark. He also hated Stieglitz’s “caption” for the picture of the horse, “Spiritual America.” For Evans, Stieglitz was history. “Oh my God, clouds? Or O’Keeffe’s hands, breasts—I was doing junk cars.” 3

Evans was in the vanguard. American photographers would increasingly see themselves as cool recorders of fact, emphasizing their lack of emotional reaction to what they photographed and photographing subjects that were not conventionally beautiful: Evans’s sharecroppers, Diane Arbus’s dwarfs and giants, Irving Penn’s aborigines, Robert Frank’s Americans, to mention just a few. Reality was to be found in the tossed away, the rejected, the offbeat, precisely in what was not routinely valued, whereas Stieglitz was still making love with his camera in a giant Whitmanesque embrace of the universe. “Oh my God, clouds?”

Alfred Stieglitz, Equivalent 27C, 1933. Image via The Met. Alfred Stieglitz, Equivalent 27C , 1933. Image via The Met.

But that was only one young artist’s reaction. For Arthur Dove and O’Keeffe, the Equivalents were revelatory, showing how even photographic images could be abstract and still have emotional power. Dove, who had almost no money, bought two of the Equivalents . Isamu Noguchi, as an unknown twenty-one-year-old, also reacted to them strongly. He came into the Intimate Gallery one day when O’Keeffe’s work was on the wall and spoke to Stieglitz about the “wonder” of her paintings.

“They are born in wonder, just as there is wonder in us as you and I discover each other,” said Stieglitz, showing why young people liked him and older people found him annoying.

Impressed with his visitor, Stieglitz brought out some cloud photographs. Noguchi looked at the tiny prints—the ones Stieglitz showed him were printed on postcard paper—and said, “That is art.”  Stieglitz told him he was the first of the “youngsters” to understand the prints, to which Noguchi replied “that nature was like a huge keyboard of a musical instrument and that the man who could pick out the chords, could see the relationships, was the artist.” 4

The account of Noguchi’s visit, besides showing Stieglitz’s way with the gifted young and testifying to the impact these photographs had when they were first made, also suggests how they were meant to be seen, intimately, passed from hand to hand, as part of an ongoing discussion of art, or in some other way that allowed for intense personal engagement.

Nancy Newhall, the photography curator and writer, recorded how deeply skeptical she had been of the cloud photographs as a young woman. “Frankly, I thought they were mostly humbug, and Stieglitz at his romantic worst.”

Stieglitz tried to explain to her what each one meant to him. One was the Immaculate Conception, another a prayer, another “death riding high in the sky.” Another was “reaching up beyond the sun, the living point, into darkness, which is also light.” They all had death in them, he said, because he started to do them after he realized that O’Keeffe could not stay with him. This was no help to Nancy Newhall.  His “dramatic anecdotes” did not move her.

Then one afternoon he turned her loose with several boxes of Equivalents . She was one of the only people he trusted to handle his prints unsupervised, a privilege he did not accord even to Dorothy Norman. After a couple of hours, she rejoined him in tears and in despair about how to make others feel their power. For her that power had to do with the series as a series, the pieces rearranged to produce different resonances.

“You will have to make your own Equivalents,” Stieglitz said, and Newhall took this as encouragement to arrange photographic sequences, sometimes with text, sometimes without, for exhibitions and for printed books, as she went on to do, with Paul Strand and Ansel Adams. “Behind all of us stands Stieglitz,” Newhall said.  “Without the Equivalents and the sequence concept... we might never have done what we have.” 5

1 Alfred Stieglitz at Lake George , p. 28.

2 Norman, An American Seer , p. 144.

3 See James Mellow, Walker Evans (New York: Basic Books, 1999). Richard Prince in 1983 did a “re-photograph” of Garry Gross’s photograph of ten-year-old Brooke Shields standing naked in a bathub, oiled, made up, being photographed for Playboy with her mother’s permission.  He called it Spiritual America .

4 Alfred Stieglitz Talking , pp. 62-63.

5 “Alfred Stieglitz: Notes for a Biography,” in From Adams to Stieglitz: Pioneers of Modern Photography , pp. 107-108. Adams imagined the first portfolio he produced as his own Equivalents and dedicated it to Stieglitz.


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