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Unrarified Air: Alfred Stieglitz and the Modernism of Equivalence

© 2018 Johns Hopkins University Press

In 1923 Alfred Stieglitz published “How I Came to Photograph Clouds,” a short essay in which he writes:

I always watched clouds. Studied them. . . . So I began to work with the clouds—and it was with great excitement . . . Every time I developed I was so wrought up, always believing I had nearly gotten what I was after—but had failed. A most tantalizing sequence of days and weeks.[1]

This “tantalizing sequence” of initial experimentation would later yield a formidable legacy, as Stieglitz would spend nearly a decade (1923–31) producing the pivotal series of cloud photographs he would title the Equivalents.[2] During this period he printed and exhibited hundreds of cloud images, most taken during the summers he spent with Georgia O’Keeffe at Lake George, in the Adirondacks. When Stieglitz turned his camera to the skies in the early 1920s, the resulting photographs sometimes included a sliver of horizon or the silhouette of a tree, inclusions which hold the vastness of the cloudscape in relative perspective against the scale of the earth. Yet by the late 1920s, most visual references to solid ground disappear from the work, seeming to set the clouds adrift within their frames. Free of mooring, their spatial proportions and positioning indeterminate, the cloud images become disoriented from any authoritative vantage: their shapes and textures may imply certain atmospheric vectors or conditions, but no single beholder’s grounded point of view definitively calibrates them (fig. 1).

Alfred Stieglitz, Equivalent, 1925, gelatin silver print, 11.8 x 9.2 cm, Alfred Stieglitz Collection, 1928, 29.128.4.
Fig. 1. Alfred Stieglitz, Equivalent, 1925, gelatin silver print, 11.8 x 9.2 cm, Alfred Stieglitz Collection, 1928, 29.128.4. Image courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.

While critics frequently convey the disorientation that the Equivalents provoke in viewers, interpretations of this vertiginous experience tend to divide into two critical camps—one reflecting a formalist investment in modernism, the other reflecting a philosophical investment in transcendental idealism. When Stieglitz’s clouds are considered in modernist terms they are most often seen to indicate “radical absence,” as sheer and arbitrary signs that potently signify a missing referent.[3] Per Rosalind Krauss’s influential reading, Stieglitz exemplifies Stanley Cavell’s early definition of the modernist artist, a figure tasked above all with revealing the criteria upon which his aesthetic medium fundamentally depends. Krauss argues that Stieglitz reveals the “essence” of modern photography in the technique of the cut or crop, which punches the cloud images out of “the continuous fabric of the sky” (“Stieglitz/Equivalents,” 134). Within this interpretive framework, the logic of equivalence suggested by the work’s title polemically equates clouds with a monumental vacancy: the “absence . . . of the world and its objects, supplanted by the presence of the sign” (140). In other words, Stieglitz’s project is seen to disclose an exemplary modernist aim by transforming the “natural signs” of clouds into the “unnatural signs, into the cultural language” of modernism itself (135). In Krauss’s account, clouds operate for Stieglitz as a kind of non-subject that allows him to give the unique mediating properties of photography his undivided attention—the evanescence of his content pointing up the coalescence of his form.[4] Here Stieglitz’s search for illuminating equivalences uncovers the fundamental modernist problem of correspondences—that unbridgeable chasm of difference between representation and referent, between clouds in a photograph and clouds in the sky. With this correlation irrevocably ruptured, the photographer’s search for equivalence can only finally depict the fact of disconnection, absence, and self-referentiality.

Yet while for Krauss Stieglitz may represent a modernist semiotics of absence and abstraction, his clouds have just as frequently been framed as signs of divine presence made visible, or what Stieglitz himself once described as “God in some form or other.”[5] Beginning with Waldo Frank in 1919, a long line of commentators have asserted Stieglitz’s place in an American tradition of transcendental idealism that traces back to Ralph Waldo Emerson. Frank describes this idealist project as a “transcending leap away from all that was mortal-human.”[6] Those who follow in Emerson’s stead, Frank observes, have “a way of flying off from an opaque world into translucent aether” (Our America, 156). For Frankian critics, Stieglitz’s clouds uphold this strain of transcendentalism by seeming to provide a “transcendental escape,” a portal into a divine order that lies behind or beyond the natural world (80). In this view, the logic of the Equivalents works to bridge the unbridgeable by confirming the fundamental transcendental promise of correspondence between visible and invisible worlds.

These two interpretive frames present dramatically oppositional accounts of Stieglitz’s aesthetic investments: Stieglitz-as-modernist formalistically seeks in clouds the technical markers that would authenticate the medium of photography, while Stieglitz-as-transcendentalist idealistically seeks in clouds the spiritual markers that would substantiate a divine order. Within the Equivalents as a modernist project there is no equivalence between what is inside and what is outside the cropped edge of the photograph, as the cloud images are an abstract referent with no actual connection to the world from which they are cut. Within a transcendentalist project, a direct equivalence can be drawn between Stieglitz’s symbolic ordering of clouds and a divinely-ordered cosmos, photographic clouds and physical clouds each heralding a transcendent creative power and a transcendent perceptual experience.

Notably, these contrasting frameworks share one critical assumption: for both, Stieglitz’s clouds are signs for something other than themselves. Yet Stieglitz would conversely claim that his predominant interest was in photographing clouds as clouds—that in lieu of any high conceit through which clouds might demark or signify something absent or other or beyond, he was in a most material sense simply considering the sky: “Clouds and their relationship to the rest of the world, and clouds for themselves interested me, and clouds which were most difficult to photograph—nearly impossible” (“How I,” 235). This passage condenses the impetus behind the Equivalents for Stieglitz, identifying three key facets of his project that in turn inform the structure of this article. In what follows I will consider the radical empirical relation of clouds to the world, the radical perceptual objective of seeing “clouds for themselves,” and the radical formal challenge clouds offer to the medium of photography.[7] As I hope to show, Stieglitz’s approach to these photographs is consistently guided by a logic of equivalence that does not wish the clouds to recall assumptive referents (they are not diaphanous emblems of a divinity divorced from nature, nor analogous projections of Stieglitz’s own psychological states, nor vaulted icons of his medium’s advancing reach and focus). Instead, if the clouds of the Equivalents can be meaningfully appraised as clouds—manifesting the contiguity and consonance of matter, rather than gesturing at semiotic correlatives—this logic of equivalence can enable for Stieglitz, through photography, new integrations of the self with the world, new symmetry between the perspective of the artist and the perspective of the viewer, and a new melding of art with its modernist milieu.

Part one, “Clouds and the World,” reconsiders Stieglitz’s relationship to a line of American transcendentalism that begins with Emerson. Aligning the Equivalents with Emerson’s own fascination with the sky, I argue that both men privilege clouds as visible manifestations of atmosphere, that amorphous medium connecting earthly and cosmic existence. As I ultimately contend, Stieglitz, like Emerson, should not be reductively associated with an idealism that would seek transcendence from the physical world; rather, he looked to the clouds in order to ground himself more fully in the place where he found himself. Part two, “Clouds for Themselves,” situates Stieglitz’s project in relation to nineteenth-century psychological investigations that identify clouds as primary sites for examining physiological perception and imaginative projection. By thwarting the perceiver’s interpretive urge to cast the clouds as emblems of something else, Stieglitz’s Equivalents create conditions under which the indeterminacy of the images and the indeterminate process of perception might be pointedly magnified. When appraising Stieglitz’s images as “clouds for themselves,” his transcendentalism need not stand opposed to his modernism. In part three, “The Modernist Mediality of Photography,” I reposition Stieglitz’s cloud series in an alternate lineage of modernism that counterintuitively equates spirit and matter, and which blurs distinctions between artistic representation and lived experience—a modernism guided by a logic of equivalence that is tangibly integrative, not conceptually differential. Within this genealogy, the figure of the modernist and the figure of the transcendentalist can be united by a common recognition: that art and life achieve unprecedented equivalence only when mutually enlivened and enjoined by the impersonal and demotic force that Stieglitz describes as the “full . . . feeling of today” (Stieglitz, “How I,” 237).

Clouds and the World

In a New York Times review of a 1983 retrospective of Stieglitz’s work at the National Gallery of Art, critic Andy Grundberg describes the cloud photographs that “command the exhibition’s final room”:

The “Equivalents” remain photography’s most radical demonstration of faith in the existence of a reality behind and beyond that offered by the world of appearances. They are intended to function evocatively, like music, and they express a desire to leave behind the physical world, a desire symbolized by the visual absence of horizon and scale clues within the frame. Emotion resides solely in form, they assert, not in the specifics of time and place.[8]

Here Grundberg concurrently voices two common critical responses to Stieglitz’s cloud series: first, that the Equivalents exemplify the photographer’s effort to transcend material existence; and second, that the clouds externalize and manifest the artist’s emotional state. While Grundberg implicitly connects these two endeavors—the signaling of a spiritual realm and the giving of form to feeling—his claims coexist uneasily and invite closer scrutiny.

When Stieglitz’s project is understood as an attempt to see beyond the physical world, the clouds are framed as an equivalent of “the transcendent or divine” or “the spiritual American landscape” (Hoffman, Alfred Stieglitz, 237). This is the first effect described by Grundberg, and the definition of equivalence most often championed by critics cued by Frank’s claim that Stieglitz echoes “the tenets of Transcendentalism” and “the theology codified by Ralph Waldo Emerson” (Wilson, “The Intimate Gallery,” 748).[9] At the same time, Grundberg invokes the critical definition of equivalence suggested by Frank’s simultaneous claim—that Stieglitz’s photography is “an intensely individual possession”—in order to argue that Stieglitz is “concerned with little but personal expression” (Frank, Our America, 181).[10]

Yet these two assessments of Stieglitz’s clouds—as equivalents of a spiritual universe and as equivalents of the photographer’s feelings—are only incongruent if one assumes, as Grundberg does, that transcendence means getting “behind and beyond” the physical world, and that “emotion” is necessarily a psychological phenomenon belonging to an individual. Each of these assumptions was influentially entrenched by Frank, who first established Stieglitz’s connection with “the Transcendental School” in Our America (154). In Frank’s disapproving account, “Emerson gave to a material American world the very dualism it required” (72). This is to say that Emersonian transcendentalism “supplied the dualism” that allowed “art and spiritual matters” to float away from the material world, to dwell in “chill Emersonian heavens” that are “splendidly remote from crass reality” (75, 40, 72). Following Frank, many critics who consider Stieglitz’s clouds in an Americanist context have bypassed a more nuanced consideration of Stieglitz’s relationship to literary transcendentalism. I want to suggest that Stieglitz’s relationship to Emerson’s philosophy is radically clarified and amplified when Stieglitz’s stated investment in both “clouds for themselves” and “their relationship to the rest of the world” is taken seriously and empirically—not least because Emerson himself regularly voiced identical investments.

In his essay “The Transcendentalist” (1843), Emerson suggests the importance of clouds and skies for navigating the polarized condition he calls “double consciousness”: “two states of thought [that] diverge every moment and stand in wild contrast.”[11] Emerson opens the essay by assigning these states of thought to the two philosophical “sects” of materialism and idealism (“The Transcendentalist,” 193). By the end of the essay, however, the apparently opposed figures of “the materialist” and “the idealist” become fused in the transcendentalist, who looks to the firmament to answer the essay’s guiding question: “What am I?” (206). The various equivalences Emerson draws between self and sky or thought and clouds in answering this question prepares a ready affinity between his essays and Stieglitz’s photographs.

By asking “What am I?” rather than “Who am I?,” Emerson avoids presuming personhood, and inquires whether the “I” might be constituted by something impersonal. He responds by correlating the “I” with “an abode in the deep blue sky,” a formulation that operates by way of ontology rather than analogy; Emerson is actually equating states of being rather than simply entertaining comparisons (206). His next line further specifies the merging of self and sky in an “I” that is “reticulated with the veins of blue” (206). With this description Emerson inflects an apparently idealist image—absconding to live in a home in the sky—using terms that could alternately describe a bodily or topographical network, an unexpected emphasis on the physicality of the union.

Emerson differentiates new transcendentalists from “the old idealists” by declaring that the latter merely “represented . . . the invisible and heavenly world” while the former seek to “eat clouds and drink winds” (201, 202). By literally taking in the world—drawing the atmospheric stuff of clouds and wind into the body through the mouth and lungs—transcendentalism eschews the proxy of representation in favor of an unmediated physical engagement. When Emerson observes that “we should be crushed by the atmosphere, but for the reaction of the air within the body,” he is emphasizing that we inhabit the atmosphere, and are in turn inhabited by it, simply through the act of breathing (954). Elaborating further, Emerson claims that transcendentalists require “perpetual openness” to the “influx” of forces beyond their control, such as “light and power” (196). Yet this radical receptivity must not admit anything “dogmatic” or “personal,” qualities Emerson deems “unspiritual” (196). The stringency of this demand means “there is no pure Transcendentalist”: only “Nature is transcendental,” because it exists in the “absence of private ends” (197, 199, 198).

It is precisely this same impersonal, undogmatic force that Stieglitz seeks to capture with his cloud images. Like Emerson, Stieglitz pursues “the transcendentalism of common life” by openly engaging with “light and power” as impersonal forces (Emerson, “The Transcendentalist,” 196).[12] These forces become most visibly manifest for the photographer in nebulous vapors, which, before later turning his camera skyward, he would initially seek in misty urban streets, foggy harbors, and smoky train yards.

Still in the early stages of his career, in 1902 Stieglitz would declare himself to be exploring the “pictorial possibilities of the commonplace.”[13] As the pioneer of street photography, Stieglitz identifies receptivity and persistence as the photographer’s chief virtues:

In order to obtain pictures by means of the hand camera it is well to choose your subject, regardless of figures, and carefully study the lines and lighting. After having determined upon these watch the passing figures and await the moment in which everything is in balance; that is, satisfies your eye. This often means hours of patient waiting.[14]

Here Stieglitz echoes Emerson’s insight that “perpetual openness” requires “patience, and still patience” (“The Transcendentalist,” 196, 206). Stieglitz recounts hours spent waiting in a snowstorm for the mercurial elements that compose Winter, Fifth Avenue (1893) to strike a precise visual balance (fig. 2). In describing this iconic photograph Stieglitz emphasizes patience but also “chance,” without which he might have “stood there for hours without succeeding in getting the desired picture” (“Hand Camera,” 68). One might assume that he refers in this case to the chance element of the coachman who drives his horse-drawn carriage out of the background and toward the lens, a dark figure dramatically emerging from the swirling snow. However, Stieglitz insists on the importance of all parts of the photograph, giving equal attention and significance to the horses’ breath steaming in the frigid air, the slushy street lined with brownstones disappearing into the whited-out sky, and the trees and street-lamps nearly obscured by the sideswipes of sleet.

Alfred Stieglitz, Winter, Fifth Avenue, 1893, printed 1905, photogravure, 21.8 x 15.4 cm, gift of J. B. Neumann, 1958, 58.577.20.
Fig. 2. Alfred Stieglitz, Winter, Fifth Avenue, 1893, printed 1905, photogravure, 21.8 x 15.4 cm,  gift of J. B. Neumann, 1958, 58.577.20. Image courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.

In the following decades Stieglitz became increasingly disinvested from the pictorial possibilities of figuration; like Emerson he sought new means of moving from analogous representation towards more immediately embodied forms of engagement. Yet even while he was roaming the streets of New York in search of shots like Winter, Fifth Avenue, he had already made a fundamental recognition: “Atmosphere,” as he writes in an 1892 essay, “is the medium through which we see all things.”[15] Noting its importance for achieving aesthetic unity, Stieglitz observes how “atmosphere softens all lines; it graduates the transition from light to shade; it is essential to the reproduction of the sense of distance. That dimness of outline which is characteristic for distant objects is due to atmosphere” (“A Plea,” 30). This emphasis on atmosphere is often cited as the central tenet of an aesthetic movement called pictorialism, which spread from England across the Atlantic to influence American photographers in the later nineteenth and early twentieth century. Broadly speaking, pictorialists sought to prove the burgeoning status of photography as an art by differentiating pictures, which are actively created, from photographs, which simply record objective visual facts. They understood themselves to be creative interpreters of nature, and embraced vaporous atmospheres like clouds as a medium particularly disposed to emotional expressiveness.

Stieglitz’s strong critique of pictorialism throughout his career offers an instructive index of his own evolving approach to atmosphere. In the years when he was primarily pursuing urban atmospheres, he calls out pictorialists who achieve atmospheric effects through imprecise means by relying on “blurred outline” rather than toning. Seeking a fine balance between soft and sharp focus, Stieglitz denounces the “superficial make-up” of pictorialist photographs that privilege romantic vapors over verisimilar integrity and clarity (30). The images are “made up” in the sense that their surfaces are aggressively manipulated, but also in the sense that their stock subject matter is frequently contrived. As Stieglitz notes:  

When we go through an exhibition of American photographs, we are struck by the conventionality of the subjects chosen; we see the same types of country roads, of wood interiors, the everlasting waterfall, village scenes; we see the same groups at doorsteps and on piazzas; the same unfortunate attempts at illustrating popular poetry; the same etc., etc., ad infinitum. (29)

Softening the outlines of these conventional subjects with special pigments and chemical processes, pictorialists could manufacture replications of gentle mists or mysterious fogs that lent their otherwise derivative images a new air of thematic unity and dramatic effect. While Stieglitz endorsed the process of toning—adding gold, platinum, and mercury to emulsions that brought warmth or illumination to the image—he avoided more invasive processes of painting and retouching; his appetite for capturing rather than creating atmospheres was what first drew him out into city streets already dressed in the intriguing textures and tones of steam, smoke, and haze.

By the 1920s, Stieglitz was untethering his interest in atmosphere from specific figures, scenes, and landscapes; yet, even as he redirected his gaze into the ether beyond the horizon line, his sharply focused cloud photographs maintained an abiding concern for unsentimental exactitude. Though Stieglitz embraced the evocative ordinariness of clouds that are “there for everyone,” he no longer prioritized the “pictorial possibilities of the commonplace” for its own sake (“How I,” 237; “Pictures,” 63). He would in fact complain that “pictorial photographers seemed totally blind to the cloud pictures” because such peers remained fixated on capturing more scenically familiar and relatable “subject matter” (“How I,” 237). Stieglitz, by contrast, had other aims, working to record clouds in ways that bypassed pictorial projection and circumvented any intervening interpretive filter: “the true meaning of the Equivalents comes through without any extraneous pictorial factors intervening between those who look at the pictures and the pictures themselves” (fig. 3).[16]

Alfred Stieglitz, Equivalent, 1926, gelatin silver print, 11.8 x 9.2 cm, Alfred Steiglitz Collection, 1949, 49.55.29.
Fig. 3. Alfred Stieglitz, Equivalent, 1926, gelatin silver print, 11.8 x 9.2 cm, Alfred Steiglitz Collection, 1949, 49.55.29. Image courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.

Cognizant of this distinction, with the Equivalents Stieglitz understands himself to be doing “something new” in his chosen medium: “It is the beginning of photography as expression & not merely photographs or pictures in the ‘pictorial’ sense” (“A Plea,” 136). Yet this momentous claim still begs a vital question—namely, what precisely is being expressed? Critics who focus on the expressive possibilities of the cloud series have generally assumed Stieglitz to be primarily expressing some personal element of his internal life. In her seminal study, On Photography (1977), Susan Sontag writes that the Equivalents are Stieglitz’s “statements of his inner feelings.”[17] As Sontag recognizes, however, “inner feelings” are always circuited through the outer world:

Photography is the paradigm of an inherently equivocal connection between self and world . . . sometimes dictating an effacement of the self in relation to the world, sometimes authorizing an aggressive relation to the world which celebrates the self. One side or the other of the connection is always being rediscovered and championed. (On Photography, 123)

In the case of Stieglitz’s cloud photographs, critics tend to champion “one side or the other”—self or world—at the expense of the connection between them. Even Sontag’s study toggles between its account of Stieglitz’s “self-expressing ego” and his desire to “redeem the world with his camera,” without unfolding how this “equivocal connection” might not just link but also unite these expressive and redemptive impulses (30, 47). The transcendental lineage that begins with Emerson, however, wants to reconcile precisely these impulses: when expression is understood as the ego entwining with the impersonal, and when redemption is understood as a belated unveiling of pre-existing empirical realms, self and world amalgamate anew. This amalgamation is what Stieglitz’s cloud photographs likewise seek.

In an articulation of his “philosophy of life” that sounds overtly Emersonian, Stieglitz describes the Equivalents as “direct revelations of a man’s world in the sky—documents of eternal relationship—perhaps even a philosophy” (quoted in Norman, American Seer, 143, 144). For critics who claim Stieglitz as a latter-day idealist, this statement might be understood to doubly eclipse the physical world—it seems to venerate the sovereignty of the experiencing self while philosophically projecting a transcendent “world in the sky.” Likewise, Stieglitz’s declaration that the photographs are equivalents of his “most profound life experience” would seem to justify those claiming that the clouds primarily serve as a “means of individual expression” (144; Sontag, On Photography, 30). Yet Stieglitz anticipates critics who would see the Equivalents offering “a symbolic representation of psychological states” by maintaining that the photographs are “beyond feeling”—or at least beyond personal expressions of inner feeling (Pultz, “Equivalence,” 38; Stieglitz, quoted in Norman, American Seer, 161). If the Equivalents express a “philosophy of life,” it is always emergent, a philosophy of becoming rather than a philosophy of being. Like Emerson, Stieglitz privileges “perpetual openness” over an authoritative aesthetic vision. “I simply function when I take a picture,” he writes; “I do not photograph with preconceived notions about life” (quoted in Norman, American Seer, 161). Repeatedly returning his lens to the “world in the sky,” Stieglitz discovers evidence not of selfhood, but rather of an “eternal relationship” that dissolves the experiencing “I” into a wider stream of “life experience.” An identical dynamic—the experience of telescoping between a personal self and an impersonal world—is for Emerson found in the “radical correspondence” he detects “between visible things and human thoughts.”[18]   

In this vein, the connection between clouds and thoughts enjoys special status in Emerson’s essays and Stieglitz’s Equivalents. Crucially, however, clouds do not correspond for Emerson or equate for Stieglitz to thoughts in a conventional symbolic sense, as figures or forms that stand in for an abstraction. When Emerson writes that “every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact” he is not substituting one referent for the other, or speaking allegorically, but rather seeing everywhere the palpable continuity between manifest and invisible worlds (“Nature,” 20). By this formula of equivalence, clouds and thoughts exhibit a similarly special kind of materiality, as embodied ephemeralities: in obeying meteorological or biological imperatives that they also seem to exceed, both clouds and thoughts operate for Emerson and Stieglitz as more than symbols by actually crossing between “natural” and “spiritual” ontological realms (the stratosphere, consciousness).

The challenge for Stieglitz, as for Emerson, is to make the link between thoughts and clouds felt without allowing “the flux of matter” to congeal into fixed forms.[19] To cite just one of many cloud set-pieces from his essays, Emerson opens a chapter of “Nature” (1836) by modeling how to mediate these competing impulses: “The long slender bars of cloud float like fishes in the sea of crimson light. From the earth, as a shore, I look out into that silent sea. I seem to partake of its rapid transformations: the active enchantment reaches my dust, and I dilate and conspire with the morning wind” (15). Even a non-instrumentalizing appreciation of clouds as clouds cannot suppress the compulsion to liken them to forms other than themselves—in this case, to fish floating in the sea of the sky. Yet Emerson also counters his own impulse towards figural projection by underlining the physical particles shared between the mind’s matter and sky-matter. At first he only seems to partake of the cloud’s “rapid transformations,” but when the “active enchantment” of its mutability makes contact with the substance of his “dust”—like a man on a shore overcome by a fog—his personal sense of “I” expands to incorporate its impersonal ambient surrounds. Dilated into openness, the “I” breathes together with the wind, an invocation of respiration recalling that we breathe the same particles that form the clouds, and therefore are, in a literal sense, atmospherically constituted.

The methods employed by Emerson to apprehend and comprehend clouds likewise guide Stieglitz’s project of capturing “clouds for themselves.” Like Emerson, Stieglitz emphasizes clouds’ capacity for “rapid transformation”; clouds can elude the contrivances of pictorialism because their forms are always on their way to formlessness. Yet, as Stieglitz recognizes, the mind inevitably works to project forms onto formlessness, so that any attempt to capture clouds must also reckon with the role figural imagination will play in processes of perception and reception. Rather than trying to deny the form-giving impulse, by acknowledging that cloud forms are inseparable from the process of perceiving them, Stieglitz in fact uses the Equivalents to engage with the particular imaginative work that clouds uniquely incite.

Clouds for Themselves

In detailing the genesis of his cloud photographs, Stieglitz peevishly recalls a contention made by “one of America’s young literary lights,” Waldo Frank, who sensationally attributed the “secret power” of Stieglitz’s photography “to the power of hypnotism” (“How I,” 235). Contemptuous of the intimation that his work  ?s work   to"t olly"wimpulse,  the atmospheres of ing"e with a dash?)e sentence?]tional rote positions here?exercised or aspired to any such power, Stieglitz would in response commit himself to photographing subjects over which he could incontrovertibly wield little control. In formulating a potential “answer [to] Mr. Frank,” Stieglitz prospectively returns to a project he had taken up at the beginning of his career, and then set aside when the technological means at his disposal proved inadequate to the task (237). “How I Came To Photograph Clouds” describes an early scene of “experimenting with ortho plates” in the summer of 1887, which he spent in Mürren, Switzerland. Clouds may have always compelled Stieglitz—“I always watched clouds. Studied them”—but when first broaching the challenge of photographing them, he finds himself constrained by the color limits of early ortho plates, which relied on a chemical emulsion overly sensitive to light on the blue end of the spectrum (235). In the resulting prints, it was impossible to differentiate the finely formless edges of the clouds from the blown-out whiteness of the sky. While his unmediated eye could see “exactly what [he] was after,” Stieglitz would require technological advancements to attain the sharp precision and dramatic contrast that would define the achievement of the Equivalents thirty-five years later (237).

Fortuitously, Frank’s hypnosis allegation turned Stieglitz’s camera back to the skies at a pivotal moment in the development of photography. When the blue-light sensitivity of “orthographic” emulsions was corrected with new “panchromatic” film stock in the early 1920s, Stieglitz discovered that his long-stalled cloud experiments began to yield desirable results. Finally, Stieglitz writes, what he “wanted to happen happened”: unobstructed by technical limitation, he was closer to capturing “clouds for themselves,” and to finally rendering with accuracy “their relationship to the rest of the world” (237, 235). In Stieglitz’s darkroom experiments over four decades, a medium-specific dimension of the atmospheric relationship between clouds and rest of the world is highlighted; in the difference between orthographic and panchromatic skies—the blown-out whites of his early efforts compared to the inky empyrean of the Equivalents—new interactions of light and atmosphere are made to register, first upon the photographic plates, and then upon Stieglitz’s audience.

Stieglitz’s claim that clouds are “most difficult to photograph—almost impossible” stems partly from the technical challenges specific to his medium in the late nineteenth century, but also from a more general set of perceptual challenges which are usefully contextualized by concurrent developments in the field of psychology. Stieglitz’s initial period of sky photography in the 1880s was contemporaneous with a series of psychological experiments that spurred new interest in the meanings of clouds, and a corresponding interest in the same powers of hypnotism that would later seem relevant to Frank. Findings from these experiments help show how Stieglitz’s idiosyncratic approach to photographing clouds might counter claims about his process exerting any literally hypnotic power. As these studies argue, the activities of cloud-watching and hypnosis both reveal something fundamental about how imagination affects perception; the suggestible mind demonstrates a predisposition for finding familiar forms in formlessness.

The inherent mutability of clouds provided Stieglitz with the ultimate test case: if he could capture formless clouds that yield nothing to the mind’s form-finding impulse, he could emphatically disassociate the power of his photographs from the power of hypnosis. With the Equivalents, Stieglitz wanted to produce in viewers a visually unprecedented perceptive experience, rather than simply triggering the palimpsest of sights and forms acquired previously. In his own words, a viewer should permit herself “to be free to recognize the living moment when it occurs, and to let it flower without perceived ideas about what it should be” (quoted in Shloss, In Visible Light, 105). And yet Stieglitz’s desire to curb the preconceptions of the perceptual imagination—his desire to properly condition the “living moment”—potentially runs counter to his apparent renouncement of control over his subject and viewers. Even while Stieglitz sought to cultivate an original experience with the cloud images, wherein the physical eye overtakes the mind’s eye (the latter describing how the hypnotized subject sees), the field of psychology proposed that embodied and imaginative perception cannot be separated. Stieglitz’s challenge, then, is to present clouds that resist the imaginative imposition of conventional forms (as pictorialism exemplifies), while at the same time he himself resists imposing authoritative ideas about how they should be perceived (as hypnosis exemplifies).

The earliest comprehensive psychological study of the perceptual imagination is the British psychologist James Sully’s Illusions (1881), which introduces an investigation of “the misty penumbra” surrounding “our luminous circle of rational perception.”[20] Sully opens by arguing that Shakespeare’s Hamlet epitomizes this penumbral perception by discovering a camel, weasel, and whale in the clouds. While Hamlet’s refiguring of cloud forms may indeed mark an “incipient mental aberration,” Sully’s central claim is that “the play of fancy which leads to a detection of animal and other forms in the clouds” is a ubiquitous part of “ordinary mental life”; the mind is predisposed to discover “familiar forms” in their “indistinct and indefinite shapes” (Illusions, 3, 100). In a chapter on “Errors of Insight,” Sully elaborates the dimension of perceptual projection that fuels pathetic fallacy: “every imaginative mind looks for reflections of its own deepest feeling in the world about it” (225). Endowing such sites of imaginative projection with “life, consciousness, and emotion” can be generative for poets and artists, yet Sully warns that the tendency to project forms and feelings “may involve inattention to the actual impression of the moment” (228). It is precisely this kind of inattention that Stieglitz, following Emerson, seeks to obviate. Sully’s concern that a highly suggestible imagination can compromise attention’s receptivity resonates with his account of hypnosis’s effect on sensory attention and perception. As the hypnotized state takes hold, Sully observes, the senses are “gradually impaired” until the mind “is concentrated on a remarkably narrow field of mental images and ideas”; under the power of suggestion, these controlled mental images displace the spontaneous “percepts” yielded by immediate sensory impressions (187).

In The Principles of Psychology (1890), William James’s account of hypnosis hews closely to Sully’s, although James’s systematized enumeration of “the symptoms of the trance” further clarifies why Stieglitz would want to distance his photography from hypnotic practice.[21] James lists suggestibility, hallucinations, the abolishment of real sensations, and amnesia as the symptoms of a hypnotized subject.[22] As it happens, Stieglitz concludes “How I Came to Photograph Clouds” with a succinct aesthetic claim that effectively precludes each of James’s perceptual symptoms: “My aim is increasingly to make my photographs look as much like photographs that unless one has eyes and sees, they won’t be seen—and still everyone will never forget them having once looked at them” (237–38). Stieglitz wants the Equivalents to be seen as what they are, without interference, fakery, mystification, or impermanence: an investment in clouds being forthrightly perceived as clouds goes hand-in-hand with insisting that his photographs be perceived not as “pictures” or some other distortion of painting, but as photographs. Just as he resists the pictorialist model of photography that replicates a penumbra of dramatic effects contrived from other sources, so Stieglitz works to stall what James calls the “reproductive” imagination, “the faculty of reproducing copies of originals once felt” (Principles, 44). Hypnotized vision is reproduced rather than original because it overrides the immediate intake of the physical eyes through recourse to the mind’s eye, which draws on a store of previously encountered images. Moreover, whereas perception under hypnosis seems to escape memory, Stieglitz aims to facilitate perceptual encounters that will imprint indelibly, such that viewers “will never forget them.” Stieglitz here makes a distinction between two faculties of vision that James is also at pains to distinguish, even as the psychologist acknowledges how readily the physical eye and the mind’s eye inflect one another.

The most comprehensive study of hypnotism in the United States at the turn of the century, Joseph Jastrow’s Fact and Fable in Psychology (1901), further suggests a crucial connection between hypnotic perception and the operations of “the mind’s eye in ordinary vision.”[23] Jastrow shows that by heightening suggestibility in an automatic trance-like condition, the hypnotic method reveals the suggestive power of the mind’s eye to tap mental automatisms and induce visualizations, even hallucinations, in “ordinary consciousness” (Fact and Fable, 67). A chapter called “The Mind’s Eye” opens with an epigraph from Hamlet, reminding his readers that it was Shakespeare who first coined the phrase (275). Like Sully, Jastrow invokes Hamlet’s clouds, observing that the mind’s eye is predisposed to discover “familiar forms and faces” in their “vague” obscurity (276, 294). Jastrow then presents his reader with various “ambiguous diagrams” which serve as analogues for Hamlet’s clouds (285). With the simple geometrical shapes featured in these diagrams, he offers experiential evidence that “we are accustomed to interpret lines, whenever we can, as the representations of objects” (285–86). As Jastrow concludes, “This is the illusion of pictorial art. So strong is this tendency to view lines as the symbols of things, that if there is the slightest chance of so viewing them, we invariably do so” (286). With the Equivalents, Stieglitz works to explicitly puncture the “illusion of pictorial art,” but as the findings of Sully and Jastrow demonstrate, the very mutability of clouds makes them perennially susceptible to involuntary figural interpretation. Jastrow closes “The Mind’s Eye” by directly connecting pictorial illusions and clouds. Captioning a well-known drawing with the question, “Do you see a duck or a rabbit, or either?,” Jastrow then invokes Hamlet once again, comparing the duck-rabbit illustration to the cloud “‘that’s almost in shape like a camel,’” or ‘like a weasel,’ or ‘like a whale’” (295; fig. 4). While it’s unlikely that the mind could confuse ducks and rabbits in nature, Jastrow suggests that his readers are indeed much more susceptible to replicating Hamlet’s “visual experiences” whenever they might direct their gazes to the sky (295).

Joseph Jastrow’s duck-rabbit, from Joseph Jastrow, Fact and Fable in Psychology (Boston, MA: Houghton, Mifflin, 1900), 295.
Fig. 4. Joseph Jastrow’s duck-rabbit, from Joseph Jastrow, Fact and Fable in Psychology (Boston, MA: Houghton, Mifflin, 1900), 295.

While Stieglitz’s photographs likewise risk provoking the fabrications of the skyward gaze, with the Equivalents he notably aims to offer access to “visual experiences” that circumvent pictorial representation. As the psychologists I’ve discussed here each suggest, the only way to curb the pictorial projection of the imagination is to separate and privilege the “outward-seeing” part of the perceptual process from the “inward” functioning of the mind’s eye (and its reductive powers of figural suggestion). As they further suggest, however, these perceptual modes are ultimately inseparable—and even if their separation were achievable, the strategic imposition of a particular perceptual experience on viewers runs counter to Stieglitz’s voiced disdain for holding hypnotic sway (per Frank) over either his subject or his audience. To refute the analogy between photography and hypnotism is also for Stieglitz to reject the idea that he exercises an absolute control over how his art is received. When he recalls how his cloud photographs initially amounted to “failed” experiments, that sense of failure marks the onset of a tension the Equivalents would continue to negotiate between competing imperatives: how might Stieglitz aesthetically contrive the conditions of unprecedented perceptual experiences, while simultaneously abdicating his definitive authority? Stieglitz’s contradictory stance on aesthetic authority is compounded by his inconsistent accounts of the autonomy of his medium and the uniqueness of his subject. For instance, Stieglitz champions the legitimacy and singularity of photography while at the same time embracing viewers who are so “affected” by the cloud images that they “forget the medium entirely.”[24] He likewise declares a special investment in the firmament while simultaneously insisting that it is not “of any importance” whether an Equivalent “happens to be a picture of the sky.”[25] Instead of working to resolve such contradictions, in his own descriptions Stieglitz seems content to multiply and exacerbate them. As such, it is in the divergent commentary he supplies for the Equivalents that Stieglitz seems especially Emersonian, his mutable self-reflexivity giving credence to Emerson’s infamous assertion that “consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds” (“Self-Reliance,” 265). As Emerson exemplifies, contradictions are not necessarily problems that need to be solved; when apparently oppositional perspectives are reframed as productive paradoxes they can keep thinking rigorous and on the move.[26]

For critics seeking methodical modes of argument, Emerson’s dismissal of consistency negates his status as a philosopher.[27] Critics who observe that Stieglitz was “never a systematic thinker” have seldom taken seriously his suggestion that the Equivalents develop a “philosophy of life” (quoted in Shloss, In Visible Light, 104). Stieglitz’s place is in a philosophical lineage that is motivated by the Emersonian imperative that “every fixed thing [be] put back into the movement of metamorphosis.”[28] Within this genealogy, “the becoming-art of photography” depends for Stieglitz on developing aesthetic strategies for infusing the fixed form of the photograph with the flux of life, which means unsettling preconceptions about the content and medium of his photographs, as well as his own methodological control.[29] As I will describe, Stieglitz strategically embeds these larger conceptual perspectives within the specific and defining features of the Equivalents.

The Mediality of Modernist Photography

Krauss’s influential claim for Stieglitz’s modernism hinges on his authority in establishing the autonomy of his medium by way of the crop or cut. But whereas in Krauss’s account, the technique of cropping delineates the decisive gap where the photograph detaches from the world, I contend that Stieglitz’s cuts instead reveal what Jacques Rancière calls the mediality of photography, a paradigm which Stieglitz anticipates by defining his medium as “that which holds between” art and life.[30] As Stieglitz’s means for underlining where the materiality of his subject (clouds) meets the materiality of his medium (photograph), my understanding of the crop owes to my reconsideration of Stanley Cavell, whose work initially supplies Krauss with her working definition of modernist photography:

What happens in a photograph is that it comes to an end. A photograph is cropped, not necessarily by a paper cutter or by masking but by the camera itself. . . . The camera, being finite, crops a portion from an indefinitely larger field. . . . When a photograph is cropped, the rest of the world is cut out. The repressed presence of the rest of the world, and its explicit rejection, are as essential in the experience of a photograph as what it explicitly presents.[31]

Krauss quotes this passage from Cavell’s The World Viewed (1979) to argue that Stieglitz’s strategic use of the crop lends photography its “autonomous status” by establishing its “distinctness from the other art mediums”—first by iconoclastically cutting photography “free from a certain relation to tradition,” and then by representationally cutting each photograph “loose from its moorings” in the world (“Stieglitz/Equivalents,” 131, 129, 130, 135). In Krauss’s view it is by these two pioneering acts of differentiation, the setting apart of photography’s aesthetic originality and its methodological specificity, that Stieglitz demarcates and inaugurates the unique material register where a photograph alone exists, at authoritative remove from the unselecting worlds of its subject and its viewer.

Fundamentally, Krauss’s reading of Cavell is guided by Clement Greenberg’s concept of medium specificity, which dictates that “photography’s autonomy” can only be achieved by divesting photographs of every effect they might have borrowed from painting, while revealing “the kind of experience that only this medium could register” (“Stieglitz/Equivalents,” 129, 140). Yet in her article, Krauss’s fidelity to Greenberg leads her to neglect a key dimension of how Cavell correlates medium and modernism, and as a result also neglect a key dimension of Stieglitz’s cloud project: her claim that the crop triumphantly severs the modernist photograph from the world fails to account for the intransigent investment in lived experience that informs the endeavor of art for both Cavell and Stieglitz. For Cavell, the cut actually evokes the larger world framed away by the photograph, so that through the selectivity of the image a viewer must perpetually recall this unselected largeness, their field of attention always incorporating the world beyond the picture’s edge, but from a reoriented vantage. This is to say that by conspicuously paring “the rest of the world,” the technique of cropping in fact exaggerates for Cavell the photograph’s material continuity with something larger, affirming that “photographs are of the world, of reality as a whole” (World Viewed, 24, 23).

As Cavell argues, it is the constrained perspective of a photograph that opens space for contemplation: “The camera has been praised for extending the senses; it may, as the world goes, deserve more praise for confining them, leaving room for thought” (World Viewed, 24). Stieglitz emphasizes these perspectival limits through his suggestive cropping, but also by sizing the cloud photographs at an unexpectedly small scale. By developing and printing the Equivalents on commercially manufactured Eastman postcard paper, Stieglitz formally draws his audience into intimate proximity, virtually requiring viewers to encounter the images by inspecting them close up. (Appropriately, the space where the Equivalents were periodically exhibited from 1925 to 1937 was named, by Stieglitz, “The Intimate Gallery.”)[32] Thus, Krauss’s account of modernism as aesthetic detachment would seem to stand in contrast with Stieglitz’s emphasis on intimacy as a condition of experiential connection. Smaller than a four-by-five inch negative, the size of the Equivalents facilitates a sense of propinquity less dependent on magnetic awe or emotional affinity than on a heightened sense of shared space. Whereas large-scale work that fills the field of vision can seem to shrink and render marginal the world beyond its borders, the miniaturized scale of the Equivalents cannot displace or supersede the external milieu enveloping both viewer and photo within the gallery’s atmosphere. By occupying less space in the world, the tiny prints make more room for that world, and return some attention to its consideration. The material edge where the crop occurs, as a partition, or verge, does not enforce a chasm so much as frame a new relation through which mind and world, delineated, can act upon each other.

Cavell’s insistence on modernist art’s “conviction and connectedness with the world” meaningfully links his early account of modernist photography with his later work on Emersonian transcendentalism (World Viewed, 117). This connection has received recent elaboration in Paul Grimstad’s Experience and Experimental Writing (2013), where Cavell’s modernist and Emerson’s transcendentalist are both described as figures engaged in an ongoing process of experimentation, each searching for “the criteria by which the work begins to mean.”[33] I want to suggest that for Stieglitz—also simultaneously motivated by the most indeterminate and practical strains of modernism and transcendentalism—the Equivalents are the evidence of a similar search; he proceeds, in his words, without “preconceived notions” so that the work’s meaning is only discovered in its reception (Stieglitz, quoted in Norman, American Seer, 161). As he writes to Hart Crane, “I am interested in putting down an image only of what I have seen, not what it means to me. It is only after I have put down an equivalent of what has moved me, that I can even begin to think about its meaning.” He then expresses to Crane the project’s ambivalent aim: “I’m most curious to see what the ‘clouds’ will do to you.”[34] Here Stieglitz’s logic of equivalence admits an infinite spectrum of commensurate “meanings,” demanding no privilege for his vantage, but simply offering “criteria” that might activate and validate the equal force of his viewer’s perceptual experience.

By reinforcing continuities between Cavell’s earlier writings on modernism and his later work on Emerson, Grimstad also affirms the modernist medium’s “relation to, or revelation of, the natural world” (Cavell, Sense of Walden, 126). This alternative version of Cavellian modernism, rooted not in signifying formalisms but in embodied experiences, can be attributed to Grimstad’s awareness of Emerson’s increasing prominence to Cavell’s later work. Reading Cavell in the late 1970s, while he was just beginning his work on transcendentalism, Krauss understandably focuses on Greenbergian rather than Emersonian inflections in The World Viewed. Appraising in retrospect Cavell’s full career, Grimstad demonstrates how Cavell’s deepening engagement with Emerson and transcendentalism after 1979 does not contradict the earlier claims of Cavellian modernism.[35] Just as late Cavell rejects “transcendentalist sublimities,” so had earlier Cavell also refused “etherealized” understandings of modernism not grounded in the tangible (Senses of Walden, 158). Standing before the modernist work of art, he writes, “I am concentrated, finitized, incarnate.” This intensified experience of bodily existence distills for Cavell “the truth of the only world: that it exists, and I in it” (World Viewed, 117).  

I return to Cavell by way of Grimstad in order to connect and reconcile the critical traditions of transcendentalism and modernism that have conventionally produced oppositional readings of the Equivalents. While neither Cavell nor Grimstad take up Stieglitz’s work, this reconciliation has been bolstered by a third thinker, Jacques Rancière, whose account of Emersonian modernism more directly mediates the two polarized critical approaches to the Equivalents. Rancière contends that the “canonical analysis” of modernist autonomy established by Greenberg has obscured a subtler American lineage of transcendental modernism, which Rancière traces directly from Emerson’s poetics to Stieglitz’s photographs.[36] Greenberg’s account of the “modernist project of separation” is here contrasted with an Emersonian project of integration: whereas Greenberg pits one medium against another and art against non-art, Emerson blurs “the specificities that define the arts and the boundaries that separate them from the prosaic world” (Rancière, Aisthesis, xi).[37] For Emerson as for Stieglitz, an aesthetic medium is no end unto itself, serving rather as what Rancière calls a “mediality,” which is “a way of linking three things: a technological apparatus, an idea of art and the formation of a specific sensible milieu” (“What Medium,” 37).

Rancière’s Aisthesis (2011/2013) argues that this “medial” form of modernism originates in Boston in 1844, with Emerson putting out a call for the “modern poet”—an artist whose modernity consists in his capacity to convey through the material of art “the spiritual substance” of America: “To express this common spiritual potential,” Rancière explains, “is to manifest the symbolic nature of all material reality” (Aisthesis, 64). While counterintuitive, Rancière’s definition of Emersonian symbolism has important implications for understanding Stieglitz as Emerson’s inheritor:

The symbol is not the figural expression of abstract thought. It is the fragment detached from the whole that carries the potential of the whole, that bears it on the condition that one draw it out of its solitude as a material thing, that one link it to other fragments and that one circulate air—which is the breath of the whole—in between these fragments. (64)

Rancière’s work primarily investigates the urban symbols punctuating Stieglitz’s street photography, yet the passage above resonates as a startlingly Emersonian invocation of Stieglitz’s cloud photographs. As symbolic fragments of the sky, Stieglitz’s Equivalents conjure the “whole” from which they are cut in precisely the manner and with precisely the effect that Rancière describes: bearing the materiality of clouds into new circulations, the photographs link a vast network of parts cropped from wholes by emphasizing the air that enjoins cloud to cloud, cloud to photograph, photograph to photograph, photograph to viewer, viewer to viewer, and viewer to cloud, palpably and infinitely (fig. 5 and 6).

Alfred Stieglitz, Equivalents, 1927, gelatin silver print, 9.1 x 11.8 cm, Alfred Steiglitz Collection, 1928, 28.128.11.
Fig. 5. Alfred Stieglitz, Equivalents, 1927, gelatin silver print, 9.1 x 11.8 cm, Alfred Steiglitz Collection, 1928, 28.128.11. Image courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.

While Rancière doesn’t directly discuss the Equivalents, he suggestively deploys the term “equivalence” to describe how the Emersonian artist achieves a “‘modern’ union of art and industry, which is also the modern union of spirit and matter, light and movement” (“Rethinking Modernity,” 17). Like Emerson, Stieglitz prizes the particular “symbolic” power by which clouds can enfold binaries—light and movement, spirit and matter, art and industry—thereby creating new possibilities of “union” or reconciliation across technical, empirical, and intellectual contexts. By describing Emersonian symbolism in the terms of these integrations and equivalences, Rancière’s work also clarifies why Stieglitz’s symbolism does not uphold the schismatic logic of representation. Never standing for something other than themselves—not his spiritual longing, his psychological state, or his formalist principles—Stieglitz’s Equivalents are better understood through the contiguous logic of synecdoche, presenting elements and fragments of experience, rather than experience’s analogies. In a recent reading of Aisthesis, Branka Arsić argues that when an Emersonian tradition of art “neither represents nor ideates life forms” it can potentially escape “the divide between materialism and idealism,” as those categories are traditionally understood.[38] Recast as Emersonian symbols in Rancière’s sense of the word, Stieglitz’s clouds work to remarkably dissolve “the dualism that separates the material from the spiritual,” uniting form and meaning by obviating any impulse for “separating particular things from the life of the whole” (Rancière, Aisthesis, 57).

Alfred Stieglitz, Equivalent, 1929, gelatin silver print, 11.7 x 9.3 cm. Alfred Steiglitz Collection, 1949, 49.55.34.
Fig. 6. Alfred Stieglitz, Equivalent, 1929, gelatin silver print, 11.7 x 9.3 cm. Alfred Steiglitz Collection, 1949, 49.55.34. Image courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.

Stieglitz exemplifies for Rancière the way that “matter is spiritualized” not by some sacred ritual, but rather though perceptual practices akin to Emerson’s fundamental recognition: “symbols of the spiritual world can be found everywhere” (“What Medium,” 36–37, Aisthesis, 60). The signature passage in Emerson’s oeuvre narrates the onset and avenue of this recognition—Emerson eyeing, touching, and breathing a fearfully vast whole through its palpable symbolic fragments, his uncontainable experience of transcendence incontrovertibly rooted in terra firma:

Standing on the bare ground,—my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space,—all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God. . . . In the wilderness, I find something more dear and connate than in streets or villages. In the tranquil landscape, and especially in the distant line of the horizon, man beholds somewhat as beautiful as his own nature. (“Nature,” 10)

Without contradiction, even when “uplifted into infinite space,” Emerson remains “standing on the bare ground.” Further, in the aftermath of this experience, he does not idealistically forsake the physical world or his body, but instead devotes the rest of “Nature” to cultivating practical methodologies for moving from “superficial seeing” to an “attentive eye” (10, 15). Rather than seeking to transcend earthly existence, the transcendentalist seeks to inhabit his here-and-now more fully. Taking this commitment to its ontological extreme, when Emerson trades the pulpit for the lectern in 1832 by resigning as pastor of the Unitarian church, he also exchanges the metaphysical concept of an otherworldly God for a tactile faith in the omnipresence of “Spirit” within the physical world. “There is no other world,” he submits with conviction; “here or nowhere is the whole fact.”[39]

I recall the transparent eyeball and its cultivation in “Nature” in order to convey the unmistakable resonance between Emerson’s passage and Stieglitz’s own description of perceiving nature newly at Lake George—the place over which the clouds captured in the Equivalents floated for a decade:

Standing outside up here on the hill—away from all humans—seeing these Wonders taking place before one’s eyes—so silently—it is queer to feel that beyond the hills there are the Humans astir—& just the reverse of what one feels watching the silence of Nature.—No school—no church—is as good a teacher as the eye understandingly seeing what’s before it—I believe this more firmly than ever.[40]

Under Lake George’s silent sky, Stieglitz realizes that his eye, professional and otherwise, is best educated by the elusive objective of “seeing what’s before it.” It is this profound awareness that guides the extended exercise recorded by the Equivalents—Stieglitz wondering at clouds through his hand-held Graflex, and learning from these objects how to look. By uncoupling his perceptual practices from the traditionally rote forms of school learning and the traditionally inscrutable metaphysics of church learning, Stieglitz becomes modernist—a secular visionary perhaps most aptly described as “a transcendentalist without God.”[41]

Stieglitz’s modernism, like his transcendentalism, observes no sovereign source of power and meaning. Whereas Krauss’s modernist artist ingeniously commands the criteria by which his work may be judged, with the Equivalents Stieglitz actively unsettles the status of his own aesthetic certainty and authority. Reflecting on the enduring appeal the sky held for him as a photographic subject, Stieglitz offers democratic ubiquity as a rationale, saying that “Clouds were there for everyone—no tax on them—free” (“How I,” 237). In this sense, the fact he can impose no exclusive claim upon his subject liberates Stieglitz to reproduce his own perspective, knowing others remain free to see the same field of view completely differently: “I cannot look upon anything as mine,” says Stieglitz, “unless it is available for all.”[42] Even as he underlines his particular challenges in photographing clouds, Stieglitz insists the Equivalents do not reflect the rarified vision of a particular individual; the capacity to take identical or alternate pictures of the same sky is “in the power of every photographer of all time” (“How I,” 237). As he maintains in the catalogue of a 1924 exhibition of his cloud photography, “‘My’ camera means any camera—any camera into which [man’s] eye may look” (quoted in Norman, American Seer, 161).

In pursuit of this ideal, Stieglitz seeks to democratize his process by using widely-accessible materials and equipment; the Equivalents are shot with hand-held cameras instead of large-format models, and printed on inexpensive postcard paper. In declaring clouds free, Stieglitz embraces a subject that naturally eludes restriction; Stieglitz can mold their shapes and trajectories to his compositional will no more than he can dictate the outlook of his audiences. Krauss treats the absence of any meaningful anchorage within the cloud images as a new photographic principle of abstraction that confirms Stieglitz’s modernist authority, yet as the cloud experiments progress, it is the emergence of meaning from the abdication of authority that Stieglitz increasingly courts.

Alfred Stieglitz, Equivalent, 1930, gelatin silver print, 9.3 x 11.9 cm, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL.
Fig. 7. Alfred Stieglitz, Equivalent, 1930, gelatin silver print, 9.3 x 11.9 cm, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL. Image courtesy Art Resources, NY.

Rather than soliciting or sanctioning specific interpretations of the Equivalents, Stieglitz instead continues to promote dynamic interplay between the images and their viewers by creating unpredictable conditions for how they are displayed. While Krauss attributes the disorienting effect of the Equivalents to their “incredible verticality”—prints often hung with a ninety-degree rotation from their presumptive horizontal axis—Stieglitz in fact constantly reorients the directionality of the prints (“Stieglitz/Equivalents,”135). While there are more vertical clouds than horizontal clouds in the series, diagonal and all-over patterns feature prominently, and by 1925 Stieglitz had begun to exhibit several prints from the same negative alongside one another, using different edges of the image as the base. At the same time, as if tiring of his own consistency, he began to periodically reintroduce slivers of hill or tree in surprising juxtapositions to the clouds (fig. 7).[43] While these solidities reestablish a relation between earth and sky, by adding them intermittently and at bewildering angles (often emerging diagonally from corners), Stieglitz further proliferates perspectival uncertainty. In 1927, Stieglitz pencils open-ended hanging instructions onto the back of the print mounts—“All ways are ‘right,’” “goes all ways,” or “may go any way” (Stieglitz quoted in Greenough, The Key Set, 2:697, 2:698, and 2:703).[44] By encouraging that this particular series of Equivalents be displayed without a given alignment, Stieglitz cedes another measure of aesthetic control to curators, and by extension to viewers—further releasing the photographs to find equilibrium within an unfixed sphere of meaning, and further empowering his “sensible milieu” to determine the terms of their reception.

Even as Stieglitz experiments with the high-minded ambition of taking photographs “way off the earth,” his converse commitment to their smallness, sharpness, and relatability keeps the Equivalents close at hand—sublime only for how they deny notional transcendence, by cutting the empyrean to human scale (O’Keeffe, quoted in Greenough, The Key Set, 1:xliii). When Stieglitz crops away the grounding horizon, he also vacates the originating and orienting vantage point from which he stood to take the photographs—the same crop that expresses his artistic intent also negating his literal standing. By capturing and by freeing the Equivalents, he both captivates and liberates viewers, who are not required to hold his point of view, or to correlate the meaning of the clouds through his eyes. Opening a plurality of perspective that circulates through but also eclipses his authorizing gaze, the basic equivalence Stieglitz seeks to enable remains simply that which “holds between,” an Emersonian integration of subject, medium, artist, and audience by which a transcendentalism without God can emerge, and likewise a modernism without authority.


[1] Alfred Stieglitz, “How I Came to Photograph Clouds,” in Stieglitz on Photography: His Selected Essays and Notes, ed. Richard Whelan and Sarah Greenough (New York: Aperture, 2000), 235–40, 235, 237.

[2] Stieglitz tested several titles for the precursors of the Equivalents, taken in 1922, including Music: A Sequence of Ten Cloud Photographs and Clouds in Ten Movements. In 1923 he started referring to his cloud images as Songs of the Skies and shortly thereafter he replaced that title with the term “Equivalents,” though he was not wholly consistent in using the singular or plural form to refer to a single cloud image and he was similarly variable in titling his cloud series the Equivalents or just Equivalents. However, Stieglitz most frequently used the definite article and the plural form in discussing the series and I have done the same here. Stieglitz titled around 220 of his photographs Equivalents. While his cloud experiments had largely ceased by 1931, he printed three more Equivalents in 1933 (from a single negative) and made six final cloud images in 1934.

[3] Rosalind Krauss, “Stieglitz/Equivalents,” October 11 (1979): 129–40, 140. Krauss’s influential interpretation of the Equivalents has variously inflected a number of readings of the photographs, including John Pultz’s “Equivalence, Symbolism, and Minor White’s Way into the Language of Photography,” Record of the Art Museum, Princeton University 39, no. 1/2 (1980): 28–39 and Robin Kelsey’s Photography and the Art of Chance (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015), 244–45. Even those who contest Krauss’s model of modernism often remain indebted to the framework she provides. See, for instance, John Beck’s “Signs of the Sky, Signs of the Times: Photography as Double Agent,” Theory Culture Society 28, no. 7/8 (2011): 123–39.

[4] In contrast to Krauss’s claim that Stieglitz’s abstraction is specific to his medium, Carol Shloss contends that the Equivalents are best understood in the context of debates around contemporary trends in painting. She aligns Stieglitz with Picasso and Matisse on the grounds that all three oeuvres are animated by the “modernist impulse to retreat from the replication of the empirical world” (Carol Shloss, In Visible Light: Photography and the American Writer, 1840–1940 [New York: Oxford University Press, 1987], 105). Stieglitz’s clouds might likewise be considered in the context of a longer aesthetic history of representing clouds. Mary Jacobus studies the work of poets and painters who responded to a new “science of clouds” that emerged in the nineteenth century, focusing in particular on the poetry of John Clare and the painting of John Constable (Mary Jacobus, Romantic Things: A Tree, a Rock, a Cloud [Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2012], 6). As Jacobus observes, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe set a precedent for such generative exchanges between artists and scientists with a series of poems inspired by his reading of Luke Howard’s Essay on the Modification of Clouds (1804), which developed a nomenclature uniquely capable of denoting continuous flux. Richard Hamblyn chronicles the widespread influence of Howard’s taxonomy in The Invention of Clouds: How an Amateur Meteorologist Forged the Language of the Skies (London: Picador, 2001). According to Hamblyn’s narrative, Howard’s “achievement was crystallized in the pages of The International Cloud Atlas” (published in 1896), which expanded Howard’s four fundamental cloud types (cirrus, stratus, cumulus, nimbus) into an authoritative classificatory system accompanied by a photographic key (251). The Atlas cloud photos by Ralph Abercromby built on cloud studies by nineteenth-century photographers including Gustave Le Gray and Eadweard Muybridge, which likewise anticipate the subject of the Equivalents.

[5] Alfred Stieglitz, quoted in Jay Bochner, An American Lens: Scenes from Alfred Stieglitz’s New York Secession (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005), 259.

[6] Waldo Frank, Our America (New York: Boni and Liveright, 1919), 70. Critics who take Frank’s understanding of Stieglitz as an American transcendentalist as their starting point include Miles Orvell, The Real Thing: Imitation and Authenticity in American Culture, 1880–1940 (1989; rpt., Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2014), 154–55, 213–14; Kristina Wilson, “The Intimate Gallery and the Equivalents: Spirituality in the 1920s Work of Stieglitz,” Art Bulletin 85, no. 4 (2003): 746–68, 748; and Katherine Hoffman, Alfred Stieglitz: A Legacy of Light (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011), 237–40.

[7] I borrow the term “radical empiricism” from William James, who explains that “to be radical an empiricism must neither admit into its constructions any element that is not directly experienced, nor exclude from them any element that is directly experienced. For such a philosophy, the relations that connect experiences must themselves be experienced relations, and any kind of relation experienced must be accounted as ‘real’ as anything else in the system” (William James, “A World of Pure Experience,” in Writings, 1902–1910 [New York: Library of America, 1987], 1159–81, 1160, emphasis in original). As Steven Meyer has persuasively argued, Emerson mentored his godson, William James, in the radically empirical approach to observation that replaced his “early naturalistic idealism” (Steven Meyer, Irresistible Dictation: Gertrude Stein and the Correlations of Writing and Science [Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001], xix).

[8]Andy Grundberg, “Photography View; Stieglitz Felt the Pull of Two Cultures,” New York Times, February 13, 1983, H35.

[9] Wilson elaborates: “Waldo Frank’s 1919 book Our America established a genealogy of American thought that became a rallying cry for many artists in the ensuing decade. From a discussion of Emerson and Thoreau, Frank arrived at a portrait of Stieglitz, who seemed to have brought the Transcendentalists’ sanctuary of nature to the city” (“The Intimate Gallery,” 749). Hoffman echoes: “Waldo Frank, in his 1919 book, Our America, started his portrait of Stieglitz with a discussion of Emerson” (Alfred Stieglitz: A Legacy of Light, 237).

[10] John Szarkowski, “The Sky Pictures of Alfred Stieglitz,” MoMA 20 (1995): 15–17, 17. Hoffman follows her citation of Frank with the claim that Stieglitz uses “the exterior sky to express interior emotion,” where the clouds are an equivalent of the photographer’s subjective state (Alfred Stieglitz: A Legacy of Light, 240). Wilson argues that the critical focus on “Stieglitz’s understanding of an ‘inner’ psychological life” has meant that critics have “generally overlooked the spiritual component inherent in this idea of the inner life” (“Intimate Gallery,” 746). A number of critics have used nearly identical formulations to claim that the cloud photographs “evoke the equivalence of his feeling” or are “equivalent to his feelings” (Pultz, “Equivalence, Symbolism,” 29; Sarah Greenough, “How Stieglitz Came to Photograph Clouds,” in Perspectives on Photography: In Honor of Beaumont Newhall, ed. Peter Walch and Thomas F. Barrow [Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1986], 151–66 152).

[11] Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The Transcendentalist,” in Essays and Lectures (New York: Library of America, 1983), 191–210, 205.

[12] Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Circles,” in Essays, 401–14, 410.

[13] Alfred Stieglitz, “The Pictures in This Number,” Camera Work 1 (1903): 63.

[14] Alfred Stieglitz, “The Hand Camera—Its Present Importance,” in Stieglitz on Photography, 65–72, 68.

[15] Alfred Stieglitz, “A Plea for Art Photography in America,” in Stieglitz on Photography, 29–32, 30.

[16] Alfred Stieglitz, quoted in Dorothy Norman, Alfred Stieglitz: An American Seer (New York: Aperture, 1973), 161.

[17] Susan Sontag, On Photography (New York: Picador, 2001), 123.

[18] Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Nature,” in Essays, 1–50, 22.

[19] Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Fate,” in Essays, 941–68, 965.

[20] James Sully, Illusions: A Psychological Study (London: C. Keegan Paul, 1881), 3. My account of the perceptual imagination owes a debt to Alicia DeSantis’s doctoral work, “The Feeling of a Line: Nineteenth-Century American Literature and the Psychology of Imagination” (PhD diss., Columbia University, 2013).

[21] William James, The Principles of Psychology (New York: Dover, 1950), 2:601.

[22] See James, Principles, 602–09.

[23] Joseph Jastrow, Fact and Fable in Psychology (New York: Houghton, Mifflin, 1900), 279.

[24] Alfred Stieglitz to Hart Crane, December 10, 1923, in Alfred Stieglitz: Photographs & Writings, ed. Sarah Greenough and Juan Hamilton (Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art, 1999), 208. As a defender of the medium, Stieglitz complains that “photography as a picture-making medium has fallen into disrepute in so many quarters” and argues that it “should not be despised as a mere matter of mechanism” (“Pictorial Photography,” in Stieglitz on Photography, 102–11, 102; “Is Photography a Failure?,” in Stieglitz on Photography, 229–34, 232). Responding to those who see the camera’s apparently effortless capacity to capture life as a threat to painting, Stieglitz attests that “photography is not superseding any living medium, but it has its own inherent virtues as an additional tool which can be developed by those who recognize and feel their potential livingness” (“Is Photography a Failure?,” 232). He takes a seemingly contradictory tack in affirming the legitimacy of the medium when he argues that “Photography is not an art. Neither is painting nor sculpture, literature nor music. They are only different media for the individual to express his aesthetic feelings; the tools he uses in his creative work. Consequently, critics err who regard photography as a despised outcast from the sacred circle of ‘art’” (“Is Photography a Failure?,” 229).

[25] Dorothy Norman recorded a conversation between Stieglitz and a man looking at one of the Equivalents who asked “Is this a photography of water?” to which he answered: “What difference does it make of what it is a photograph?” Pushed further, Stieglitz responds: “It happens to be a picture of the sky. But I cannot understand why that is of any consequence” (quoted in Minor White, A Living Remembrance, ed. Ansel Adams [Millerton, NY: Aperture, 1984], 9). His insistence that he is interested in “clouds for themselves” sits uneasily alongside the comments Norman records in another conversation: “I have found that the use of clouds in my photographs has made people less aware of clouds as clouds in the pictures than when I have portrayed trees or houses or wood or any other objects. In looking at my photographs of clouds, people seem freer to think about the relationships in the pictures than about the subject-matter for its own sake. . . . The true meaning of the Equivalents comes through without any extraneous pictorial factors intervening between those who look at the pictures and the pictures themselves” (quoted in Norman, American Seer, 161).

[26] In On Leaving: A Reading in Emerson (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010), Branka Arsić observes that critics who contest Emerson’s literary merit tend to disparage and disqualify his contradictory and unsystematic prose. Her “Appendix” to the study surveys critics (including Julie Ellison, Stanley Cavell, and Richard Poirier) whose “engagements with Emerson’s logic, grammar, and rhetoric” have countered the “widespread prejudice” that his writing is “contradictory” and “unmethodical” (293).

[27] Writing against such critics, Stanley Cavell devoted his career to establishing Emerson’s claim to being a philosopher. See Stanley Cavell, Emerson’s Transcendental Etudes (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003).

[28] Jacques Rancière, Mute Speech: Literature, Critical Theory, and Politics, trans. James Swenson (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 76.

[29] Jacques Rancière, Aisthesis: Scenes from the Aesthetic Regime of Art, trans. Zakir Paul (New York: Verso, 2013), 211.

[30]  Jacques Rancière, “What Medium Can Mean,” Parrhesia 11 (2011): 35–43, 35.

[31] Stanley Cavell, The World Viewed: Reflections on the Ontology of Film, Enlarged Edition (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979), 24, emphases in original.

[32] Despite its modest size, Stieglitz emphasizes the airiness of the Intimate Gallery, characterizing it as an unenclosed space where one might breath freely and which may “give birds a chance—will create an atmosphere for birds that fly lighter than sparrow” (quoted in Wilson, “Intimate Gallery,” 746).

[33] Paul Grimstad, Experience and Experimental Writing: Literary Pragmatism from Emerson to the Jameses (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 13. See also Stanley Cavell, The Senses of Walden: An Expanded Edition (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2013).

[34] Alfred Stieglitz, quoted in Katherine Hoffman, Stieglitz: A Beginning Light (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004), xiv.

[35] Cavell began to devote himself to the study of Emersonian transcendentalism directly following the publication of Krauss’s piece on the Equivalents. In 1981 he reprinted The Senses of Walden (1972) with two essays on Emerson, which marked the beginning of his career-long commitment to reading Emerson philosophically.

[36] Jacques Rancière, “Rethinking Modernity,” Diacritics 42, no. 3 (2014): 6–20, 19.

[37] Jacques Rancière, “Notes on the Photographic Image,” Radical Philosophy 156 (2009): 8–15, 14.

[38] Branka Arsić, “Poetry as flowering of life forms: Rancière’s reading of Emerson,” Textual Practice 30, no. 4 (2016): 551–77, 565. Rancière writes of the Emersonian aesthetic tradition Aisthesis tracks: “one could call it idealist, for it strives to define the spiritual potential hidden in the diversity of things and material activities. One could call it materialist, for it does not concede any world of its own to spirituality—it recognizes it only as the link that unites sensible forms” (Aisthesis, 64).

[39] Ralph Waldo Emerson, Emerson in His Journals, ed. Joel Porte (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982), 269.

[40] Alfred Stieglitz, quoted in Charles C. Eldredge, Georgia O’Keeffe: American and Modern (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993), 194.

[41] Kenneth Baker, “What Went Wrong?,” Connoisseur 185 (1987): 170–75, 173.

[42] Alfred Stieglitz, quoted in Dorothy Norman, “From the Writings and Conversations of Alfred Stieglitz,” Twice a Year 1 (1938): 77–110, 86.

[43] Stieglitz also produced a set of Equivalents in 1927 which foreground a large poplar against a clouded backdrop, set at various angles. See images #1198–1207 collected in Sarah Greenough, Alfred Stieglitz: The Key Set: The Alfred Stieglitz Collection of Photographs (New York: H. N. Abrams, 2002).

[44] See, for example, images #1210, 1212, 1215, and 1225 in The Key Set. Stieglitz’s inscriptions on the back of the Equivalents also designate different groupings (or what he called “sets”) in which the photographs might be exhibited or published. Importantly, these sets are neither sequential nor discrete; individual prints may be marked with different identifications and included in multiple groups. Instead of fixing the images in definite arrangements, Stieglitz’s open-ended labelling system ensures that the Equivalents remain in ongoing circulation, while the provisionality of the sets allows the wider series to remain dynamically in process.