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In 1922, Alfred Stieglitz read a commentary on his photography by Waldo Frank. In this commentary, Frank suggested that the strength of Stieglitz’s photographs was in the power of the individuals he photographed, rather than in his own technical ability. Outraged, Stieglitz began photographing clouds, something everyone could see but no one could manipulate—his way of proving his artistic prowess. This series was called Equivalents.
In present day, it’s difficult to imagine the impact of this series. At the time, photography was still fairly new: barely a century old, it had undergone many technological advancements, but few artistic ones, as the art world struggled to see photography as an artistic medium in its own right. The series Equivalents is recognized as some of the first completely abstract fine-art photography. Instead of photographing a specific subject, Stieglitz freed the subject—clouds—from literality, opening up the work to interpretation.
Some pieces in the Equivalents series featured more than clouds, or didn’t include clouds at all. For example, there are no clouds in Rain Drops (alternatively titled Equivalent (Rain drops on grass, Lake George), 1927). Instead, this image focuses on the patterns of shape and light created by long stalks of grass covered in water droplets. Because there is no other object in the frame to provide context or reference, the image pushes toward total abstraction. Its abstraction is grounded in the organic and natural.
Describing his fondness for the Adirondack Mountain area of Lake George, New York—the location of his summer home—Stieglitz said “Lake George is in my blood, the trees and lake and hills and sky”. Rain Drops was not the first time Stieglitz photographed his natural surroundings at Lake George, and it wouldn’t be the last time this area inspired him.
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Stieglitz was born in Hoboken, New Jersey in 1864, but grew up in Germany. He purchased his first camera in 1882, creating images of the countryside and researching more about the medium. In 1890, he moved back to America and settled in New York City. He solidified his position in the still small world of photography with stints working for The American Amateur Photographer and launching Camera Work.
Friend and fellow photographer Edward Steichen encouraged Stieglitz to open an exhibition space, which he did, calling it the Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession. It was the first gallery to hold paintings and photographs to the same aesthetic status. The gallery—later known as 291—exhibited both Stieglitz’s work and the art of American and European modernists, becoming the hot spot for promoting new artists and exploring philosophical views in the arts. It was through this gallery that Stieglitz met his muse, the American painter Georgia O’Keeffe. He was so taken with her work that he displayed it in Gallery 291 without her permission; when they first met, it was so she could chastise him. Their relationship began shortly after and informed much of his oeuvre.
Though photography was still developing as an artistic medium in Stieglitz’s working years, he insisted on taking it to its limits. By the 1920s, he had accomplished much of what was said to be impossible with photo-chemistry: photographing at night, in low light, in bad weather, and in color. He also pushed artistic limits by creating some of the first abstract photographs, making a series of nudes, and developing the idea for a composite portrait. Stieglitz felt that in order for photography to be recognized as an art form, it had to push its own boundaries beyond technical skill into the realm of truly impactful visual appeal. Though he died in 1946, his work stands the test of time and continues to inform modern day photography.
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