WEEK 6: Equivalents



DISCUSSION: Can a portrait be made of a person, without photographing that person? Today in class we will discuss Alfred Stieglitz's “equivalent” photographs and introduce the idea of using a photograph of an object, landscape, or space, to signify a person.

STUDIO: Using their photographs made last week, students will choose five photographs which could be “equivalents” for a person they have made a portrait of in the course of this class (or for themselves). Working in class, students will show these images to the class for further discussion on how non-traditional images can stand in for, or elevate, a series of portraits.

ASSIGNMENT: Students will be asked to make a series of photographs inspired by the notion of Stieglitz's equivalents. Additionally, students will be asked to bring in “documents” (books, papers, poems, notes, etc.) for the coming week. (5 images total; 15 documents)

Alfred Stieglitz,  Equivalent  (1926)

Alfred Stieglitz, Equivalent (1926)

Equivalence: The Perennial Trend
Minor White, PSA Journal, Vol. 29, No. 7, pp. 17-21, 1963


When a photographer presents us with what to him is an Equivalent, he is telling us in effect, "I had a feeling about something and here is my metaphor of that feeling." The significant difference here is that what he had a feeling about was not for the subject he photographed, but for something else. He may show us a picture of a cloud, the forms of which expressively correspond to his feelings about a certain person. As he saw the clouds he was somehow reminded of the person, and probably he hopes that we will catch, in the expressive quality of the cloud forms, the same feeling that he experienced. If we do and our feelings are similar to his, he has aroused in us what was to him a known feeling. This is not exactly an easy distinction to make so maybe we can repeat. When the photographer shows us what he considers to be an Equivalent, he is showing us an expression of a feeling, but this feeling is not the feeling he had for the object that he photographed. What really happened is that he recognized an object or series of forms that, when photographed, would yield an image with specific suggestive powers that can direct the viewer into a specific and known feeling, state or place within himself. With constantly metamorphizing material such as water, or clouds or ice, or light on cellophane and similar materials, the infinity of forms and shapes, reflections and colors suggest all sorts and manners of emotions and tactile encounters and intellectual speculations that are supported by and formed by the material but which maintain an independent identity from which the photographer can choose what he wishes to express.

The power of the equivalent, so far as the expressive-creative photographer is concerned, lies in the fact that he can convey and evoke feelings about things and situations and events which for some reason or other are not or can not be photographed. The secret, the catch and the power lies in being able to use the forms and shapes of objects in front of the camera for their expressive-evocative qualities. Or to say this in another way, in practice Equivalency is the ability to use the visual world as the plastic material for the photographer's expressive purposes. He may wish to employ the recording power of the medium, it is strong in photography, and document. Or he may wish to emphasize its transforming power, which is equally strong, and cause the subject to stand for something else too. If he uses Equivalency consciously and knowingly, aware of what he is doing, and accepts the responsibility for his images, he has as much freedom of expression as any of the arts.

To be concrete, and leave off theory for a moment, we can return to the photograph of a cloud mentioned above. If we question the photographer, he may tell us that it stands for a certain quality that he finds in a specific woman, namely her femininity. The photograph exhibits softness, delicacy, roundness, fluffiness and so corresponds to at least one feeling or emotion that he has about her. If we ask why he does not photograph the woman herself directly, he may answer that she is hardly photogenic, or that he wishes to establish a certain aesthetic distance between his direct feeling and his outward manifestation of it via the photograph. And this is pleasant—as we all know, too intimate a photograph of a person frequently gets in the way of the viewer's enjoyment.

Founded on the belief that colors, shapes, and lines reflect the inner, usually emotive "vibrations of the soul”, Stieglitz began photographing cloud in the 1920’s—which he termed Equivalents—as a method for equating photographic content to conceptual idea.


Thinking about our discussion last week on “stereotype” or predisposed “bias” in portraiture—what did this week’s assignment reveal to you?

Considering the photograph as a document, and the photographer’s ability to impart significance through this action, what are you signifying in your day-to-day photo making? (IE; what are you looking at and documenting?) Why do you think you were compelled to make these images?

What sort of personal, narrative, aesthetic, or emotive themes are emergent in the photographs you made?

Are we ever photographing the-thing-itself? Or are we always creating “equivalencies” when we make images?

How can a photograph of an object, place, natural element, stand in for a person in a portrait? What is that intellectually asking the viewer?