The Rocks And The Photographs
Although not as well known today, Minor White, was a highly influential photographer and teacher in mid-twentieth century photography. He more than anyone was responsible for the practice in photography called the Equivalent Tradition. The term equivalent was first coined by Alfred Stieglitz, one of Minor White’s greater influences along with Edward Weston. But Minor White is credited with expanding upon Stieglitz’s idea of the equivalent. There is an episode White describes in his diary, Memorable Fancies, in which he describes speaking with Stieglitz just after his return from WW II. At this point White is a young photographer just back from war and Stieglitz is the grand master of Modern Art and a highly regarded photographer. White describes sitting on a radiator and discussing picture making with Stieglitz and at one point Stieglitz says something about the ability of photography to make visible the invisible:
…and something else about true things being able to talk to each other. His talk itself was a kind of equivalent, that is his words were not related to the sense he was making. If anyone had ever talked like that to me before, I certainly had not heard him.
After a few minutes of this sort of talk White has an emotional and transformative experience where Stieglitz is able to; “break open the lump of poured concrete” inside of him. “Have you ever been in love?…Then you can photograph”.
I always like telling that anecdote when trying to explain the notion of equivalence in photography. In many ways it gets to the essence of the idea. It seems that there is a swirl of activity at Soho Photo around this idea of the equivalent and there is even talk of hanging a show in the fall. And so in this and the next few posts I will try to lay out my understanding of the idea of equivalence in photography.
An equivalent is not a thing it is a function.
I don’t think I ever really, at a visceral level, understood Stiegltz’s “Have you ever been in love” statement until recently. I had an intellectual understanding of it and the idea of equivalence but it wasn’t until my 8 year old son made friends with a girl named Lucie at his school a couple of years ago that it really hit me. Lucie and Isaac have this special relationship where they just liked being with each other pure and simple.That’s it, nothing more. At one point we were all at the beach, Lucie and her parents and Isaac with me and my wife and daughter. Lucie and Isaac were gamboling in the surf and just seeing them together, happy just to be, with no further desires or expectations, affected me much the same way Stieglitz’s words to Minor White affected him. I wanted to capture that feeling and so I took out my Mamiya 6 and started to shoot but halfway through I realized that what I was getting on film was just two very happy kids. Then I remembered a photograph I made years ago, an abstract of ice on a lake, and that photograph (and that memory of the photograph) became an equivalent of what I was feeling.
An equivalent is a process. It’s an experience. Any photograph regardless of source might function as an Equivalent to someone, somewhere, sometime. Equivalence in photography really refers to what is going on in the viewers mind. According to Minor White, equivalency functions on the assumption that the following equation is factual:
Photograph + Person Looking Mental Image
In the next post I would like to talk about working in the equivalent tradition. For now I leave you with some words from Minor White:
While rocks were photographed, the subject of the sequence is not rocks; while symbols seem to appear, they are pointers to the significance. The meaning appears in the space between the images, in the mood they raise in the beholder. The flow of the sequence eddies in the river of his associations as he passes from picture to picture. The rocks and the photographs are only objects upon which significance is spread like sheets on the ground to dry.