The idea of equivalence in photography is richly rooted in a time when photography was beginning to discover its own nature and continues to be a powerful force for discovering our own nature, which is greater than we think.
Alfred Stieglitz first used the term equivalent as a title for a series of photographs of clouds, whose aspirations were more musical than representational, and to describe a particular kind of activity in art and its result, “My photographs are ever born of an inner need – an Experience of Spirit … I have a vision of life, and I try to find equivalents for it sometimes in the form of photographs.” In stating that his photographs have power “not due to subject matter” he suggested that photography, capable of but not limited to abstraction, can move beyond transcription without abandoning verisimilitude. The visible can be used to reveal the invisible; the external can be used to reveal the internal.
Extending what Stieglitz started, Minor White stated, “When a photograph is a mirror of the man, and the man is a mirror of the world, then Spirit might take over.” Equivalence embraces and elevates the debate over whether photographs are windows (onto the world) or mirrors (into the soul) and whether they are taken (through distant observation, objective to varying degrees) or made (through immediate interaction, subjective to varying degrees), illuminating many more levels of an evolving process. Through equivalence the photographic object created becomes a reflection of both the external things it represents and the internal states of its creator. This reflective capacity is extended to the viewers, who re-experience this shared process in their own ways.
White remarked, “One should photograph things not only for what they are but also for what else they are.” and “Equivalence is a function, not a thing.” He did not mean to suggest that equivalence was merely a rhetorical device. Equivalence is more than a rhetorical device, not a simile that suggests shared commonalities (this is like that), not a metaphor that observes shared qualities through the power of transformation (this is that), but a process inclusive and transcendent of both. Like a simile its power starts with the recognition of shared qualities and like a metaphor its power lies in transformation, but an equivalent transcends both through a heightened state of self-awareness, even to the point of transforming the self through its accompanying effects of clarity and commitment.
A change of perspective is a change in state. Jean Piaget reminds us that, “What we see changes what we know. What we know changes what we see.” Perception changes reality – if only but not necessarily only because we are a part of reality. The more conscious the perception the stronger the change. Furthermore, the quality of consciousness one engages perception with influences what is perceived, what is produced, how it is received and the consequences that has. Acting on what one observes, choosing and sustaining one thing / quality amid many others, reinforces that state of being and this is particularly true if during observation one creates something tangible and durable and never more true if multiple related works are created. Often, during the process of manifestation perception continues to change, further extending this process of revelation and transformation.
Resonance is a consequence of equivalence. What we create can transform us. We then become cocreators, creating not only things and ideas but selves. What we create can also transform others, triggering cascades of sympathetic vibrations, if we imbue our creations with a persistent resonance, brought on by intensity, clarity and connection (connection to subject, medium, self, and others). Through the experience of art, the powers of perception and transformation can be awakened, in both the ones who create directly and the ones who reperceive indirectly. Just as whether something is seen or unseen depends on a degree of sympathetic vibration, whether this capacity is activated depends on whether an equivalent resonance is produced in the viewer, which is influenced by the clarity and intensity of transmission and the capacity of the viewer to receive it. In this process, the connections between all things are highlighted. In this light, photography, like all forms of art and many other disciplines, is an agent for heightened perception and thus an agent for change.
Equivalence is born out of a state of being and the equivalent is a record of and a catalyst for that state of being, which can be reenacted by others. Equivalence is a process of revealing and exploring not only our greater nature but also our connection to and unity with a greater spirit / energy field. Equivalence is a shared lived process of revelation and transformation. Equivalence is not a process reserved only for photography, it is possible in every medium, it is not only for artists, but for each and every individual. It is universal. The question that still burns is not does it happen, but when it happens how intensely and with what quality does it happen?
Stieglitz set a shining example for us all. He demonstrated that the full power of our photographs lies not in special subjects or moments but in what we bring to the picture, which can be much more than technical skill, compositional prowess, and cultural awareness. Through photography we can simultaneously bear witness to things / events, affirm our connection / participation with them (even if only as observers, no small thing), and clarify our understanding / interpretation of the confluence of everything that is brought to bear in each moment and the continuing resonances they produce. More than an intellectual interpretation or emotional expression, this is a process of holistic integration. The photograph can be much more than a material trace of another material; it can even be much more than a trace of light and time; it can also be a trace of spirit, the energetic confluence of body, mind, and emotion, either single or multiple.
White reminds us that this process of self-realization is open to everyone, “With the theory of Equivalence, photographers everywhere are given a way of learning to use the camera in relation to the mind, heart, viscera and spirit of human beings. The perennial trend has barely been started in photography.” Though all photographers do it, not all photographers do it with equal clarity or intensity. Regardless of what level they engage this process, whenever photographers break through to new levels of consciousness the results are transformative for the photographer and the viewer and even the viewed, sometimes subtly and sometimes dramatically.
Read Minor White’s essay Equivalence: The Perennial Trend.
The exhibit Seeing The Unseen: Equivalence In Photography opens in NYC at Soho Photo Tuesday, May 7.
The patterns found in a majority of my images were created by nature. Yet the surfaces in these pictures are not untouched by me. I have influenced them all: by selection of moment; by choice of perspective; by use of tool; by inclusion and exclusion with the picture frame; by further eliminations from and additions to what remains within the picture frame; by changing proportion; by orchestrating color; by creating symmetries; etc. I consider all of these opportunities to collaborate with the hand of nature.
With growing frequency, traces of my physical presence are displayed in my images. Sometimes I set things on fire. Sometimes, I push and pull smoke with my breath. Sometimes, I toss ash in the air. At other times, I create ripples in water. In this case, the circles and trails in the receding foam were created by placing my feet in the pulsing surf.
I prefer that the marks I make in nature remain ephemeral. In this way, the next person who experiences the same location I was in, is free to experience it in their own ways. If we’re lucky, we may even be able to compare our experiences. The only durable mark I leave in my process is the photograph itself.
The impulse to acknowledge my involvement in every moment and create something beautiful from it, has been growing stronger and stronger within me.
View / read more here.
It’s important to learn how to make the visual verbal, by crafting artist’s statements. Many artists feel that images are better seen and not heard. I understand their point of view. But, face it, things will be said and written about your images. If you don’t do it, someone else will. You might as well become involved in the process. After all, as the author, this is one arena where your words are definitive.
You don’t have to be a professional writer to write. Just write. Write like you speak. Write with your voice.
Like making images, writing is a process, a process of making thoughts and feelings clearer. Often, you don’t know what shape the final product will take, until you finish.
At first, I resisted writing about my images. Now, I find the process so valuable that I’ve made it a part of my artistic process. Every time a new body of work arises, I write. When I’m ready to release a book of the work, I write again. As a result of writing, I gain a better understanding of the work I did, the work I’m doing, and the work I’m going to do. So do the people who see my images, surprisingly, even if they don’t read what I write.
This is an excerpt from a longer essay Artists’ Statements.
Download it here.
All photographs are about light. The great majority of photographs record light as a way of describing objects in space. A few photographs are more about spaces they represent than the objects within those spaces. Still fewer photographs are about light itself.
Time, space, light. All the things this work is about are ultimately missing from the final product – the print. Put it in a dark room and there will still be no light. Touch it and you’ll find it’s flat. Consider it for an extended time; you’ll change but it won’t. Curiously, these conspicuous absences within the print make what’s missing more intensely felt. How does absence make something more clearly experienced? Perhaps it’s that the gap between representation and reality gives us pause and begs us to more carefully reconsider the world around us and the experiences we have in it, at first as a way of verification but later as a way of celebration. Read More
The first thing I do when I walk outside is look up. The next thing I do is scan the horizon. Hopefully, there’s water nearby; no matter how active or still it is, I’m mesmerized by it. I’m always looking at the sky, the horizon, and water for information and inspiration. Sometimes I stare for hours. More often than not, just for seconds or minutes. I consider myself luckier the longer I look. I have no idea how much time I’ve spent gazing at these things, but I’m always rewarded – if not with an image, then with a new state of mind. That’s how these images were made, through the accumulation of a lot of looking. These images are meditations. They’re an invitation to look closely at looking. They’re an invitation to see more fully, more deeply, and in many ways. Read More
What child hasn’t spent scattered minutes, accumulated into hours or even days, watching slowly unfolding clouds and the changing sky? Wondering what they were, are, and will be. Imagining bodies (either whole or in pieces, especially faces), animals (whether commonplace, exotic, or mythical), plants, landscapes, and even mechanical devices. Who doesn’t pause at the sight of the blazing colors of the morning and evening sky? How few pause long enough to see the stars begin to appear? How strange to think that the same sky is blue by day and black by night, studded with twinkling stars. Are we like this too? Why do so many adults cease to probe these mysteries as consistently and frequently and with as much curiosity as a child does? What do we lose when we lose the search? Read More
“I didn’t know it then, but it was the beginning of a whole new series. I knew it after it began happening repeatedly. The process had led me to a new point of departure. The work was a surprise. I hadn’t planned on doing it. It came to me. I had planned to do another body of work, but this one seized me and asked me to stay with it while it was fresh. I listened. I have a feeling that if I had ignored that voice I would not have been able to return to it later, certainly not with the same intensity or understanding …”
Read the rest of this Artist’s Statement here.
I’ve always been fascinated by photographs of the night sky. Telescopes are able to bring back details I could never have seen with the naked eye. Film exaggerates the colors of the stars, which are faint to the human eye. The lens often eliminates the tiny flares we see. When we draw stars, we don’t use circles, we usually use pentagrams. There’s a reason. I can understand that the twinkle and shimmer of the tapestries above would disappear in a photograph. Time is frozen in photographs. But that the photograph would be significantly different than what the human eye sees is fascinating to me. We’re taught to think that the camera records things as we see them. It does to a degree. But there are many points of divergence. It’s almost standard for us to defer to the photograph over our own experience. That’s something I’m wary of — or let’s say instead, acutely aware of …
Read more here.
A new online gallery at johnpaulcaponigro-antarctica.com features my comments on a recent image.
“I was on the Ocean Nova with four other teachers and about 75 students. We were coming up through the Neumayer Channel, a little more than halfway through our trip south of the Antarctic Circle. A whale moved past us …”
See them both here.
” … The change from one moment to another was dramatic. Bright sun. Shadow. And, to my surprise, there was a beautiful quality of diffuse light when the sun was struck by the edges of each cloud. Some clouds were thicker than others. Every moment was different. I started to interact with the light. I used a white sheet as a diffuser, a large piece of foam core as a cool reflector, and a warm gold reflector. I played for hours, simply enjoying the light. I intended to come back with three exposures. I came back with dozens. In the end, I used two. But my understanding of light and my experience of light had completely changed from that moment forward. And, what I thought might be an isolated image turned out to be a whole series of images. Process is important when it informs the work; it becomes a part of the final product. Process is even more important when it informs you; it becomes a part of you. Fully engaging the process and the subject changed me. That changes the image. That changes what you see. That’s the chance we take as artists. We dare to be changed. It’s a chance well worth taking.”
Read more here.
Learn this technique in my field workshops.