Bronwen Summerwill, 2021
To turn your camera towards the sky, for many, is something whimsical. Why photograph something so vast and empty when there is a world before your eyes full of subjects; life and memories to be captured?
Yet, that is exactly what Alfred Steiglitz turned to doing in 1922 in his series of cloud studies that came to be known as the Equivalents. Tilting his camera towards the sky, he photographed abstract and ethereal images of the clouds. Over a period of eight years, he made around 350 cloud studies.
With these photographs, Steiglitz emphasised the importance of using photography to express pure emotion and content of photography being different from its subject matter. At this time, photography was used primarily as a tool of pure documentation, a way to memorialise what was in the world rather than an artistic tool. By stepping away from this rigid thinking and by trying to parallel his inner psyche, Steiglitz used the cloud studies as a way to challenge his own photographic process but also encourage the viewer to contemplate the implications of an image and what is represented in it, intentional or not.
Critics frequently discuss the disorientation that the images provoke in viewers. They represent a more philosophical approach to photography, focusing on ‘transcendental idealism’. In On Photography (1977), Susan Sontag writes that Equivalents are “Statements of his inner feelings”. As Sontag recognises however, inner thoughts are always reflected onto and projected through the outer world. She goes on to state “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 authorising an aggressive relation to the world which celebrates the self”.
Steiglitz writes, in an accompanying essay to the series How I Came to Photograph Clouds (1923) “Through clouds [I wanted] to put down my philosophy of life- to show that my photographs were not due to subject matter- not to special trees, or faces, or interiors, to special privileges, clouds were there for everyone- no tax as yet on them- free”. Clouds are something that we can all relate to and be united by, available for all to witness in nature. Through their transience, we are compelled, intrigued by something constantly evolving and never the same. Through something so ephemeral, we consider our own relationship with the landscape; cycles of light and dark, life and death.
Similarly, Rebecca Partridge encourages us to consider the same with her exhibition, On a Clear Day, currently on show here at Informality.
The paintings, on the surface, are a clear contrast to that of Stieglitz. The depictions of the clouds and the sky are serene, calming, pastel colours compared to contrasted black and white, chaotic photographs. Yet, Partridge aims to bring the same interpretative qualities to her work in her more recent pieces.
In earlier work by Partridge, use of photographs as reference points helps the artist to feel more separated from gestural expression or personal expression, painting extreme detail and paying close attention to the subject. Yet, her more recent work is made in a very different way, through memory, that inevitably leads to a more internal interpretation of the landscape and emotion. In a recent interview Partridge says ‘For me, it’s not really about the sky itself; it’s about translating a perceptual or sensory experience into something shareable and locatable’. Translating her emotions of the time and place onto her chosen medium allows for an experience for all, something that unites us and that we can all relate to when looking at the familiar clouds and sky above us. After all, if there is one thing that has always connected us as a species, it is our fascination with what is above, striving to reach further into the sky, and into the unknown…
● Partridge, R (2021) Jeffrey Saletnik in conversation with Rebecca Partridge, On a Clear Day, Sync Press
● Sontag, S. (1979) On Photography. London: Penguin
● Stieglitz, A. (1923) How I Came to Photograph Clouds. Amateur Photographer and Photography 56. Available from: https://archive.artic.edu/stieglitz/wp-content/uploads/sites/6/2016/06/1923-09-19-Stieglitz-How-I-came-to-photograph-clouds-American-Amatuer-Photographer.pdf [Accessed 26th October 2021]