a photo study: contemplative photography IX: equivalence

… to hold a moment, how to record something so completely, that all who see [the picture of it] will relive an equivalent of what has been expressed.    ~Alfred Stieglitz (cited: http://www.metmuseum.org)

The theory of equivalence was inspired by Wassily Kandinsky’s belief that colors, shapes, and lines reflect the inner, often emotive “vibrations of the soul.”  In his cloud photographs, which he termed Equivalents, Stieglitz emphasized pure abstraction, adhering to the modern ideas of equivalence, holding that abstract forms, lines, and colors could represent corresponding inner states, emotions and ideas.

The following are excerpts from Equivalence: The Perennial Trend: Minor White, PSA Journal, Vol. 29, No 7, pp 17-21, 1963 (cited: http://www.johnpaulcaponigro.com)

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… 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.

 The visible can be used to reveal the invisible; the external can be used to reveal the internal.    ~Alfred Stieglitz 

Minor 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.

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.

Resonance is a consequence of equivalence. What we create can transform us. We then become co-creators, 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 [perceive] indirectly.

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.

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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 is a form of contemplative photography that asks us to see our world in a new way. In some ways it seems very simple, but it is not always easy.