This article recently appeared in the fine arts journal for the Women’s University of the Phillipines.
This article is copyright and may not be used without permission from the author.
Photography, Equivalence and Testing too
Paul Ott Artist, Photographer, Writer
The artist/author feels we focus too much on “tech”, “new gear” and “the ever evolving new”. In this article he seeks to create a discussion about “image making” to do so the author offers a brief review of the history of photography. Then using quotes from the past, the author sets up how we can think about a useful visual philosophy called Equivalence. It is “a way to see” and it offers artists a way to think about “image making”. The author adds to Equivalence by creating a mechanism for testing what you want to convey to a viewer. It is the author’s hope that the article will help artists think more critically when approaching viewers and “image making”.
Alfred Steiglitz; Equivalence; Minor White
“Photography, Equivalence and Testing too”
In this essay, let’s briefly review the history of photography. How did we get here? Imaging devices have existed as far back as the renaissance. Remember the camera obscura(1)? First used in large rooms to show off what was outside then as an artist tool. Since that time, the early beginnings of photography feels shrouded in the darkness of many inventors trying to find the “magic potion” to either create an image or more importantly, how to fix the image so it would not continue to develop and turn into a black spot. Many of those earlier inventors failed and then went on to create other inventions aside from photography.
The one we all credit with the first image is a Frenchman and inventor, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce(2). It was 1826, creating the first stable image photograph of a view out a window. That began the great photography race that we are all still living through, today. Soon, there were the daguerreotypes, cyanotypes, ambrotypes. Each had interesting qualities that added to the progress of image making. The process that survived and flourished was the one developed by Henry Fox Talbot(3). Its basic concept was sound and through many iterations lived on until the invention of the digital camera.
In those early days, not thought of as an art form, photography was used as a way to show a real event or a person or place to people who otherwise had no way of seeing it. A new way had been discovered to show reality. Traveling photographers made money by producing portraits and photographs all across the world. In France, Hippolyte Arnoux’s(4), images of Egypt and the Suez Canal became all the rage. In the Philippines, Félix Laureano’s(5) gained acclaim for his compositions of everyday life. In America, photography came into its own for the first time in the 1860’s during the Civil War. Photographers like Mathew Brady(6) traveled the battlefields of war torn America showing real images of the terrors of war to horrified citizens, (who were accustomed to seeing drawings of the fights and death in the newspapers of the day.) After the war, photography worked its way into the very fabric of everyday life. One of photography’s most powerful offerings was a way to see the past, almost touch it, almost time travel back to that moment. And of course, the ability to relive it over and over again.
It Isn’t Art, Is It?
Photography was just not going to be considered an art form that easily. It was not until the early 20th century with artists like Alfred Stieglitz, Man Ray, and others that creative uses for image-making became more clear and viable and more visible to an accepting public, as well.
Many agree that photography has been a catalyst to move artists away from reality to create movements like Impressionism, Fauvism and Dadaism. Yet, we seem to not give photography the credit for helping to create the modern art we so love, today.
The argument for photography not being an art form has always existed; that photography shows an image that represents the reality of a moment in time and nothing more. Any image-making shows an artist’s subjective viewpoint. Whatever the subject, we believe it is best said that it is a rendering of whatever the artist chooses to “see”, with his/her eyes or mind. Perhaps what no one is willing to admit is that all of the things we are looking at and talking about are subjective? Those early photographers chose what and how they took pictures, bringing to those images their own perspective. A photo-journalist is not objective either. They bring their own thoughts and biases along when they take a picture. It is very possible that being human, none of us is completely objective.
Could it be that the argument was a ruse to cover a fear of seeing the role of an artist diminished in some way? The brilliant Charles Baudelaire(7) was vicious in some of his writings, “I believe in Nature, and I believe only in Nature (there are good reasons for that). I believe that Art is, and cannot be other than, the exact reproduction of Nature (a timid and dissident sect would wish to exclude the more repellent objects of nature, such as skeletons or chamber- pots). Thus an industry that could give us a result identical to Nature would be the absolute of Art……….Since photography gives us every guarantee of exactitude that we could desire (they really believe that, the mad fools!), then photography and Art are the same thing:’ From that moment our squalid society rushed, Narcissus to a man, to gaze at its trivial image on a scrap of metal.” Whistler(8) said, “The imitator is a poor kind of creature. If the man who paints only the tree, or the flower, or other surface he sees before him were an artist, the king of artists would be the photographer. It is for the artist to do something beyond this”. These quotes may be well written and intelligent, but there can be another reality. At the time photography was widely attacked. Perhaps, what it is they feared was that photography somehow would diminish the role of the artist. For the purpose of this essay we believe that they were not looking at it as a new tool to use.
When Edward Catmull(9) and his partner brought their invention of computer graphics to Disney, the animators were terrified, thinking it would take away their jobs, it would destroy their life’s work. Catmull responded, “NO, it is just a tool, it doesn’t replace creativity” There it is! Finally, someone looked at the right side of the argument and created the correct response. All the things we use to create are just tools.
Equivalence, On Reaching Out To Viewers
The visual arts are the gateway to an artist’s mind, thoughts, emotions. For a viewer, the key to unlock that gateway is Equivalence. What we as artists mean to do is to create something that touches another person. Not physically, but reaches out to them and finds a shared experience. Steiglitz, White and others felt that Equivalence should be viewed as something, an emotion, thought, an experience, shared by two people that uses an image to create a metaphor for that experience. While Stieglitz, Strand and others had views on what became known as Equivalence(10), it was Minor White(11) a mid 20th century American artist and photographer, who best expressed its operation in words for us. White’s view of equivalence was that when he presented an image to the viewer, ‘I had a feeling about something and here is my metaphor of that feeling….a certain appearance, or style, or trend, or fashion. Equivalence is a function, an experience, not a thing. Any photograph, regardless of source, might function as an Equivalent to someone, sometime, someplace. If the individual viewer realizes that for him what he sees in a picture corresponds to something within himself-—that is, the photograph mirrors something in himself—then his experience is some degree of Equivalence.” They are the images that reach out and create a state or feeling within the viewer that the artist can share , it “speaks to them” from the piece of art. This concept of creating a shared experience of having a desire to express to another what we feel is not new or rare or limited to artists.
In Relation to my Photography Practice
Of the new portfolios of images being worked on, one of the portfolios of images is of gravestones in colonial cemeteries. The series is tentatively named “Dead Stones”. Searching for the stones that have been worn down, show signs of age or are broken or covered in growths and yet survive. Many seem like abstract images, disconnected from reality, others are grounded in reality. Both work for our purpose. On one level, we are seeking to highlight the frailty of our own life and of all of our lives and at the same time show an ability to survive. On another (of many) levels they are of interest because the carvers of the stones may be the earliest of American artisans who worked to create interesting pieces of art for those in need for their afterlife.
To add a test to see “if” the images produced an equivalent response, we needed viewers who would give feedback on what they saw and felt from viewing the images. It is important for artists to test their constructs against their ideas (from time to time) and in a realistic way to get measurable results. We created a focus group of viewers from a gallery(12) where work is shown. We established a criteria for viewing. The participant viewers were asked to look at the images that were placed online at Paulott.me, under “Dead Stones” and email what they thought and felt. Over 74% agreed that the images produced that sense of human frailty and yet in some sense, survival or an ability to live on in some way. Some expressed deeper feelings or experiences too. 18% thought some of the images spoke to them about fear, then death only. Of those remaining, 6% were put off by the terrible condition of the stones and wondered more about why you would photograph the stones and did not focus on what meaning they might have. A few still had no idea of what they were looking at and expressed that to me in the emails. The test images produced the feeling in an overwhelming number of the viewers that we had hoped. What they were telling us is that same emotion or feeling or message that we had is what they got from the work- Equivalence!*
New York Times art critic Andy Grundberg said Equivalents “remain photography’s most radical demonstration of faith in the existence of a reality behind and beyond that offered by the world of appearances. They are intended to function evocatively, like music.”(13)
We approached the work using photography, and approached it as a creative artist. We approached it with a subjective bias. We approached the work using the image making philosophy of Equivalence and created a testing situation. It was all done so in order to check if viewers saw and/or felt what we did. At the end of the day, it worked. Selections of images will be finalized then printed and the images will be placed in the portfolio that will represent the first set of the “Dead Stones” portfolio series. Hopefully come up with a new name. One that might attract viewers”. Later the final portfolio, a numbered set, will be announced online and at a gallery.
In our research, photography does show a moment in time. So does everything we do. Painting, building a sand castle, playing with your dog, writing this article, all moments in time. In our finding we speculate that fear played a big role in diminishing photography’s early potential. The subjective/ objective argument still plays a role in talks about photography to this day. In the end, as Catmull said, “It is a tool”. And that using a philosophy for image making that you can (occasionally test with viewers) can offer great reassurance to an artist when approaching her or his work. Finally, when inspiration strikes or through luck or sheer volume, anyone may assume the role of artist (for a moment in time) with an image that works to communicate with a viewer. That is Equivalence!
1. Camera obscura
A camera obscura consists of a box, tent, or room with a small hole in one side or the top. Light from an external scene passes through the hole and strikes a surface inside, where the scene is reproduced, inverted (upside-down) and reversed (left to right), but with color and perspective preserved.
Camera obscura – Wikipedia
2. Joseph Nicéphore Niépce –
Wikipedia en.wikipedia.org › wiki › Nicéphore_Niépce
Joseph Nicéphore Niépce (French: [nisefɔʁ njɛps]; 7 March 1765 – 5 July 1833), commonly known or referred to simply as Nicéphore Niépce, was a French inventor, usually credited as the inventor of photography and a pioneer in that field. Occupation: Inventor
Died: 5 July 1833 (aged 68), Saint-Loup-de-Varennes, Saône-et-Loire
Born: Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, 7 March 1765, Chalon-sur-Saône, Saône-et- Loire
Known for: Photography, Pyréolophore internal com
3, Henry Fox Talbot
William Henry Fox Talbot FRS FRSE FRAS (/ ˈ t ɔː l b ə t /; 11 February 1800 – 17 September 1877) was an English scientist, inventor and photography pioneer who invented the salted paper and calotype processes, precursors to photographic processes of the later 19th and 20th centuries.
Henry Fox Talbot – Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_Fox_Talbot
4. Hippolyte Arnoux
(active ca. 1860 – ca. 1890) was a French photographer and publisher. He was one of the first photographers to produce images of Egypt and documented the Suez Canal project with extensive photographs and a publication.
Hippolyte Arnoux – Wikipedia
5. Recuerdos de Filipinas – Felix Laureano
soccamacha.blogspot.com › 2021 › 04
Apr 26, 2021 · Well, speaking of the Philippines, it is written that Felix Laureano is probably considered the first photographer of the Philippines. With a particularity, namely that of being a Filipino himself, and therefore able to portray the daily life of his people, with a different intent than the photographers-anthropologists of the time.
6. Mathew B. Brady
(May 18, 1822 – January 15, 1896) was one of the earliest photographers in American history. Best known for his scenes of the Civil War, he studied under inventor Samuel F. B. Morse, who pioneered the daguerreotype technique in America.
Mathew Brady – Wikipedia
7. Charles Baudelaire,
father of modern art criticism, was deeply ambivalent about modernity. Some of his concerns about the creative situation for the artist in a mechanically progressive age are displayed in this commentary on photography from the Salon review of 1859, the year most Baudelaire scholars consider his most brilliant and productive. In the twelve years between the 1846 review and this one, the poet’s contempt for the values of the middle-class establishment and the egalitarian “mob” had deepened. After a brief, disillusioning engagement at the barricades in 1848, the 1851 Bonapartist coup d’état, and the coronation of Napoleon III the next year, whatever hope he might have held for the politics of his era vanished. His alienated modernism gained further assurance in early 1852 from his discovery of Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849), the American poète maudit whose vision Baudelaire recognized as his own. Poe’s influence can be detected in the 1857 Flowers of Evil, a collection of poems that was immediately banned by the censors of Napoleon III. After a famous trial, six of the poems were judged an offense against public morality, and Baudelaire’s break with establishment culture was complete.
In 1846 Baudelaire had declared his admiration for the beauty of modern dress and manners and sought the painter who would capture it. In 1860 he expanded on these views in an article published in 1863, The Painter of Modern Life. Yet this 1859 commentary on photography, despite the absolute modernity of the medium, expresses scorn for its ubiquity and overwhelming popularity. Apparently putting aside his search for the artist who will represent modern life and his close ties to realists Courbet, Manet, Daumier, and the photographer Nadar, Baudelaire here asserts that “It is useless and tedious to represent what exists, because nothing that exists satisfies me…. I prefer the monsters of my fantasy to what is positively trivial.” Baudelaire’s poem, Correspondences (c.1852-6) [see chapter 12] likewise reduces the Realist aesthetic to irrelevance. Nature becomes an immaterial “forest of symbols,” a poet’s dictionary of subjective associations, metaphorical forms rather than concrete phenomena. The anti-materialist perspective of Correspondences and this commentary on photography will have a formative influence on Symbolist poets and artists in the decades after Baudelaire’s death. Its cultural prestige reached far into the 20th century to give critical support to nearly every modernist movement from Fauvism and Cubism through Abstract Expressionism.
As you read, note the reasons Baudelaire gives for his attitude toward photography. What does he think of its many admirers, especially the painters? Is he still addressing the bourgeois viewer as he did in the 1845-6 Salon reviews? Who is his intended audience? How do Baudelaire’s observations about the social value of photography compare with the hopes W.H.F. Talbot expresses in the 1841 Pencil of Nature and Walter Benjamin’s views in the 1936 “Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”?
Baudelaire’s Salon of 1859 was first published in the Révue Française, Paris, June 10-July 20, 1859. This selection is from Charles Baudelaire, The Mirror of Art. Jonathan Mayne editor and translator. London: Phaidon Press Limited, 1955.
8. James Whistler American Painter Whistler Quote
The imitator is a poor kind of creature. If the man who paints only the tree, or a
flower, or other surface he sees before him were an artist, the kin of artists would be the photographer.
Tags: creature, flower, imitator, kind, man, other, paints, photographer
9. Edward Catmull
Edwin Catmull – Wikipedia
en.wikipedia.org › wiki › Edwin_Catmull_
The Edwin Catmull quote is from The Story of Pixar, by Karen Paik.
Edwin Catmull. Edwin Earl “Ed” Catmull (born March 31, 1945) is an American computer scientist who was co-founder of Pixar and president of Walt Disney Animation Studios. He has been honored for his contributions to 3D computer graphics, including the 2019 ACM Turing Award.
Doctoral advisor: Robert E. Stephenson
Fields: Computer science
Alma mater: University of Utah (Ph.D. Computer Science; B.S. Physics and Computer Science)
/iˈkwivələns/ noun 1. the condition of being equal or equivalent in value, worth, function, etc. Webster Dictionary
11. Minor Martin White (July 9, 1908 – June 24, 1976) was an American photographer, theoretician, critic, and educator. He combined an intense interest in how people viewed and understood photographs with a personal vision that was guided by a variety of spiritual and intellectual philosophies. Minor White – Wikipedia
12. The Gallery.
When it was determined that we wanted to communicate with viewers, we approached the gallery that we work with to find a group of patrons who would act as a test group. At our meeting we discussed what equilanence was, we provided them with written material and answered many questions. For example, we made it clear that we were not seeking criticism or opinions. With a developing understanding of equivalence the group was excited about helping. At the end of the meeting they were given four questions. The patrons were asked to visit paulott.me and view the DEAD STONES gallery so that they could view the art and answer the questions (They were asked to pick four images from the gallery). Each member of the original group was given one of Paul Ott’s images as a thanks for participating.
- In initially viewing the work, what do you see, what are your first impressions? What is the artist trying to share/tell you?
- Thinking about each image, look into yourself, is there something in your past that connects you to the images? Or is there an emotion or feeling that these images give rise too within you.
- Again, thinking about each image do you feel that the artist was successful in sharing an experience or raising an emotion within you through the use of these images?
- Looking at your answers to number one, do you feel differently about the images? If so, how and why?
Should you want to try this exercise please re-read the article to gain more exposure to the concept. Visit paulott.me and look at the dead stones gallery. Answer the questions and return the results for review.
13. Grundberg, Andy (1983-02-13). “Photography View: Stieglitz felt the pull of two cultures”. New York Times. Retrieved 2008-12-26.
Baudelaire’s Salon of 1859 was first published in the Révue Française, Paris, June 10-July 20, 1859. This selection is from Charles Baudelaire, The Mirror of
Art. Jonathan Mayne editor and translator. London: Phaidon Press Limited, 1955.
Tags: creature, flower, imitator, kind, man, other, paints, photographer Related Links: Whistler Quotes
White, Minor, Equivalence: The Perennial Trend
Minor White, PSA Journal, Vol. 29, No. 7, pp. 17-21, 1963
The quote for Edward Catmull, Hertzman. Aron, “How Photography became an artform” Part one, July 23, 2018
About the Author
Paul Ott has taught in high schools and in colleges and universities. He has worked in commercial arts and as a professional photographer. He has been am practicing artist all his life.
He feels it is important to establish a relationship with the viewer. A subtle shared emotion or experience perhaps, that builds that bridge between the artist and the viewer.
Working in both black and white and color though his love is for black and white. By removing the natural colors from images, we are left with a different reality…an abstraction of sorts. One that forces us to think about those images differently and to view them with more scrutiny than perhaps we would normally. And that is a beautiful thing!
He is currently working on three portfolios. One with abstract, flower and plant images, one of woods hole and one of ancient “dead” stones. He is represented by galleries in the USA in CT, NY and in private art collections in USA and Europe.