The story goes that Alfred Stieglitz, well known proponent of photography as a fine art, and founder of the Photo-Secession movement, was outraged by a review of his work. The offending reviewer, Waldo Frank, had claimed that the strength of Stieglitz’s imagery was in the power of the individuals he photographed.
It is a fundamental concern in photography - to come to terms with the relationship between the quality of the subject and the quality of the photograph. In Stieglitz’s case that quality was power, but it may just as well have been beauty or any other attribute.
Rather than untangle the subject from it’s representation, Stieglitz chose to redefine the entire act of creating and appreciating photographs. He embarked on his now historic project of “Equivalents.” In direct response to his critic it seems, Stieglitz chose subject matter that was as pure and as abstract a possible: a series of clouds. As if he were attempting to relocate all creative force within himself rather than the subject.
What interests me are not Stieglitz’s equivalents, the cloud photographs themselves (though they arebeautiful) so much as the entire system of thought that came into being from them. The idea of equivalence was taken up again and described by Minor White in 1963:
To outline this theory (we hardly have space to discuss it), we will refer to "levels" of Equivalence. The term covers too much ground for a linear definition. At one level, the graphic level, the word "Equivalence" pertains to the photograph itself, the visible foundations of any potential visual experience with the photograph itself. Oddly enough, this does not mean that a photograph which functions as an Equivalent has 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. (At least such is a small part of our present definition.)
At the next level the word "Equivalence" relates to what goes on in the viewer's mind as he looks at a photograph that arouses in him a special sense of correspondence to something that he knows about himself. At a third level the word "Equivalence" refers to the inner experience a person has while he is remembering his mental image after the photograph in question is not in sight. The remembered image also pertains to Equivalence only when a certain feeling of correspondence is present. We remember images that we want to remember. The reason why we want to remember an image varies: because we simply "love it," or dislike it so intensely that it becomes compulsive, or because it has made us realize something about ourselves, or has brought about some slight change in us. Perhaps the reader can recall some image, after the seeing of which, he has never been quite the same.
When it was first conceived the idea of equivalents was almost a type of emotional transference through images, similar to the effect of trying to communicate pure feeling through abstract painting. It focused on the non-representational. An equivalence was made to something within the person, rather than to something in the world. Perhaps to be in the presence of Stieglitz’s clouds was similar to being in the presence of Rothko’s Chapel.
On the other hand, the equivalence (as Minor White defines it) works with any image. And so I would apply it to the representational as well. In this way, for me, Laxmi's portrait is an equivalent - but not because it is a likeness.
Why do we want to remember an image? In a world that is increasingly mediated through the portal of the computer screen, a world increasingly dominated, not only by images, but by images that are stripped of their referents (and with tumblr this includes their creators, publishers, origin, and context), it may be the only mechanism left to us to re-engage the image in a meaningful way.