by Oren Grad
In response to last weekend's post "Appreciating Photographs", Will provided a link to a classic article by Minor White, "Equivalence: The Perennial Trend". Unfortunately, within the past few days, the site that hosted the article has come down after a long run. As I write this, you can still get the article by Googling the title and retrieving it from cache, but there's no telling how long it will be there.
White was perhaps the most influential expositor of the "equivalence" concept, initially proposed by Alfred Stieglitz. The essence of the idea is pretty straightforward: photographers can use pictures as metaphors, to represent feelings about things other than those shown by the pictures.
It's true: photographers can do that. Whether anybody will get the message is a different matter. Here's White's self-demolishing explanation:
To be concrete, and leave off theory for a moment, we can return to the photograph of a cloud mentioned above. If we question the photographer, he may tell us that it stands for a certain quality that he finds in a specific woman, namely her femininity. The photograph exhibits softness, delicacy, roundness, fluffiness and so corresponds to at least one feeling or emotion that he has about her. If we ask why he does not photograph the woman herself directly, he may answer that she is hardly photogenic, or that he wishes to establish a certain aesthetic distance between his direct feeling and his outward manifestation of it via the photograph.If the problem isn't obvious, take a look at any of the original "Equivalents" (for example, here), and ask yourself exactly what was going through Stieglitz's head when he was making them.
At some level, White must have understood this, because he hedges his bets, acknowledging that the viewer might feel something other than what the photographer had in mind, and even that you might have to find others smoking the same stuff you are for the trick to have a prayer of working:
To work in such a manner, the photographers must be able to get their work before those persons in the world who are sensitized intellectually, emotionally, and kinesthetically—not a numerous audience to be sure, even if widespread. Universality, that quality always thought to be desirable in photographs and pictures, is not denied to such photographers. It is their efforts that matter, to communicate-evoke with individuals who are in tune with the central core of universality common to both man and spirit.White actually spends much of the article not explaining how this mode of communication is supposed to function, but rather ranting on the theme that photographs can have emotional resonance, and dissing the oafish majority who don't share his elevated sensibilities. I'll grant him the former point, with which I quite agree. But as for whether and how you can bottle that resonance and pass it around for others to share, all the mystical bloviation can't hide the fact that he's got nothing useful to say.
UPDATE: Jim Couch has kindly provided a link to another copy of the article.
Posted by: OREN GRAD