From the 1920s to the 1930s, the American photographer Alfred Stieglitz took pictures of clouds compusively. A dozen or so of these images became part of his famous Equivalent series, the culmination of his artistic endeavors and aesthetic ideals. We had several of these prints in the museum where I used to work, and I was surprised to learn that they were some of the most valuable of the museum’s extensive photography collection. Yet shuffling through them, whenever I was working in the “Se-Su” box, I was always completely uninspired. The images were a little grainy, the paper was as thin as tissue paper, and anyway the subject matter seemed cliché and a little embarrassing – like all those inspirational photographs of clouds and sunsets that accompany biblical quotations.
Now suddenly, after several months in Germany, I find myself taking pictures of clouds, compulsively. Fluffy behemoths of cumulonimbus and lost little lambs of altocumulus, mostly. And unlike Stieglitz, I can capture, with my little Leica digital camera, their stunning array of colors: bone china, dove gray, sand dune, rose petal, etc. They’re just not like American clouds at all – at least not the fleecy gray blanket of stratus that forever hangs over Boston. I also wonder if there’s not some scientific explanation – like a difference in weather patterns – that produces qualitatively different clouds on the Continent than in North America.
I feel like I never saw clouds before until I saw European clouds. I know there must have been clouds in my childhood in Arkansas, but I can’t actually remember any. It’s like that retrospective amnesia that Nabokov described in his autobiography Speak, Memory regarding his own famous obsession with Lepidoptera. He remembers with striking detail discovering his first butterfly, a yellow Swallowtail, at the age of seven, but preceding that date, “I fail to make out one wing, one wing beat, one azure flash, one moth-gemmed flower, as if an evil spell had been cast on the Adriatic coast making all its ‘leps’ … invisible.”
I don’t want to take this theme too far, though. I’m not going to switch careers and become a meteorologist. And my photographs of clouds will not be making it into any museums. I’m not trying to make art here, just record a moment in time during my European odyssey when I looked up at the sky and saw something wonderful, something that inspired a particular feeling – but not some a treacly come-to-Jesus moment. I have since discovered that that’s actually what Stieglitz was after. His clouds were meant to be the “equivalent” to a particular feeling, be it a memory of a beloved woman, a childish enthusiasm, or what have you, and he hoped that by using an abstract yet dramatic subject matter, his photographs could convey that exact feeling without setting off a whole bunch on unrelated associations, as they would if they depicted a particular woman or a particular child.
Coincidentally, in researching Stieglitz this morning, I learned that though he is classified as an American photographer, he was actually of German descent and spent more than a decade in Germany during his late teens and early twenties. I now wonder if maybe all those cloud pictures he made toward the end of his life weren’t also some vain attempt to recall the continental clouds of his youth – there being no such American equivalent.