Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Forming the Equivalent

The transcript of a wonderful interview with Ansel Adams recently came to my attention.  Milton Esterow talked with Adams in 1984, just before the photographer died.  The interview is worth reading in its entirety, but there's one thing that Adams said that immediately struck me. 

In the interview, Ansel Adams recalled something Stieglitz said about making a photograph.

I think of Stieglitz's definition of photography -a paraphrase of what I heard him say many times. In the earlier days, when people were very scornful of what he called "creative photography" or "photography as art," they would ask: "Mr. Stieglitz, how do you go about making the creative photograph?" He would answer, "When I have a desire to photograph, I go out in the world with my camera. I come across something that excites me emotionally and esthetically. I'm creatively excited. I see the picture in my mind's eye and I make the exposure and I give you the print as the equivalent of what I saw and felt." The word "equivalent" is very important. It's two things-what is seen and what is felt about it.

Though preceeding us by decades, Adams and Stieglitz understood the essence of contemplative photography.  There is the felt sense, the flash of perception and the alignment of eye, mind and heart.  Summoning up what the mastery of the craft offers, the photographer measures the success of the captured image by the extent to which the picture forms the equivalent of the perception. 

As Andy Karr and Michael Wood say in The Practice of Contemplative Photography: Seeing the World with Fresh Eyes, "A well-executed image will be as clear and alive as the original perception [p. 214]."

Forming the equivalent is the best we can do as photographic artists.  We see, we respond, we create what we hope will evoke in the viewer what we felt at the moment the shutter opens. 

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