Alfred Stieglitz and the “Equivalent” Series

Photography has been a popular art form since its introduction after the Civil War. It was also around this time that Americans turned to the exploration of their country and began taking photographs of their findings. The photographer/explorer served as a reporter of what the western frontier was like, as well as an artist for capturing the most magnificent images on film. Photographers such as Ansel Adams, Paul Strand, and Timothy H. O’Sullivan did just that (Szarkowski 4).

However, as times changed, so did styles in photography. For example, although the focus of Darius Kinsey’s “Cedar, Washington” is a large cedar tree, horse and buggies can be seen in the photograph. Moreover, the landscape of America was changing, and the peak of the industrial revolution in the country was taking place during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Charles Sheeler, for example, is known for his photographs of the industrial Mid-West and proved to rural America that the landscape of the United States was changing.

Many photographers, including Alfred Stieglitz, continued with this movement, of showing modern technology and machinery. He forged ahead in the field of photography, though, despite public outcry and criticism. Many people felt that photography could not let one express him- or herself in the same way that painting would. A large percentage of the population also believed that what the camera caught was a false image and that it was too easy to touch up. Time and time again, Stieglitz, along with other photographers, proved them wrong with their moving photographs of modern society and nature (Szarkowski 5).

But above all, it was Stieglitz, who never lost sight of what photography was about, and he never lost sight of the importance of landscapes and the spirituality within them. “Rainbow,” at Lake George in New York, exemplifies this quality, as all of the characteristics of a traditional landscape photograph are incorporated into this picture. What makes this picture unique, though, is the rainbow that rises out of the mid-ground and above the low horizon line and mountains. The clouds in the photograph also add a luministic quality to the image, in that there is a break in them, just over the mountains, where the sun’s light is shining through. This, however, is just one of the examples of how Stieglitz uses the feeling of spirituality in his photographs.

This is also perhaps the focus of a series of photographs that were taken over a four- year period, toward the end of his career, which he called “Equivalent.” These photographs mainly focused on the sky and the cloud formations therein. Even though these pictures are dark, for the most part, one can “hear great music in the environment of nature with almost religious devotion” (Adams 15). This can further be supported by the fact that Stieglitz was also a musician and was therefore able to find music in photography and music in a photograph (Lyons, ed. 111).

The patterns of the clouds provide a feeling of passive relaxation and serenity, even though there is a great amount of contrast in shades from light to dark. In his “Equivalent” from 1930, the clouds give the viewer the impression of relaxing flames that are rising from the bottom left corner and are reaching toward the right. They tend to balance the photograph, in that since the cloud formations are angled, there isn’t a portion of the picture that seems too heavy. The photograph, in fact, seems balanced because this creates movement within it. This also frames the photograph on the right, although there are no actual objects there. The movement is what gives the illusion of a frame on the right. The clouds in the photograph are also in sharp focus, as the viewer can see every detail in the sky.

Stieglitz did two other photographs in 1930 that were part of the Equivalent series that are similar to the first, although they are not quite as dark. The contrast, however, is comparable, as there are silhouettes of the tops of trees toward the bottom of both photographs. In the second photograph that he took, the branches appear to be rising from the bottom of the picture plain, adding to the movement of the clouds. There are no actual framing techniques used in this photograph, although it appears as if the patterns of the clouds end behind the silhouette of the trees, toward the bottom of the image.

In the third image that he did in 1930, there is a greater contrast than in the second, in that the sky appears to be almost black in some areas, while the clouds are a bright white in other areas. This picture is framed by the negative space that the clouds provide, on the right-hand side, since Stieglitz did not cut the clouds off in this section of the photograph. It is because of this, along with the idea of incorporating part of a silhouetted tree toward the bottom right of the photograph, that it appears to be framed on the right. Like the other two photographs, there is nothing that is out of focus. This doesn’t take any life away from the image, though, as one would tend to think. Instead, it only adds interest, due to the designs and patterns of the clouds, and it helps to give an overall feeling of peace and serenity to the photograph. Another interesting point in this image is that even though it gives the feeling of serenity, there is a definite counter-clockwise movement throughout the picture plain. This contrast in styles and ideas only pulls the viewer in even more to the beauty of the sky.

I find these photographs to be extremely interesting for a number of reasons. First, there is a contrast in styles that make up the photograph, in that there is a great amount of contrast from light to dark in them, and there is definitely movement with them, yet they still give the overall feeling of tranquility and relaxation. It is also interesting how the trees are left underexposed, giving the impression of silhouettes, due to the back light of the clouds and sky. But most importantly, since I am a musician, I can hear the music that Alfred Stieglitz is trying to represent through his images. They are extremely soothing to look at, yet they are so moving and motivating. It is for these reasons that I was attracted to Stieglitz’s “Equivalent” series while searching through countless photographs. Just like Stieglitz and his photographs of clouds, I too, am moved when it comes to my art and music. In the words of Stieglitz, “When I am moved by something, I feel a passionate desire to make a lasting equivalent of it. But what I put down must be as perfect in itself as the experience that has generated my original feeling of having been moved” (Norman 39).


Adams, Ansel. These We Inherit. San Francisco: The Sierra Club, 1962: 14-15.

Herko, Robert. The Kodak Book of Practical 35mm Photography. New York: Gallery Books, 1988: 33 and 35.

Lyons, Nathan, ed. Photographers on Photography. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1966: 111.

Norman, Dorothy. Alfred Stieglitz – Introduction to an American Seer. New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1960: 27, 38, 39, 41, 42, 44, 49, 63.

Szarkowski, John, ed. The Photographer and the American Landscape. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 3-5, 21, 22, 45.

One thought on “Alfred Stieglitz and the “Equivalent” Series

  1. Just thought I’d mention that photography was introduced well before the Civil War. In fact, Timothy O’Sullivan was an accomplished photographer before he documented the Civil War.

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