16 March 2010


Alfred Stieglitz's Equivalents are some of the earliest examples of abstract photography. The title describes images whose form Stieglitz saw as equivalent to given states of mind, ideas or emotions; images of his 'philosophy of life'. Taken in the late 1920s and early 1930s, these iconic photographs of cloud formations seem to be precursors to much of what we consider 'art photography' today. Note the lack of subject-matter, narrative or political intention; these are images that required a different sort of vision.

Today, in a lecture on Costume & Fashion, I was shown an image of sixteenth-century English king, Henry VIII. I immediately thought of an image I'd seen of Viktor & Rolf's most recent catwalk show (Autumn/Winter 2010/11), which starred Kristen McMenamy. I thought of these two images as 'equivalent' and then I thought of Stieglitz's Equivalents (which somehow only now seem relevant to the equation).

But are the images below really equivalent? Can we update Stieglitz's model of equivalence to include non-abstract images? How could McMenamy's depiction be equivalent to Henry VIII's? Could she be the contemporary embodiment of the power and sexuality for which he was remembered?

A healthy, successful woman in her mid-forties, with grey hair, who calls herself the 'mommy' of this particular fashion show and carries the look brilliantly sounds to me like a great image of power and sexuality for the twenty-first century.

I could be completely blinded by the formal similarities of these two images, but if anything in Stieglitz's notion of 'equivalence' rings true, it's that 'unless one has eyes and sees' the true image cannot properly be grasped.


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