Clouds for Comment began as a reflection on Alfred Stieglitz’s series Equivalents, in which he claimed his photographs of clouds embodied a specific emotional state, and that a sensitive viewer will concretely understand his specific emotions when seeing the photographs. I am suspicious of that premise and believe that the viewer largely creates what they see in photographs, and this is mostly a reflection of who they are and what they have seen before.
Clouds for Comment responds to the vision of 19th century landscape painters such as Albert Bierstadt, Frederic Edwin Church, and Thomas Moran. As the photographs get larger, they take on the same scale as well as some of the visual language of many of the Hudson River School paintings. And like the American landscape painters were, I am inspired by the work of John Constable and J.M.W. Turner.
In the series Clouds for Comment, I post my photographs of skies in social media such as flickr.com. People make written comments on the photos, and I superimpose a selection of their words on my prints. The text on my prints gets smaller as the prints get bigger. Since I want to make sure that the text is legible, I use relatively large text on the online photos. A 30 by 40 inch print of the same image has 8 or 10 point text, and often a few more comments than the online version. Mostly I prefer that the text is quieter, that it is something that is discovered when the viewer gets close to the print.
The comments on my cloud photographs range widely. Many people offer their personal reactions—like or dislike—some give technical advice; others explain what could be done to make the photo stronger. Many are disturbed at seeing just a sky and want some ground. Repeatedly I’m told to center on some point of interest in the photo instead of taking the wide view. Often it’s noted that I ignore rules of composition such as dividing the image into thirds. Many comments are amusing, incisive, kind and thoughtful. Some viewers have photographic or artistic expertise; most are amateurs or enthusiasts.
One viewer of Clouds for Comment noted that according to the theories of Mikhail Bakhtin, I give authority to the words of others by placing them on my photographs. I disagree. Instead, more in line with the philosophy of Martin Buber, I recognize the existence of the speaker and engage in a relationship. In contrast to Alfred Stieglitz, I start a conversation with my photographs and anyone may join the dialogue. Skies and clouds are rich in metaphor and references. They are an archetype of the mysteries and magnificence of the divine. The Jews were led out of Egypt to the Promised Land by a cloud pillar, and through much of ancient Judaism the cloud was used as a symbol for Yahweh. Both Jesus and Muhammad rose to heaven in a cloud, and the Greek and Roman gods reside in the sky. Clouds represent creation, wisdom, power, protection and fertility. In Chinese poetry and in Taoist writings “clouds and rain” refer to sexual practices, sometimes in connection with the spiritual. Other symbolic meaning of clouds found in such areas as tarot, armor, vernacular language and dream interpretation include epiphany, revelation, confusion, potential, impermanence, contemplation, creativity, higher truth and divine communication.
Clouds for Comment responds to the state of photography today, where everyone has a camera, everything is photographed, and the lines between the artistic and the personal, the hobbyist and the professional, the author and the audience are blurred. It’s easy to get good results with new digital cameras; sophisticated software and firmware anticipate and correct what were previously common technical pitfalls. Anyone can post or publish their work, and comment on the work of others.
Saturated color photographs of sunsets and seascapes look sappy like greeting cards and uplifting spiritual publicity. In a world flooded with these kinds of images, rarely is a picture of the sublime memorable or meaningful. Instead, such pictures act as interchangeable markers for a range of meanings and associations. Yet with all my suspicion of the sublime, I still want beauty, even if it is a mediated self-conscious beauty.
Spectacular, majestic clouds and prominent skies are seen throughout the history of visual art, from Turner and Tiepolo to the Hudson River School painters. More recent references include Richard Misrach and James Turrell. The viewer participation in Clouds for Comment has origins in improvisational theater and the Fluxus movement. The use of text with image in Clouds for Comment is informed by the work of a wide range of artists from Hannah Hoch to Rudolf Stingel and Ed Ruscha. The photographs in this series sit on the fence between the territory of traditional photography and that of conceptual art.