how I came to photograph clouds
Last summer when manuscripts were sent in by the various contributors for the issue of the publication, “M.S.S.” devoted to photography, and its aesthetic significance, Waldo Frank—one of America’s young literary lights, author of Our America, etc.—wrote that he believed the secret power in my photography was due to the power of hypnotism I had over my sitters, etc.
I was amazed when I read the statement. I wondered what he had to say about the street scenes—the trees, interiors—and other subjects, the photographs of which he had admired so much: or whether he felt they too were due to my powers of hypnotism. Certainly a lax statement coming from one professing himself profound and fair thinking, and interested in enlightening.
It happened that the same morning in which I read this contribution my brother-in-law (lawyer and musician) out of the clear sky announced to me that he couldn’t understand how one as supposedly musical as I could have entirely given up playing the piano. I looked at him and smiled—and I thought: even he does not seem to understand. He plays the violin. The violin takes up no space: the piano does. The piano needs looking after by a professional, etc. I simply couldn’t afford a piano, even when I was supposedly rich. It was not merely a question of money.
Thirty-five or more years ago I spent a few days in Murren (Switzerland), and I was experimenting with ortho plates. Clouds and their relationship to the rest of the world, and clouds for themselves, interested me, and clouds which were difficult to photograph— nearly impossible. Ever since then clouds have been in my mind, most powerfully at times, and I always knew I’d follow up the experiment made over 35 years ago. I always watched clouds. Studied them. Had unusual opportunities up here on this hillside. What Frank had said annoyed me: what my brother-in-law said also annoyed me. I was in the midst of my summer’s photographing, trying to add to my knowledge, to the work I had done. Always evolving—always going more and more deeply into life—into photography.
My mother was dying. Our estate was going to pieces. The old horse of 37 was being kept alive by the 70-year-old coachman. I, full of the feeling of today: all about me disintegration—slow but sure: dying chestnut trees—all the chestnuts in this country have been dying for years: the pines doomed too—diseased: I, poor, but at work: the world in a great mess: the human being a queer animal—not as dignified as our giant chestnut tree on the hill.
So I made up my mind I’d answer Mr. Frank and my brother-in-law. I’d finally do something I had in mind for years. I’d make a series of cloud pictures. I told Miss O’Keeffe of my ideas. I wanted to photograph clouds to find out what I had learned in 40 years about photography. Through clouds to put down my philosophy of life— to show that my photographs were not due to subject matter—not to special trees, or faces, or interiors, to special privileges—clouds were there for everyone—no tax as yet on them—free.
So I began to work with the clouds—and it was great excitement— daily for weeks. Every time I developed I was so wrought up, always believing I had nearly gotten what I was after—but had failed. A most tantalizing sequence of days and weeks. I knew exactly what I was after. I had told Miss O’Keeffe I wanted a series of photographs which when seen by Ernest Bloch (the great composer) he would exclaim: Music! Music! Man, why that is music! How did you ever do that? And he would point to violins, and flutes, and oboes, and brass, full of enthusiasm, and would say he’d have to write a symphony called “Clouds.” Not like Debussy’s but much, much more.
And when finally I had my series of ten photographs printed, and Bloch saw them—what I said I wanted to happen happened verbatim.
Straight photographs, all gaslight paper, except one palladiotype. All in the power of every photographer of all time, and I satisfied I had learnt something during the 40 years. It’s 40 years this year that I began in Berlin with Vogel.
Now if the cloud series are due to my powers of hypnotism I plead “Guilty.” Only some “Pictorial photographers” when they came to the exhibition seemed totally blind to the cloud pictures. My photographs look like photographs—and in their eyes they therefore can’t be art. As if they had the slightest idea of art or photography— or any idea of life. My aim is increasingly to make my photographs look as much like photographs that unless one has eyes and sees, they won’t be seen—and still everyone will never forget them having once looked at them. I wonder if that is clear.