A Question About: The Photographic Series

From the series "Equivalents" © Alfred Steiglitz

In "A Question About" we talk with experts to get a deeper understanding of photography questions related to their areas of knowledge. For more posts in the series, see the site links page.

The question: Where does the idea of putting photographs into a series start in photography history? With whom? Why?

The respondent: Eileen Rafferty believes in making meaningful work and discovering something new every day. She is an artist who combines her lifelong study of photography with digital technology to create mixed media, video and photographs. Based on ideas of memory, photographic history and visual culture, her work fuses archival imagery with modern technology to reposition the past into the present.

Eileen worked as a freelance photographer, educator and digital technician in the Washington, D.C. area. She was also a custom darkroom printer for clients including National Geographic, The Kennedy Center and the Smithsonian.

Eileen currently lives in Missoula, Montana where she makes photographs, teaches, has a consulting business, runs a magazine called Butterflies and Anvils, and searches for all life's big and little answers. She has a BS in Physiology and an MFA in Photography/Film.

From the series "Equivalents" © Alfred Steiglitz

"I have a vision of life, and I try to find equivalents for it in the form of photographs."
- Alfred Stieglitz

If one photograph can be worth a thousand words, then what might a collection of images communicate? I'd like to examine the photographic series, identifying its origins as well as the importance of the series in the medium of Photography.

First, how do we define a series? It could be defined as a sequence of several photographs that are unified with a common theme, concept, or style. A series can be in the form of a linear narrative that tells a story over time, or it can be non-linear either in its sequencing or physical presentation (imagine an array of images scattered at varying heights on a gallery wall). Even if the sequence is non-linear in its organization, ideally the metaphor or idea remains constant and is revealed over time.

Although several photographers in the late 1800's worked with a personal visual or conceptual style, there is little evidence of the intention of many early photographic series. However Alfred Stieglitz in 1907 created one of the first known photographic series with a specific concept as well as a unified subject matter. Equivalents was a series of black and white photographs of clouds.

From the series "Equivalents" © Alfred Steiglitz

For Stieglitz, each image was a metaphor for a feeling or experience. Each depiction and formation of clouds represented a moment in his life with its corresponding emotional and/or psychological states. Minor White, writing about Equivalents, believed this experience is threefold. It alludes to the experience or emotions of the photographer while making the work, of the viewer while viewing the work and later when the work returns to a viewer as a memory or recalled experience. Stieglitz who did more than any other person at the turn of the century to advance Photography as Art, strongly believed that every photograph had an equivalent idea or feeling. A photograph was never simply silver on paper or in today's terms, pixels on a screen. Of course Stieglitz was referring to the photograph as Art, made with the intention of communicating something.

Why would one want to work in a series? First, consider the challenge of making multiple images that belong together. It's the same challenge and accomplishment the musician makes in a themed album as opposed to the one-hit-wonder. It is also a good exercise to find more than one way to visually illustrate a concept. This pushes us beyond the first and potentially literal image that comes to mind to illustrate an idea and therefore results in work that may be conceptual or at the very least varied and interesting. When storytelling it can be helpful to allow a story to unfold over time. The benefit from the viewer's perspective is more time to experience the work and more information to ultimately understand the message. Working with multiple images also allows for a myriad of presentation options, and choices in presentation can greatly aid in the communication or expression of a concept as well as make the experience more dynamic for the viewer.

From the series "Equivalents" © Alfred Steiglitz

Today the photographic series is still important and revered especially in the era of Instagram and the ease of the snapshot aesthetic. But even those 'instants' of time on Instagram and Facebook are representations or equivalents of experiences, emotions or memories. The challenge today is to move beyond the one shot expression of life and challenge oneself as an artist to convey an idea through a series or project, taking into consideration important creative possibilities such as editing, sequencing, post-processing and ultimately presentation. It's owning the work and the ideas behind the work on another level. It takes commitment, time and perseverance. It urges patience and problem-solving, thinking and evaluating. The beauty of working this way is that it allows the work to inform you. Because over time, if given the opportunity and attention, the work will eventually educate you on your personal style, recurring concepts and individual process. Stieglitz was a strong advocate of making images that have personal  meaning, and ultimately working in sequences of images with an enduring concept or style is what might separate you from the plethora of photographers surrounding us.
Follow one of the original art photographer's lead, and see if you can make a series of image in the spirit of Stieglitz' Equivalents. You might be delighted by what is revealed.

"It is not art in the professionalized sense about which I care, but that which is created sacredly, as a result of a deep inner experience, with all of oneself, and that becomes 'art' in time."

 - Alfred Stieglitz

Alfred Steiglitz, photographed by Edward Steichen