"What are the Clouds? An architecture
of chance? Perhaps they are the necessary things from which God weaves
his vast imaginings, threads of a web of infinite expanse. Maybe
the cloud is emptiness returning, just like the man who watches it this
- Jorge Luis Borges from
What are the clouds? Some days they are
a giant sky-high Rorschach test in which we may map the intricate workings
of our mind's imaginings - one minute an elephant, the next a garden of
sunflowers, and then a whole school of fish, skittering, flying by into
a vast sea of sky-blue-pink. Other days they are abstract paintings, fine
calligraphic swatches of golds, greys and white on an ultramarine palette,
and on another like a memory, not of the past, but of the unremitting present.
We know they are an aggregation of cold water droplets, condensation, ice
and air made visible, but surely something so capable of inspiring awe,
wonder and amazement must be more than the sum of physical properties.
As a photographer, I avoided clouds.
Yet I found myself constantly looking at the sky, gazing at the infinite
variety of shapes and form and texture found the clouds for the longest
time. They seemed not to be a worthwhile subject, vague, transitory, and
certainly not serious. And besides who could ever match anything that Alfred
Stieglitz had produced in his series of cloudscapes called "Equivalents."
Stieglitz was one of the first to say that a photograph was not necessarily
about what it was of. Photographs, he proposed, were more than merely a
document or a record, but could offer other interpretations conveying semantic
as well as poetic meaning.
I first "saw" clouds from the back
window of a 1957 Dodge, the kind of car that had a window with a ledge
in the back big enough for a ten year old to lie head to toe face up with
a perfect view of the sky flying by as the car traveled down a back road
in Western Massachusetts. It's a day I remember perfectly, a summer afternoon,
the weather warm, my sister and brother in the back seat playing a game
of count-the-cows, my parents in the front talking to each other. I was
in my own secluded world, afforded a small bit of privacy by my elevated
position in this windowed chamber. Mesmerized and meditating, I was considering
what I would do with the rest of my life. I had been asked one too many
times "What do you want to do when you grow up, dear?" The question had
been troubling me because while I knew what I wanted to do today, right
now, I wasn't sure how that might translate into what the grownup world
was calling "work." What I liked to do was draw and paint. Somehow it came
to me clearly then that I would be an artist, and that my work would be
to paint the wonderful white abstractions that floated past my skyward
eyes in an ever changing array each minute more beautiful than the one
And then I forgot about the clouds.
In high school I was drawn to the work of John Singer Sargeant almost entirely
because of the way he painted skies. I spent hours looking at books and
copying his work, in particular one painting, "The Fisherman's Wives."
I cut out a reproduction of it from an old TIME Magazine and tacked the
3" x 4" image to my bulletin board, deciding to copy it on the largest
canvas sold in the local art supply store. It was a major undertaking requiring
months to complete. Wanting to get it exactly right, I looked at the tiny
reproduction and imagined the original to be huge because of the way Sargent
depicted the vast and billowing clouds. Years later, turning a corner in
the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, I was stunned to come across the original
of "my" painting: stunned because it was so much smaller than my canvas.
I learned later that the Boston Museum's painting was indeed only a study
for a much larger work by Sargeant, and that there exists a mural size
edition of the work which I have never seen.
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