Music: A Sequence of Ten Cloud Photographs
In January 1922 Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946), generally considered the father of American photography, suggested the December issue of the publication “MSS” be devoted to asking the question: “Can A Photograph Have The Significance Of Art.” Over 40 luminaries in the arts were invited to send letters in response to the question. Among those who responded were Marcel Duchamp, Carl Sandberg, Georgia O’Keefe, Waldo Frank and the composer Ernest Bloch.
Waldo Frank’s submission to “MSS “came early in 1922 and provided an unexpected and now famous provocation for Stieglitz who summed it up a year later:
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. …
…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…
…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.” 1
We know Bloch saw these photographs in June 1922. This well-known episode was an affirmation for Stieglitz that photography, like music, can touch and express the human soul. It has become a widely accepted event in the annals of photography. Bloch did not write a symphony called “Clouds,” but did write evocative pieces for the piano in 1922 titled, Poems of the Sea.
A month after the meeting with Bloch, Stieglitz wrote him a letter dated Lake George, July 1, 1922:
My Dear Mr. Bloch: Have you any idea how much it meant to me to have you feel about those photographs as you did. — To have you see in them what you do. — And to know that what you express I understand. — And feel is true.
It was a memorable hour. A very rare one.
There is much — very much — that you are suffering — physical & otherwise — that has been my lot too. –
It’s all necessary for “foolish” people like ourselves I have to presume…
…This is a greeting from the Silence — from the Great Quiet. Once more to thank you for the hour you gave us.”
Alfred Stieglitz 2
Stieglitz’s letter shows that he felt a deep kinship with Bloch. They had met several times previously, beginning in 1916 when Waldo Frank introduced them shortly after Bloch first arrived in America.
The leap from clouds to music was natural for Bloch, because of his interest in and comfort with synesthesia, but the decision to consider the results from a camera to be significant art would have required a major conversion since he came from a tradition of deep skepticism of the “machine” in relation to artistic creation.
What lead to this enthusiastic and dramatic change?
Bloch in Europe
Ernest Bloch (1880-1959) was born in Geneva and began full-time music studies at the Conservatory there at the age of fourteen. Between 1896 and 1904, he traveled to Brussels, Frankfurt, Munich, and Paris, where he studied both violin and composition with several prominent teachers, as well as absorbing the music of Wagner, Mahler, Mussorgsky, Debussy, and Richard Strauss, among others. Bloch met Debussy in 1903 during his stay in Paris. Debussy represented the modern future of music. His groundbreaking Prelude to Afternoon of a Faun, 1894 focused purely on the evocation of mood. It was inspired by the poem of the same title by the French Symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé’. Mallarmé’ believed that music, by its very nature, suggests synesthetic analogies. Synesthesia is the ability to see something with one sense and feel it with another. A pioneer of the use of orchestral color to generate mood, synesthetic expression is a hallmark Debussy. This is the environment within which Bloch came of age as a composer.
Bloch then was predisposed to find synesthetic connections in art especially as a means of taping the authentic soul. This is explored by the historian Mike Weaver in his article “Alfred Stieglitz and Ernest Bloch: Art and Hypnosis” where he places Bloch in the era before WWI in Paris and Geneva. He describes the fascination among artists and musicians of this era with synesthesia, hypnosis, the new theories of Freud and Jung regarding the unconscious and their relationship to music and artistic creation. This was new uncharted territory and Bloch was part of this environment. A specific example takes place in Geneva where there was tremendous fascination with the public events of a hypnotist named Emile Magnin who presented dance and music performances by a Madame Magdeleine. Under hypnotic influence Magdeleine – a non-musical, non-dancer- would perform extraordinary interpretive dances to music. Magdeleine appears to have been a “synesthete.” (Synesthesia is also classified as a neurological condition where stimulation of one sense leads to automatic involuntary experiences in another sense.) Weaver goes on in his article:
Ernest Bloch saw Magdeleine just once, possibly in August 1903 in a Geneva studio where she performed to music not only by Wagner, Chopin and by Emile Jaques-Dalcroze, one of Bloch’s teachers, but also by Bloch himself, who contributed a testimonial to Magnin’s book in 1904. He seems to have accompanied her at the piano discovering things about himself in his own symphonic piece – aspect of his racial origin of which he had been more or less unconscious up until then. It was this that really interested him—the emergence of his subliminal self in relation to Magdeleine’s, not knowing exactly whether he was projecting it onto her or that she was reflecting it back at him…” 3
This fascination with Magdeleine is confirmed by a self-portrait with his crucifix done in Geneva early in 1916. On a wall behind above his head is a print of Magdeleine dancing
As further confirmation of Bloch’s interests are two small prints of paintings by Swiss artist Ferdinand Hodler. One, a female figure in a frontal pose appearing to be in a rhythmic dance movement shows Hodler’s fascination with Eurythmics- or body movement to music. As it turns out, Bloch’s teacher, Jacque Dalcroze was also influential in the painting of Hodler and this visualization of the concept of Eurythmics.
Eurhythmics, involving the harmonization of mind and body and the expression of individually body rhythms, was a concept central to the current theories of Emile Jacques Dalcroze, Professor of Harmony at the Geneva Conservatoire. Paris had recently seen it’s application in the visual arts in the work of Ferdinand Hodler, one of whose prize wining submission at the 1900 Universal Exhibition was entitled Eurthmy (1895) representing a procession of five men heads stooped and typical of his “parallelist” representation derived from Dalcrozian ideas.
As both Bloch’s reverence for Debussy, his interest in Hodler, as well as his fascination with Magdeleine’s abilities reveals, the synesthetic response between music and visual art was well developed in Bloch by the time he arrived in America in 1916. Clouds as music? No problem. The much bigger obstacle was to see the camera as a valid tool for art.
Bloch Arrives in America
Ernest Bloch was in difficult financial straights at his home of Geneva in 1916 and seized on the offer to conduct for the American tour of an interpretive dancer, Maud Allen. Bloch carried a letter of introduction from influential French writer Romain Rolland to Waldo Frank who then helped Bloch by commissioning an article for The Seven Arts magazine. It was Frank who introduced Bloch to Stieglitz a few months after Bloch first arrived in New York. The magazine (which Frank co-edited) was a center for interest in the new ideas of Freud and Jung regarding the unconscious and articles were written about the separation between art and life in modern society. Frank was enthused about Bloch whose music Frank felt was a powerful antidote to this break between art and society. Frank wrote that Bloch was “Ruthlessly in love with truth when it is hard to bear,” the composer created a music emanating “from the trammels of a most human life,” ….3 In a few months the Maud Allen tour collapsed, but by December of 1916 The Flonzaley quartet performed Bloch’s First Quartet, and in the next few years as Bloch taught in New York, his works are performed numerous times, including his Three Jewish Poems in Boston under Karl Muck and at Carnegie Hall in 1918 where Bloch himself conducts his Symphony in C Sharp. In 1920 he mas named the founding Director of the Cleveland Institute of Music.
The article by Bloch that Waldo Frank commissioned and translated for The Seven Arts, was titled, “Man and Music” and was published in 1917. In the article Bloch presents his beliefs regarding music, art and the importance of expressing the soul. He contrasts this with mechanical perfection and mechanical inventions:
…and serious composers persist in the obsession with technique and procedure. They discuss and argue; they laboriously create their arbitrary, brain-begotten works, while the emotional element – the soul of art – is lost in the passion for mechanical perfection. …Art is the outlet of the mystical, emotional needs of the human spirit; it is created rather by instinct than by intelligence; rather by intuition than by will….”
“…at the present time the world of art is divided into two great currents. The lower one is that of the masses; their facile taste is sinking with the love of platitude and the weight of mechanical inventions—phonograph, Pianola, cinematograph. The other current is that of the “high brow.” With perverted taste, it looks at art as a luxury, as a purveyor of rare sensation, as a matter of intellectual acrobatics.” 4
He feels “the machine” to be antithetical to the expression of the soul. Objective, realistic description runs counter to artistic expression. The camera epitomized realistic objective machinelike description. Although he was enthusiastic about taking photographs since he was a teenager, Bloch felt that the camera could not be a tool for expressing the soul. It was for recording like a diary and that’s how he used it.
Clearly, when Bloch arrives in America in 1916 the thought of the “camera” as a tool for significant art expressing the human soul would have been anathema to him.
Stieglitz Converts Bloch
Bloch had met Stieglitz at least several times from 1916 until the famous 1922 “Clouds Photograph” meeting. In addition to a least one and probably more visits to Stieglitz gallery, Bloch appears to have also attended Saturday dinners with Stieglitz and O’Keefe at the Far East China Garden, a restaurant at Columbus Circle in New York. Stieglitz and O’Keefe typically had groups of twenty artists and literary friends in discussions following dinner.5
What accounts for the radical transformation of Bloch to seeing –the machine- the camera as a tool of art from 1916-1922? He was, after-all, very skeptical of the “lower current” of art which included the phonograph, pianola and the cinematograph in his 1917 article. What happened?
Bloch himself told the story of his conversion many years later. It was summer of 1950 and Bloch was teaching a six-week summer course at Berkeley. Albert Elkus, chair of the Music Dept. was hosting a dinner for Bloch. At the dinner table, Albert’s son Jonathan, 18 at the time, recounts Bloch telling this story:
At a dinner in New York Bloch was giving his host Alfred Stieglitz every reason why photography could not be considered art-why photographers, hence could not be considered artists. “Fine,” said Stieglitz, “meet me at my (gallery) early Sunday morning and we’ll photograph together.” They met and went forth with Graflex camera and tripod. They stopped at a lower midtown corner whose buildings and sky they both thought promising. Stieglitz set up his camera, focused it and took a picture. Then he changed plates and without repositioning the camera told Bloch it was his turn. Stieglitz timed the exposure identically. They returned to the studio and each developed his plate in the same chemicals with the exact-same timing. Bloch saw at once that his cityscape was drab and lifeless, capturing none of the luster he saw in Stieglitz’s. “But how can this be?” Bloch asked. Stieglitz said, “It is because you do not love it; you do not believe in it.”6
Bloch appeared to Jonathan Elkus well practiced at the story. 7 He probably told it many times in his classes. If the story represents the complete facts we cannot know. Bloch certainly may have dramatized it. However if it took place on a Sunday morning we can deduce that the Saturday dinner which he refers probably took place in 1916-17, at the Far East China Garden, and was attended by the likes of Waldo Frank and perhaps Paul Rosenfeld both champions of Ernest Bloch’s music at the time. It may even have been their very first meeting where Frank introduced Bloch to Stiegltiz in late 1916 only a few months after Bloch had arrived from Europe.
What would this first meeting have been like? Bloch had given over 100 lectures at the Geneva Conservatory on aesthetics as well as music in the years before arriving in America at age 36. He had a highly developed philosophical position that art must spring from the soul and the intuition not the intellect. Bloch, in the tradition of the symbolist artists and musicians, equated the machine and the camera with objective description and the intellect. He was strong willed, articulate and sure of himself. Both O’Keefe and Stieglitz also, in the symbolist tradition, felt strongly that Music was the purest of artistic expression. So, if Bloch the musician, stated as he described years later, that photography could not be an art and photographers could not be artists during one of these crowded Saturday dinners, Stieglitz had the ultimate challenge. One can almost imagine a sense of urgency and opportunity that might have seized Stieglitz. Here was a musician and composer from Europe who adamantly felt that the camera could not be a tool of art. Bloch’s declaration, coming from someone with his credentials, could not go unchallenged. This kind of statement would threaten what Stieglitz had worked for over the last two decades. Bloch would need to be converted.
So, if the Sunday morning outing with Stieglitz taking Bloch out to photograph is entirely accurate we cannot say. We can say however that if Bloch declared what he describes in his story of that dinner, it would be entirely in character for Stieglitz to respond with the Sunday morning invitation to photograph. They were both extremely strong willed, stubborn in their beliefs yet they were very similar in their fundamental belief about art. Stieglitz had lived over a decade in Germany and was steeped in the music of Wagner as a listener and amateur pianist. Bloch revered Wagner. In addition, Bloch shared Stieglitz’s rejection of theories, systems and all -isms.
This Sunday morning conversion may very well be what happened.
Can A Photograph Have The Significance Of Art?
Bloch’s responded later in 1922 to the question posed for the issue of MSS: Can a Photograph have the significance of Art? After Frank’s response on page 5, which annoyed Stieglitz and in part prodded him to photograph clouds, Bloch’s appears on page 14:
Of course the progress that photography has achieved in the last few years is remarkable. It seems to me however, that almost all of these improvements have been made in a more or less technical direction…
Besides his stupendous technique (a knowledge of every detail of instrumentation, an over-powering of the smallest possibilities, taming of the chemical forces, transmutation of imperfections or weaknesses of material into artistic ends) every picture of Stieglitz embodies an idea and makes one think. It exceeds usual photography as far as a great artist exceeds a mechanical piano. The dead camera and all other technical means are only tools in his hands.
…He has not only photographed things as they seem to be or as they appear to the “bourgeois,” he has taken them as they really are in the essence of their real life and he sometimes accomplished the miracle of compelling them to reveal their own identity–not even always as they are but as they would be if all their potentialities could emerge freely; and this is the greatest Art because all signs of technique have disappeared for the sake of the Idea!
There are portraits of Stieglitz which condense in themselves a whole “Balzac” character; there are pictures of hands so beautiful that one could cry before them; there are pictures of sky scrapers, and railway and backyards that move you as if all the lives and the tragedies of lives connected with them were written clearly on their features. A picture of a young, healthy and beautiful girl may make you weep because you feel all what she could be, her infinite potentialities. . . . and realize that in our actual society all these treasures are probably doomed to death and disfiguration….
Very truly yours,
Ernest Bloch (Composer, Director Cleveland Conservatory.) 8
In this letter, which was written after seeing Stieglitz’s initial cloud photographs, he describes in detail portraits, hands and building photos that he no doubt saw on more than one visit to Stieglitz’s gallery and in discussions at more than one Saturday dinner. The key line for Bloch given his clear predisposition is– “the dead camera and all other technical means are only tools in his hands” Bloch has certainly been converted. The transition from 1916 was complete. Bloch himself wrote years later in a tribute published in the 1947 memorial portfolio of Stieglitz’s photographs:
I shall never forget my too short meetings with him, so many years ago. They are alive as he is within me. Since 20 years, I have in my courses, almost each year referred to him and quoted a few unforgettable talks we had – -not only his marvelous works of art – -his interpretations of Life, what he called ‘the machine!’ The ‘machine’ subservient to mans thoughts and visions. His incredible ‘technique’ he never mentioned; it was a tool in his hands, for a higher purpose. —What an example of ‘Spirit’ in our present time of ‘Robots’.”9
Bloch’s predisposition towards the synesthetic combined with the example of Alfred Stieglitz wielding “the Machine” make it natural to see photographs of clouds as music—details as instruments from an orchestra. By 1922 Stieglitz knew that Bloch regarded his photographic work very highly. He had already converted Bloch. He knew Bloch’s effusive personality. His ability to predict the enthusiastic response Bloch might have to the cloud photographs was based on personal knowledge. His letter following the meeting reveals his thanks but also his feelings of kinship with Bloch- They were both hypochondriacs as well as believing each was very much isolated. That is what gives Stieglitz prediction of the response such a ring of truth–It is exactly how Bloch was and it is probably exactly what he would say:
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.” 10
Bloch Photographs the “Soul” of Trees
Years later, in 1931, while composing his Sacred Service in the village of Roveredo in the Italian Alps, Bloch himself finds the soul of trees through his camera. While in Roveredo Bloch began to do a series of tree photographs. His daughter Lucienne remembers:
“It took him a good year to finally get to photographing them, because when I was there (1930) , and we were walking he would say “You have no idea how extraordinary these trees are when there are few leaves, and when its dark in back so they show up.” He kept saying I’ve got to photograph them. I must make a study of trees.” And that’s when he would point to them and say, ” Now look at this -this harmony of trunks . . .”
Bloch also experimented with watercolor sketches in the 1920’s. Two small watercolor studies of about 5” x 7” from the later 1920’s reside in the Hargrave Music Library in Berkeley Ca. These were no doubt done in Mill Valley north of San Francisco during his tenure as Director of the San Francisco Conservatory. He would weekend in Mill Valley regularly to compose. These small studies further show his fascination with the symmetrical and parallel qualities of tree trunks- not unlike what he saw in the formal aspects in paintings by Hodler. This eye for form would assert itself with the camera in 1931
From a letter to Ada Clement in 1931:
…after two days of solitary walks, in spite of the snow that is again beginning to fall, I was able at last to speak to the trees, the rocks, the flowers, and they replied to my heart… This is an area of incomparable beauty… no cars, no tourists, no traffic; everything is perfectly harmonious, the scenery is most varied (every walk leads me to another land), the houses are in old stone, picturesque and alive (I will soon send you some photos), the people, all of them farmers, young and old, all simple, real, ambitionless, content with their happy fate, reserved, proud, the best Swiss, perhaps the best people I have met.
…I began to take pictures of one tree and then another amid a disturbing silence. And, all of a sudden, one would have said that the soul of each tree was warming my heart and, in reality, communicating with me. It was a highly emotional moment; I wept! I myself had become a tree! Which is much better than being a man.” 12
The excerpt below from the same letter of 1931 also makes clear his enthusiasm for the Leica and what was possible with it. As he says “ I have really got the soul of a few trees, birches and chestnuts especially…” ”…I made more than 1000 negatives since a year- some portraits too, very extraordinary—”
As these photographs and his letter’s make clear, Bloch enthusiastically begins to use the machine–the camera–to make his own personal expressive statement about his world. The inspiration from Stieglitz is obvious. Bloch no doubt saw “Dancing Trees” from 1921 along with the others he describes in his 1922 response to MSS. Furthermore, Bloch finds music itself in the trees titling several after composers including Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and Debussy.
Bloch’s conversion to accepting the camera as capable of expressing the soul is a great example of the unwavering drive Stieglitz had to prove his point about photography. It was a conversion on the acceptance of a tool -a machine- and a big leap for Bloch. Steeped in the connections between nature, eurythmic movement and artistic creation, Bloch was already adept at seeing the synesthetic connections that Stieglitz showed him in his cloud photographs. But the machine was another matter. Finally in 1931 after years of taking his own photographs Bloch takes the camera into the realm that he couldn’t have imagined earlier.
Bloch and Stieglitz shared a world view and had a kinship of spirit. Bloch always referred to Stieglitz in his lectures with great admiration and appreciation. As Bloch wrote in the 1946 Memorial Portfolio for Stieglitz: “…What an example of Spirit in our present age of ‘Robots.’”
- A. Stieglitz, ‘How I came to photograph clouds’, Amateur Photographer 56 (1923),
- Letter to Ernest Bloch from Alfred Stieglitz dated July 1, 1922 (Library of Congress Music Division.)
- Mike Weaver, “Alfred Stieglitz and Ernest Bloch: Art and Hypnosis, History of Photography, Volume 20 Number 4, Winter 1996, pp. 293.
- Waldo Frank, Introduction to ‘Man and Music’, The Seven Arts, March, 1917, pp. 493-503.
- Ernest Bloch, ‘Man and Music’, The Seven Arts, March, 1917, pp. 493‐503.
- Jonathan Elkus, conversation Jan. 2011, Berkeley, CA.
- Jonathan Elkus, conversation Jan. 2011, Berkeley, CA.
- “Can a Photograph have the Significance of Art,” MSS #4 Dec. 1922.
- Alfred Stieglitz Memorial Portfolio, 1947, Twice A Year Press, New York. Dorothy Norman, ed.
- A. Stieglitz, ‘How I came to photograph clouds’, Amateur Photographer 56 (1923), p. 255.
- Lucienne Bloch Dimitroff. conversation Gualala Ca. 1971
- Letter to Ada Clement from Ernest Bloch, October 1931, p. 2, (Hargrove Music Library, UC Berkeley)
- Letter to Ada Clement from Ernest Bloch, October 1931, p. 3, (Hargrove Music Library, UC Berkeley)
© Eric B. Johnson