I often reflect on the power of Alfred Stieglitz’s “Equivalents”. With such simple observation of clouds, he was able to achieve a feeling of transcendence. One moves easily between cloud and deep emotion, between form and ascension. The image guides the viewer from natural phenomena to reverie or a dream state. In this state what seemed like pure observation transforms into an elan. One feels simultaneously an intimacy and an intensity. One feels “alive”. Baudelaire states in his journal, that at such moments “the sense of existence is immensely increased”. (Baudelaire, Journaux Intimes, p.28) The phenomenologist Gaston Bachelard describes Baudelaire’s theory of “correspondence”, a unity of the senses, as such: “It is the principle of “correspondences” to receive the immensity of the world, which they transform into an intensity of being. They institute transactions between two kinds of grandeur.” (Bachelard,The Poetics of Space, p.19)
This intensity of being is recognizable in the portraits of Robert Henri, an American painter. Henri often referred to his subjects as “my people”. He became intimate with them in the process of painting, seeing them for who they were – their hopes, dreams and disappointments – their desire to live and to be “alive”. His portraits are at once intimate but unexpectedly take on a feeling of immensity. They become greater than the subject , reaching beyond his mere existence, to something more universal. Through their eyes we see more clearly. Our reverie upon the image transports us to an unexpected place. In this waking dream, a dwelling place for subject, viewer and artist, we are transformed. What was once an intimate meeting between artist and subject becomes a renewing force.
Every image an artist creates remains a part of him and becomes the fabric or map of his being. It is not to be taken lightly what one chooses to create. It makes sense that Henri referred to his subjects as “my people”, the image no longer a memory of a moment but a blaze marking a trail on a map. The map created by all those intimate moments strung together, a personal geography of the artist, on which all of us may travel.