This is the first of a two-part feature on
Minor White. The second part looks in more detail at the idea of the
'Equivalent' and at White's later career at RIT and MIT (see box at
Minor White (1908-76) was one of the greatest American
photographers of the period after the Second World War as well as one of
the greatest teachers of the medium. One of the best-known names in
photography until the end of the 1970s, his life and work has since then
virtually dropped out of photographic discourse. Probably for many younger
photographers his name means little or nothing.
White was a deeply religious man whose whole life was a spiritual
journey. His photography arose out of this and was an inherent part of
this pilgrimage. It isn't an approach that has been fashionable in
academic circles in recent years.
His legacy to photography has been an important one, but not without
its negative aspects, which in recent years have perhaps been encouraged
to obscure his great achievements. It is unfair to tar him with the brush
of those lesser talents who followed some of the more superficial aspects
of his teaching while failing to follow its main thrust, the need to find
White was a truly great teacher, but one who tended to overpower his
students, turning out too many who mimicked his methods but with little
real understanding or talent. There are plenty still around, taking out
their view cameras as he did and justifying their technically perfect but
spiritually empty landscapes and still life with the doctrine of
There are also photographers who gained greatly from their studies and
visits to White, particularly during his time at 72 North Union St in
Rochester in the mid 50s and 60s, as well as those who took his classes at
the Rochester Institute of Technology (and later at MIT.) Paul
Caponigro is perhaps the best known of these students. Other
photographers who also visited him at this time included Walter
Chappell, Nathan Lyons and Jerry
Uelsmann. (Paul Caponigro and Jerry Uelsmann are included in
the 'Directory of Photographers' - see box. See end of Part 4 for links to
Walter Chappell and Nathan Lyons.)
As well as his photography and teaching, White's other vital legacy to
photography is the magazine 'Aperture', which has done
more than any other publication to improve the quality of photographic
publishing in the last 50 years. It was founded by White, together with
others including Nancy and Beaumont Newhall, Dorothea Lange, Barbara
Morgan and Dody Warren in 1952, and White continued to edit it until 1975.
Aperture is still going strong (since 1963 it has been published by the
non-profit corporation, Aperture, Inc) and remains the finest photographic
magazine in publication. I've been a subscriber to this quarterly for many
years and it now occupies several feet of shelve space in my front room.
It isn't the sort of magazine that you read and then throw away, and many
issues of the magazine have also appeared as books. Aperture is now the
leading photographic book publisher and also publishes some fine limited
editions of photographs and photogravures.
Aperture also published the book that summed up White's photography,
'Mirrors Messages Manifestations', in 1969. I remember clearly the impact
this had on me when I first saw it a few years later, not least for the
number of forms I had to sign to borrow this precious work from the
British national lending library. It set new standards in quality and
design and production for photographic books as well as having a powerful
emotional effect through its text and pictures.
Later, in 1978, Aperture published 'Rites & Passages' in which White's
pictures are accompanied by a lengthy biographical sketch by James Baker
Hall, including lengthy excerpts from White's own writing. As a view of
his pictures it was disappointing only when compared to 'Mirrors Messages
Manifestations', since it contains much of his best work. Hall's text and
the chronology included are the major source for most of the biographical
information in this feature. Another fine book on White is 'Minor White:
The Eye That Shapes' by Peter C Bunnell, published in 1989.
White was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA in 1908.
His mother's parents lived close by and he saw more of them and formed a
closer relationship than his own parents. His grandfather was a keen
amateur photographer and also owned a fine collection of lantern slides
with many classic images of the Civil War and the opening up of the
American West by Alexander Gardner, Timothy O'Sullivan and others. White
started taking his own pictures when he was given a Box Brownie when he
was around eight years old.
It was probably his interest in his grandmother's large garden that led
White to an interest in botany, which he studied at the University of
Minnesota. His botany course did not go too smoothly, but he enjoyed the
photomicrography and was taught how to develop film and make prints for
During his studies he became more interested in poetry and creative
writing, and ended up in 1933 with a degree in botany with a minor in
English. At the height of the depression it was hard to find a job, but
White had decided to spend five years writing poetry, after which he would
turn to photography. He worked as a waiter and barman at the University
Club while completing his planned sequence of a hundred sonnets.
After around four years the poems were complete. He bought a 35mm Argus
camera and with a few dollars in his pocket set off for the West coast. At
Portland, Oregon he found a job as a night clerk in a hotel, which allowed
him to photograph during the day.
While in Portland he joined the Oregon Camera Club and there he learnt
more about photographic techniques, especially printing. For the only time
in his life he also became involved in politics, acting as a brief spell
as secretary of the 'People's Power League'. This led to his being offered
work as a photographer by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a
federal 'New Deal' project set up to provide work for the unemployed.
He produced two exhibitions for the WPA, one on early architecture in
Portland and the other on the waterfront there. They show him working in a
straightforward documentary style.
He also set up a camera club at the YMCA in Portland and started
teaching classes there. In 1940 the WPA sent him to eastern Oregon, where
he became director of the La Grande Art Center for the next two years. His
time at La Grande gave him both the time and the money to think about
photography and to take pictures. His work at the time was very clearly
under the influence of the 'f64' school and Edward Weston. Although not
seeming very individual now, it was good enough to be exhibited at the
Museum of Modern Art in New York.