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Minor White - Spiritual Journey
Part 1: Minor White

by Peter Marshall from his website.

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 right.)

Windowsill DaydreamingMinor 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 yourself.

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 self-expression.

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 theseUntitled 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 this purpose.

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.

 

'Front Street, Portland, Oregon, 1939' was one of the architectural works taken for the WPA. It shows the street with its fine row of nineteenth century buildings, looking straight down the street from a high viewpoint, the street curving away slightly in the distance. The sun is to the front and the right of the camera, lighting the elaborate facades on the left side of the street to bring out their detail, and the viewpoint is perfectly chosen, leading to a fine building in the middle distance.

White has kept the verticals absolutely vertical by shooting from a high viewpoint. Technically it could probably have been improved, with a little more shadow detail and sharpness, by the use of a larger format camera (White was no doubt limited by the WPA budget) but the atmosphere is perhaps more important. The sky has a more natural feel to it than in much of his later work - perhaps he had not then learnt how to use or misuse filters. The complete emptiness of the street and the long shadows suggest that this was taken in the early morning.

His 'Ranch, Grande Ronde Valley, Oregon, 1941' has the bottom two thirds filled by the pattern of lines in a field covered with shallow ridges of broken clay. The viewpoint has been chosen where two directions of ploughing meet, adding a welcome complexity to the pattern. The farm buildings, elegant in their wooden vernacular, form a band across the frame. The sides facing more directly to camera are in shadow, but at right angles to this we see their detail precisely picked out by the slanting sun from the right. At their left end, close to the edge of the frame is some farm machinery, perhaps that which created the lines on the field.

Above the roofs is the curve of the distant tree-lined ridge, its misty softness providing the perfect background for the sharply delineated buildings. It is a fine picture, reminiscent of several from Edward Weston's 'California and the Weston' and certainly a work for which Weston himself would have been proud.

Perhaps more of White himself can be seen in another work from the same year, 'Grain Station, Alicel, Oregon, 1941' where a steam locomotive is apparently about to pull away from the small cluster of sheds and railroad cars dominated by the cylindrical grain towers. A dramatic light grey cloud sweeps across most of the sky, except for a small diagonal area of near black at the top left of the picture. This use of orange or red filters for effect was something he was to push beyond its limits in his series of infrared landscapes from the 1950s. Here is also serves to darken the shadow areas of the towers and to bring out a number of small lighter clouds in the lower right of the sky. It also helps to emphasize the puff of black smoke emerging from the chimney of the steam engine.

It is difficult if not impossible to study this work for any length of time without beginning to see some sexual connotations. Although it would be a mistake to see any cylindrical object as phallic - even anything as dominating as the four upstanding towers and the horizontal form of the dark engine boiler, it is hard to avoid this conclusion with the latter, giving its clear emission of the cloud of black smoke.

Symbols related to the male and female sexual organs and to the penetration of objects by other objects as well as clear symbols of sexual release make White's work a field day for Jungians and others who like to interpret such signs. Most of his more abstract works are only too open to such interpretations, and it was an aspect of his work of which his journal shows he was well aware

In 1942, White was drafted and, after basic training, assigned to the Army Intelligence Corps. During the war he had little opportunity for photography, other than taking portraits of his fellow soldiers, but he continued to think and write about it. It is unclear whether he was actually involved in any military action or whether the accounts he wrote of this were purely fictional. Certainly he agonised over the problems of killing and being killed - as he seems to have agonised over most things.

While in the army he became a Catholic, the first of a number of spiritual homes he was to find in his life. It was a decision he stated was based on discussions before the war with a Catholic girl friend in Oregon, which he continued in a series of letters while in the army. It also came from his experiences with the chaplain, , with whom he had many conversations and whose personal weakness and inefficiency impressed led White to feel that the church must be a very positive force in his life.

White's basic project appears to have been a search for his own identity, carried out through writing and photography as well as through meditation and other spiritual practices. Like many artists he was never a great rational or academic thinker, but a highly intuitive and a romantic one.

His most basic dilemmas were concerned with his sexuality and the strong yearnings he felt towards men and young men in particular, which are also very evident in his photography. The middle of the last century had a very different moral climate from the current day and White was clearly plagued by guilt about his feelings for men. His parents had read his diaries when he was a young man and had made clear how disturbed they were by his tendencies, and this was a feeling that many would have shared.

Most of us are aware of strong feelings at the root of many of our relationships with both men and women. It is certainly not unusual for these at times to involve sexual fantasies, and the oddest of situations may surface in our dreams and even occasionally in our waking lives. We normally find ways to function which deny or relegate those aspects which trouble us, but White was perhaps more honest with himself, and faced his thoughts head on, both in his photography and in his religious life. There was certainly a clear link between his spiritual quest and the strong sexual nature he felt in most of his close relationships with men, though few of these were ever physical.

After leaving the army, he went to New York to study, working on museum methods with Nancy and Beaumont Newhall at the Museum of Modern Art, which also found work for him as a photographer. While in New York he visited Alfred Stieglitz and talked with him, and this was to dramatically affect his photography.

His work at the museum also brought him into personal contact with many other leading photographers including Harry Callahan and Paul Strand. Edward Weston had a major retrospective, and he flew in from California, staying the length of the show. White went to talk with him virtually every day and wrote a paper on his 'reading' of Weston's work.

Unfortunately little or none of Minor White's early work seems to be available on the web. If you do find a site with any of these pictures on display, please let me know and I will add links.

Click on Minor to go to part II,