“All photographs are self-portraits.”
“The photographer projects himself into everything he sees, identifying himself with everything in order to know it and to feel it better.”
These are just two of Minor White’s famous epigrams. He could easily have published a quotable photographic Little Red Book of Mao, so apt are his thoughts on his art form. It would be an appropriate companion to Robert Bresson’s Notes on the Cinematographer, which I wrote about in May 2011.
Through this Oct. 19, the J. Paul Getty Museum is hosting a major retrospective (about 150 images) of the photography of the enigmatic Minor White. It is a thoughtful reevaluation of the full body of his aesthetic philosophy as embodied in his images, especially through his dozens of linked photo essays. The exhibition is also a revealing view into White’s sexuality, which was allusive and coded during his lifetime, and which includes nudes of his students and lovers. Curated by Paul Martineau, the Getty exhibit is the first significant examination of White’s photography in more than 25 years.
In Leah Ollman’s recent Los Angeles Times review of the exhibit, the opening paragraph sets the tone:
Photographer Minor White was a conflicted soul. A seeker who adopted a succession of mystical and spiritual worldviews. A teacher who exercised tremendous influence but by his own admission had no friends, only students. A closeted gay man who regarded his own sexuality as an unsolvable philosophical challenge, ‘a kind of koan.’
White began his career in Portland, Ore. photographing derelict buildings slated for demolition in the city’s urban-renewal program. The project was part of the Depression-era WPA arts initiative under the Oregon Art project. These moody, often crepuscular images of deserted streets do not seem to readily serve as metaphors of self-portraiture for the young artist.
They are, however, reminiscent of the New York City Pictorialist images of Karl Struss in the years just before World War I. At the other end of White’s career are the poetic/ metaphysical abstractions of his New York and Rochester years from the photo essays of Sound of One Hand.
For many admirers, portraits do not figure at all large in White’s canon. Many of his male nudes, mainly photo essays of his lovers, focus more on body parts than on traditional portraiture. His most famous study of Tom Murphy, subject of his series “The Temptation of St. Anthony Is Mirrors,” is as much a Stieglitz/O’Keeffe abstraction as it is a traditional portrait.
Curator Paul Martineau has pointed out that portraits do in fact constitute a significant aspect of White’s work, but many of them are intimate and personal rather than public, and this alone has contributed to their lack of familiarity. Many of them are of friends and lovers.
So whence this oft cited White quote of photography as self-portraiture, even landscapes and abstractions? Clearly, and it becomes clearer in his more intricate writings, White believes that art photography (as opposed to photojournalism) demands a kind of religious or philosophical calling. The arc of his career, in its many peregrinations across the country and in his many teaching positions at places such as the California School of the Fine Arts, The Rochester Institute of Art and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, suggests a restless mind and soul. White’s embrace of Eastern philosophy and mysticism might have been dormant during his early years and the years after his World War II service, but the embryo for this metaphysical perspective was most likely seeded in February 1946, when he met Alfred Stieglitz in New York City just a few months before Stieglitz died.
Equivalents, Stieglitz’s famous photographs of clouds taken at his summer home at Lake George, most of them devoid of horizon reference, became the entry point for White’s complex aesthetic arguments for the photographic object as an “equivalent” of the artist’s state of mind and spirit. This is part of the basis for White’s many thoughts on photography as self-portraiture. He explained it in a near 4,000-word essay in the PSA Journal in 1963:
The theory of Equivalence is a way for the photographer to deal with human suggestibility in a conscious and responsible way. It seems to me that to think of painting or photography as some degree of glorified Rorschach blots is not detrimental to either medium because suggestibility is the very gate to the perennial trend in art. Some contemporary photographers … willingly acknowledge the fact that photographs mirror some state of feeling within the viewer. They include themselves here as viewers of their own photographs and viewers of the subjects they select. They accept the truth that photographs act as a catalyst, and consequently are a step in process, not an end product. They can remember that the mental image in a viewer’s mind is more important than the photograph itself.
White’s notion of equivalence in his personal interpretation of Stieglitz is not one shared by many of his colleagues. Most photographers record the physical world as ephemeral artifact rather than as idea. Even if you search Edward Weston’s iconography of vegetables as metaphoric portraits, the fact is that Weston, a vegetarian, usually cooked and ate his subjects for dinner. The idea of the tangible world as stand-in for a state of mind is not one that most photographers readily embrace. This might be partly why White’s work has seemed alien to many of them.
In a recent article in The Daily Beast, Sarah Bay Williams discusses how even fellow educators have been critical of White’s ideas. She cites John Szarkowski of the Museum of Modern Art, who wrote: “By the 1960s, Minor White seems to have designed a circuit of artistic communication that dispensed with the need for tradition — a social construction — and required only the artist and any random viewer.” Szarkowski critiqued White’s insistence that the viewer would always find his or her core self in his images, whether they admitted it or not. To this, Szarkowski responded, “The claim is impossible to refute, and in fact not easy to understand.”
Williams also quotes CalArts educator Allan Sekula, noting:
The late Allan Sekula’s near vitriol in his essay ‘On the Invention of Photographic Meaning,’ published in Artforum in 1975, suggested that Minor White’s influence, delivered through his decades of reign over Aperture, made for “a community of mystics united in the exchange of fetishes that served only to deliver ‘the devolution of photographic art into mystical trivia.’”
This kind of criticism may be why even curators and institutions have been so uneasy about mounting major retrospectives of White’s work. His ideas can be both intricately complex and bafflingly ambiguous. Hunting down the work as purely physical artifact can be unrewarding. In some ways, this is easy to understand. On the other hand, White’s work sometimes positively reeks of the influence of other, more approachable 20th century masters, whether it be wintertime frosted studio windows à la Sudek, urban Pictorialism à la Steichen and Struss, New England landscapes à la Strand or, most transparently, the Point Lobos iconography of his friend and mentor Edward Weston.
It is possible to understand the work of many photographers by immersing yourself in an exhibition of their work. This is not the case with White. You have to partly wade through his evocations of the work of other masters in order to discover his inner meanings. His exploration of ideas through his writing, through his founding (with eight other artists) and longtime stewardship of Aperture, and through his teaching suggests that some appreciation of his spirituality is necessary to an understanding of his work. But even something as accessible as the Wikipedia essay on White can be helpful in explaining the ideas embodied in his images.
The catalog of the current Getty retrospective features not only 148 lush, full-page plates, but also an insightful and approachable essay by Paul Martineau on the full range of White’s work.
Martineau has written seven photography books; he is a personal friend who often guides me through the Getty’s labyrinth. His equally thoughtful mounting of the Getty’s recent Paul Outerbridge and Herb Ritts exhibitions has likewise illuminated the full spectrum of those artists’ work. I was not able to attend the opening of the White exhibition, but Martineau gave me an enlightening walkthrough a few days later. It was also an opportunity for me to ask him about the exhibition background.
Q: Minor White is often called ‘a photographer’s photographer.’ What does that mean to you as a curator?
A: A photographer’s photographer is someone who has earned the respect of his/her peers not only for his/her extraordinary aesthetic and technical ability, but also for his/her position as a teacher, example or guide to others. The term, I think, contains the implication that these skills are not always readily appreciated by the general public. It is used infrequently, and, this is unfortunate, but it is almost never applied to female artists.
Q: It has been several decades since the last major museum exhibition of White’s photographs. What attracted you to the idea of mounting a new exhibition at this time?
A: I am attracted to artists who I perceive to be deserving of attention, but who are underappreciated. For me, it is about trying to provide balance while achieving maximum impact for my efforts. I also realized that this project would give us the opportunity to acquire, either by purchase or gift, a significant number of prints by White. When I started this project, we had three photographs by White; in three years’ time, when all the gifts come in, we’ll have 75. So, in a manner of speaking, the White exhibition was a success before it opened.
Q. I believe this is the first time that some of White’s more personal, homoerotic work has been exhibited. Do you feel this has given us new insight into his work overall, or is it just a sidebar to his already established reputation?
A: The personal nature of White’s homoerotic work is one of the most important keys to fully understanding him. I suppose it would be like trying to understand Alfred Stieglitz without his portrait cycle of Georgia O’Keeffe, or Edward Weston without his nudes of Tina Modotti and Charis Wilson.
Q: You also recently curated an exhibition at the Getty of Paul Outerbridge’s work. It included some of his female nudes along with his signature platinum work such as the ‘Ide Collar.’ Do you see any parallels between the two artists in subject matter and style?
A: White and Outerbridge were both perfectionists who exercised a high degree of control over their models, lighting and print quality. They also regularly spent significant amounts of time thinking about their pictures before actually making them.
Q: Many photographers have a clearly defined aesthetic, embodied at least in part in their choice of subject matter and place. One thinks of Ansel Adams and Yosemite, Edward Weston and Point Lobos, or Charles Sheeler and American industry, such as Ford’s River Rouge plant. Minor White lived and worked in many cities. Do you feel there is a ‘signature’ subject matter or place that is key to better understanding his work?
A: In my opinion, the years that White lived in Rochester [1953-1964] represent the apex of his career. After relocating to upstate New York from the West Coast, White struggled to find inspiration in the comparatively drab landscape, but once he did, he created some of his most beautiful and poetic images. Three of White’s most powerful and enigmatic sequences, Sound of One Hand , Steely the Barb of Infinity  and Sequence 17 / Out of my love for you I will give you back to yourself  were completed during these years. Images for the first two were created in and around Rochester, while images for the third were largely made at Capitol Reef National Monument in Utah.
Q: Minor White was a meticulous printer. He admits that studying Adams’ zone system was influential on his own evolution as a printer. In your close study of his work, do you detect a unique ‘fingerprint’ in his own darkroom technique?
A: I’ve spoken with a few curators who didn’t seem to think White was a good printer. This may be because he often allowed his emotional disposition to influence how he would print a particular image on a particular day. While researching this project, I examined thousands of prints, and while there were certainly some that were less luminous than others, there were very few that I would consider substandard. My preference is for White’s dark, moody prints.
Q: White was only one of the more than half-dozen founders of Aperture in 1952, yet he remained its editor until 1975, a year before his death. What do you think his legacy is on this still vital American photography magazine?
A: White set the bar very high. He consistently filled the pages of the magazine with quality work that challenged its readers to look and think in new ways.
The time has come for a reconsideration of White’s place in the photographic canon, especially now that many of his harshest critics are gone and we can see the work apart from their personal biases. White’s work not only survives, but commands new prominence in this major exhibition at the Getty. With it, a deep lacuna is filled.
Here are a few more quotes from White:
On photo essays or sequences:
“It is curious that I always want to group things, a series of sonnets, a series of photographs; whatever rationalizations appear, they originate in urges that are rarely satisfied with single images.”
“To engage a sequence, we keep in mind the photographs on either side of the one in our eye.”
“In putting images together I become active, and excitement is of another order — synthesis overshadows analysis.
“ … and found that each photograph was a mirror of my Self.”
“Before he has seen the whole, how unusually perceptive and imaginative the person must be to evolve the entire sequence by meditating on its single, pair or triplet of essential images.”
On the “Equivalent”:
“While we cannot describe its appearance, we can define its function. When a photograph functions as an Equivalent, we can say that at that moment, and for that person, the photograph acts as a symbol or plays the role of a metaphor for something that is beyond the subject photographed.”
On waiting for the image (Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moment”):
“Be still with yourself until the object of your attention affirms your presence.”
“No matter how slow the film, Spirit always stands still long enough for the photographer it has chosen.”
I’d like to thank Paul Martineau for his assistance on this essay.
NEXT: “A Bloody Ex-Pat” and “The Mona Lisa Curse”
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