American photographer Minor White was polemical, often misunderstood and on occasion, forgotten. The 20th century photographer not only conveyed a fundamental mastery of the artistic and technical elements of photography, but its conceivability to become a “medium of spiritual transformation.”
The J. Paul Getty Center presents Minor White: Manifestations of the Spirit from July 8 through October 19, 2014. It is the first large-scale retrospective of White’s work since 1989. The exhibition highlights the photographer’s masterly eleven-print sequence Sound of One Hand (1965). It also introduces never-before-seen archival photographs from the Princeton University archives.
Minor White was a prominent figure in photography who asserted “photography’s expressive powers” and dedicated himself to attaining worldwide recognition of the medium as an art form and eventually expanding its connotative potential.
As an artist, critic, editor (Aperture magazine) and teacher, White wielded an authoritative influence on a generation of photographers in the understanding the history and complexity of photographic modernism that still resonates to this day. With brazen psychoanalytic and esoteric notions, he defined the esthetic mood of post-war photography, in the same manner as Alfred Stieglitz helped bolster photography prior to the war. Paul Martineau, associate curator of photographs at the J. Paul Getty Museum and exhibition curator, connects White’s oeuvre with those of Edward Weston and Alfred Stieglitz.
After serving in the Army during the Second World War, White traveled to New York City where he developed his own photographic style and studied creative thought in photography under photographer-critic, Alfred Stieglitz. He became involved with other influential photographers including Edward Weston and Ansel Adams, but it was Stieglitz’s idea of “equivalents” that became crucial to the direction of his post-war work.
White’s intent was to photograph subjects not only for what they were, but also for what they may suggest, and therefore, the images would possess symbolic and metaphorical allusions.
Over the decades, White took comfort in various Western and Eastern religious practices. His personal spiritual journey continued to mold his artistic philosophy. Over his 40-year career, White explored Roman Catholicism, I Ching, Zen Buddhism, and Gurdjieff teachings along with other spiritual practices. Like Stieglitz, he was committed to the transcendental aspect of visual experience; he believed “seeing was tantamount to truth.” White once said, “One should not only photograph things for what they are but for what else they are.”
Moreover, like Stieglitz, Minor White believed that the core of photography’s assertion to becoming an art “lay in its metaphoric capacity.” He felt that the photographic concept was intrinsically emblematic and that camera images exposed not only their subjects, but also the creator’s inner lives.
In the same manner that Stieglitz influenced Minor White, he “had a profound impact on his many students, colleagues, and the photographers who considered him a true innovator, making this retrospective of his work long overdue,” said J. Paul Getty Museum director, Timothy Potts.
Minor White was uncomfortable with his sexuality and awash in uncertainty so he kept a journal entitled Memorable Fancies. While its title was derived from the 18th century English poet-painter-mystic, William Blake, the journal became not only an outlet for his strife, but along with photography, gave White a method to be harmonious with his natural proclivity for introspection and his longing to be engaged with the world, which helped further nurture his potential.
Then, in 1946, renowned American photographer, Ansel Adams invited White to teach photography in San Francisco at the California School of Fine Arts (CSFA). A year later, there was a transformation in White’s own work toward Stieglitz’s systematic approach known as “equivalence,” which signified that an image may represent a concept or state of mind beyond the subject shown. Examples of White’s “equivalents” were often images of doorways, water, barns or paint peeling on the wall. The actual image may have been considered commonplace, but White was concerned by what was beyond the subject, such as light quality and symbolism.
At the height of his career in the late 1950s, Minor White pushed himself to do the impossible. He made the invisible world of the spirit visible through photography. His masterwork along with the culmination of his continual search for a process to communicate euphoria is depicted in his sequence Sound of One Hand. It was aptly named after the Zen koan, which questions, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”
The sequence, which is scanned left to right, is best viewed “in a state of relaxation and heightened awareness,” said Martineau. Minor White compelled “the viewer to be an active participant in experiencing the varied moods and associations that come from moving from one photograph to the next,” he continued.
The Minor White exhibition also highlights the work by American photographers Paul Caponigro and Carl Chiarenza, both once students of Minor White. One important aspect of the photographer’s legacy “was his influence on the next generation of photographers,” said Martineau.
By Dawn Levesque