Wednesday, August 22, 2007

In the White

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 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.

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.

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.

Descriptions abound of White's unconventional teaching methods, which alienated many of the students. There were some who felt they had come to learn photography and were upset to find they were expected to spend long times in relaxation exercises and meditation. Some assignments would involve activities such as simply standing on a street corner, watching. For most his methods were hard to take at first, but he was an imposing figure, very tall with striking and appropriately white hair that made, a prophet or guru. Those who stayed long enough usually came to admire him, and to take his ideas seriously.

For those who survived the initial shock of his methods, one of the major parts of his method were the field trips where he and the students would go out to photograph together. There was much to be learnt watching the way he worked with his 4x5" Sinar view camera in the field and it was also greatly instructive to see later how the prints they produced compared to his taken in the same place.

Workshops would involve pre-dawn body practice in the fields, vegetarian food, and camera projects such as 'What is your original face?' He aimed to make students aware of what they really felt about the pictures and their lives, asking them to question themselves and probing their responses.

It was a teaching method that was at odds with the normal methods of schools and also with the inhibitions of his mainly male students who were used to hiding their feelings even from themselves. Even many of those who came to benefit greatly from them often had a great deal of initial inhibition to overcome. For many it was a dramatic turning point in their lives; one militant atheist went on to found a Zen monastery.

A very receptive state of mind... not unlike a sheet of film itself - seemingly inert, yet so sensitive that a fraction of a second's exposure conceives a life in it.


essay by Peter Marshell


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