Minor White, “St. John’s Bridge,” c. 1939-40, gelatin silver print, collection of the Portland Art Museum
Aperture‘s spiffy blog, Exposures, reminds us that today would have been Minor White’s 100th birthday. White was a co-founder of Aperture and directed the first fine-art photography program in the country (what’s now the SF Art Institute), but for most photographers of my generation that I talk to, White’s influence doesn’t extend much farther than that.
If Walker Evans is the de facto spiritual godfather of the contemporary photography scene (as filtered through his influence of later artists such as Stephen Shore and William Eggleston), then Minor White is the rarely-seen uncle who sends two dollars and a prayer card for every birthday. Where Evan’s vision was cool, literary, and crisp, White’s was enthusiastic, mystic, and fluid. White (1908-76) was passionate about photography’s capacity to create visual metaphors, as well as the power of grouping images into larger sequences. “A sequence of photographs is like a cinema of stills,” he wrote. “The time and space between photographs is filled by the beholder … The spring-tight line between reality and photograph has been stretched relentlessly, but it has not been broken.” These concepts stand the test of time, and would seem to suggest that his work would do the same, but with a handful of notable exceptions, White’s photographs don’t hold the same power today that many of his contemporaries’ do. (That is not to say that they won’t again in the relatively near future, when younger photographers move further and further away from documentary realism, and it’s also not to say that one couldn’t select a grouping of White’s images that look handsome and inspiring today. I just think it’d be a very choosy group that would have to disregard the artists’ key works and intentions.)
Lawrence Smith, “Minor White at the Clackamas River,” 1938
One thing that’s not up for debate, however, is that White came of artistic age in Portland, and left behind a legacy of images from his time here. (It was also in Portland that the wonderful Walter Chappell, whose old high school sits outside my bedroom window, met White as a teenager; years later Chappell followed White to Rochester, and under White’s mentorship, became a curator at the George Eastman House.) Living at the YMCA and working as a night clerk at the Beverly Hotel, White was an active participant in Portland’s photography scene—teaching classes, shooting constantly, and staying involved with the Oregon Camera Club
In 1938, the WPA commissioned White to document the city’s waterfront and 19th century architecture; made before the photographer’s more ethereal forays into New Age-y abstractions, these images have a wonderful charm and clarity about them. White was deeply influenced by the hazy abstractions and symbolism of Equivalents-era Steiglitz , but surely heard the beating drum of America’s flourishing documentary tradition, which championed unflinching realism. White’s WPA work finds the photographer at the crossroads of these two competing visions: It would be another decade before the influence and support of Ansel Adams, Minor White, Paul Strand, and others helped White hone his mature style.
Minor White, “Front Street, Portland, OR,” 1939
In 1940, the WPA sent White to the tiny country town of La Grande, Oregon, near the Idaho border, where he taught photography at the Art Center and wrote art criticism. Returning to Portland in 1942, the Portland Art Museum (PAM) gave White his first solo show, exhibiting his photographs from Eastern Oregon. The same year, PAM hired him to photograph two historic Victorian homes; his images from this commission were later collected in Heritage Lost: Two Grand Portland Houses Through the Lens of Minor White, co-authored by PAM Photography Curator Terry Toedtemeier. (Portland photographer Stu Levy made prints from the book from White’s original negatives.)
Shortly after the PAM commission, White was drafted into the Army Intelligence Corps, where he wrote a book entitled Eight Lessons in Photography, made portraits of fellow soldiers, was baptized into the Catholic religion, and wrestled with his homosexuality. After the war, White moved to New York, then to San Francisco, where he taught in from 1946-53 and co-founded Aperture (1952), and eventually to Rochester, where he would reconnect with Portland’s Walter Chappell. White returned to Oregon often, though, and gave many of his celebrated photography workshops on the coast, where he influenced countless regional photographers.
Minor White, “Worcester Building, Portland, OR,” c. 1938
White’s 1972 group exhibition, Octave of Prayer (published in book form by Aperture in ’73), tarnished the photographer’s reputation, as it found White in full mystic mode. Images of sunrises, hippies, leaves, clouds, and seagulls were accompanied by one of the strangest essays ever to accompany a major photography exhibition.
“When a man… discovers God in himself,” White writes, “he grasps the joy of camera and man working in the service to the divine.” Later: “The spiritual crisis of the times demands that we should heed [the photographer]. The healing capacity of the process of creative work is desperately needed, now! Let ‘greatness’ appear when it will, we do not need that ego trip. Best of all is the using of art and camerawork consciously for healing no matter how few the psychological wounds caused by a society destroying itself.”
Ah, yes. It was that kind of rhetoric—and photographs like this—that remind me why White doesn’t go down so easily. But still: He did make some very impressive images, he co-founded a great magazine, and he’s something of a hometown boy. On those merits alone, it only feels proper to offer a “Happy Birthday, Mr. White. R.I.P.”