Minor White: Many Roles, Many Friends

By Becky Ross

Minor White: A Living Remembrance. Aperture, Millerton, NY.
“Minor, for all his human weaknesses and confusions…had attained to a degree of art…that could move, delight, and teach — an art that makes a difference.” — Roger Lipsey
Minor White: A Living Remembrance gives us the man — teacher, philosopher, photographer — in a sensitive collection of writings by colleagues, students, and friends whose lives were altered by knowing him and experiencing his thinking.
We see White through an array of mirrors; every image is the same man, but each angle is slightly different, unique to the perceptions of each writer. They share a respect for White, a closeness, a kinship. Their intimate reflections pull us in, involving us in White’s growth, changes, failings, his becoming. We join in conversations, experiences, travels, excitement, work.
The energetic pace of the book complements the sense of intensity and life found in the writings, while “equivalent” photographs generate emotional tones. There is the roughness of rocks and cracked earth represented by Aaron Siskind, Brett Weston, and William LaRue, followed by the simple elegance of Imogen Cunningham’s “Magnolia Buds, 1925,” the grace of Harry Callahan’s single stalk of grass, “Aix-en-Provence, 1958,” intricate textural patterns by Frederick Sommer, and exciting birth-like images by Barbara Morgan. We see White’s meditative photographs of the surf and the cosmic “Bullet Holes, Capitol Reef, Utah, 1961,” abstracted landscapes by Edward Ranney, the tapestry-like work of Robert Bourdeau and an other-worldly image by Jerry Uelsmann. A similar psychological pace is set by the text’s combinations of philosophy, dreams, realities, energy, and several writers’ reflections on White’s death. The mix of personal stories, quotations, and poems combined with White’s own perceptions creates a dialogue, borrowing and lending meanings enriching new understandings. This blending incorporates the thrill of discovery with learning and continually piques new curiosity.
White is remembered as an extraordinary man of heart and energy and soul dedicated to learning, experiencing, teaching, and expressing. Shirley Paukulis writes of a meeting with White shortly before his death; “He spoke excitedly of his future ears of teaching, of joining together in the fall to work on a new manuscript of Creative Audience. His old manuscript was outdated, he said. He’d learned so much while lying there in the hospital! “White had a t rue thirst for knowledge and an effervescent energy. “ He worked like a horse day after day…a monument to the values of the practice of art,” writes Drid Williams. “An artist like Minor doesn’t think of creating artifacts or art.” He just does it.
White sought out interesting people and philosophies, studied them, and allowed them to influence him. He studied them, and allowed them to influence him. He studied Taoism, the I-Ching, and Gurdjieff. His identification with Alfred Stieglitz and great respect for Edward Weston and Ansel Adams is evident in his philosophy, imagery, and craft.
The importance White placed on experiencing ma have been a strong motivation behind his desire for continuing Stieglitz’s Equivalent tradition in his photography. In “Equivalence: The Perennial Trend,” White stated, “When a photographer presents us with what to him is an Equivalent, he is telling us in effect, ‘I had a feeling about something and here is my metaphor of that feelings.’…What really happened is that he recognized an object or series of forms that, when photographed, would yield an image with specific suggestive powers that can direct the viewer into a specific and known feeling, state, or place within himself.” This idea is one that White pushed and worked in his own photography. He delighted in searching nature for these equivalents, saying the “camera has a positive genius for turning the effects of weathering into beauty and equivalence: wood stone, faces, ice.” But White achieved more than equivalence; he made photographs that had a quality of otherness that could point beyond themselves. He introduced elements in explosive combinations, provoking the viewer to question the world of appearances. Of his own work, he said hopefully, “the spring-tight line between reality and photograph has been stretched relentlessly, but it has not been broken. These abstractions of nature have not left the world of appearances; for to do so is to break the camera’s strongest point — its authenticity.” Photographs such as “Bullet Holes, Capitol Reef, Utah, 1961” and “Birdlime & Surf, 1951” (from Mirrors, Messages, Manifestations) illustrate this, giving other meanings to our known world while leaving us familiar references.
Although the writers almost unanimously agree about white’s ability to create profound images, we also find some criticisms of his work and method. Robert Adams, citing White’s “problem of an art in flight from ‘the world of appearances,” deems some of his photographs “unsuccessful because they fail to convey a clear indication of scale and are thus not identifiably of the world we know.” However, Adams also notes that “because his [White’s] goals were major, even the failures are not entirely failures: they have value as they are instructive.”
A surprising change in tone comes in Paul Caponigro’s recollection of White. Attractive compliments, immediately nullified, result in an overall sense more devastating than the detractions alone. Caponigro’s negativism, sandwiched between countless positive remembrances, raises questions and makes even seemingly sincere compliments appear patronizing.
In a more positive recollection, Robert Bourdeau describes the influence that White, the teacher, had over the many who knew him. “What he gave me was a way of looking at things rather than a way of working — an incentive to put down in pictorial form that thing that I loved…However, I knew from the start I had to find my own vision.” Eugene Richards recalls, “Minor taught by experiences and ideas rather than by exterior materials and information. He talked about a total creative process. This meant you had to live the life of what you were going to become rather than simply adopt a certain style of photography.” To “live the life…” means you must fit it like your skin, carefully integrating into yourself bits of people and experience without becoming a blind disciple. Peter Laytin continues, “It is we who must judge how we question the decision process in ourselves.”
White’s belief in photography “as a way to know” colored all his roles as photographer, philosopher, student, teach, and publisher.
“He provided support for a belief in the photograph as an object worthy of intense effort in the making, and in the photograph as object in and of itself,… that could be as expressive as music, poetry, or painting in relating the individual to the world.” His life, surrounded by these convictions, is what Aperture and White’s colleagues, students, and friends have shared with us in A Living Remembrance.