Minor White, in Octave of Prayer

Minor White, Authenticity, and Reverie

When people talk about pictures they talk about themselves first and the picture next if at all.

—Minor White 1

As I mentioned in the Welcome post:

Apparently it’s time to talk about Minor White on the internet, as @vossbrink and @kalli made sure to let me know. : )

Referring to a recent (in kukkurovaca time) and possibly somewhat provocative post by Alec Soth about Minor White.

There’s a lot here that’s worth talking about, and I’m not going to come anywhere close to covering it all.2 My game plan at this point3 is to write two posts:

  • This one, which addresses some of the stuff in the Soth post, and
  • another which goes into a distinct but related personal peeve/grinding axe of mine, regarding how we talk about White’s spirituality.

So, let’s talk about “Hope, Failure and Binoculars”

Despite the popcorn-making enthusiasm with which the link was forwarded to me, and despite the umbrage some Minor White enthusiasts took in response, I didn’t find Soth’s post all that objectionable. Really, the thing that grated the most was the crack about “dated” infrared. ; )

And I’ve always liked Soth’s line about binoculars being more zen than cameras.4

As for the rest, some of it’s right on, and a lot of it is a valid read even if I don’t quite agree. But there are some notes that seem off or perhaps a little misleading.

First off, some quick tips…

for anybody who’s curious about all this and doesn’t have any previous familiarity with White.

  • Placing White in a Zen or Buddhism context is commonplace, and it’s not exactly wrong, but it can be misleading.5
  • White certainly had an interest in Zen, and he’s often branded a “Zen photographer,” but really he was a syncretist who sampled his spirituality from many traditions (and made up quite a bit of it).
  • On a related point, bear in mind that “meditation” isn’t just one thing. And neither would one expect only one kind of aesthetic to come from an artist whose work is informed by meditation.
  • When reading White, and especially when drawing conclusions based on White’s own recorded assertions, one should bear in mind that:
    • White was an unreliable narrator. He lied quite a bit, and I have the impression that he liked messing with his interlocutors and students.
    • He would often retread recurring themes in cycles of optimism and pessimism. (So, don’t take any one statement as final or conclusive; look for patterns over time.)

“Frequently a penis”

After reading the Kevin Moore essay, I think it’s interesting that Soth describes it as fantastic (which it totally is) but he doesn’t seem to really go along with its premise.

Soth summarizes the photo of the man with the “bulge” as, “White isn’t dreaming for a better world, he’s looking at a hot guy in a garbage-strewn doorway.” Whereas Moore writes of the same photo that:

The scene is both explicit and coded, even to contemporary eyes. This handsome loitering man might have been taken by certain passersby for an ordinary laborer, on break or looking for work. Others might have recognized him as a man looking for sex (or for another kind of work) with other men. White’s sexual interest in men and his approach to looking at things “for what else they are” stratify the two narratives, establishing layers of meaning on parallel planes. This man is both a laborer and a cruising homosexual. He is, then, just what the photographic image in general would come to signify for White: a common trace from the visible world, transformed into another set of charged meanings.

The difference here isn’t just a matter of verbosity. Soth’s praise for the photo seems to be based on a different reading of the photograph, pushing the “layer”-edness to the background, reading/valuing only one of the layers. (At the expense not so much of the other layers as of the photograph’s ambivalent nature.)

This matters not just for this photograph, but for White’s work overall. There’s an intimate connection between the longing Soth praises in this photo and the mysticism he derides in White’s landscapes—between White’s sexuality and spirituality.

Normally I’m not a huge fan of interpreting photographs in such an armchair psychologist sort of way. I’m wary of saddling someone with unintentional intentions. But White was very much aware of/intentional about this. The following quotation seems to cover it well (and amusingly):

In my recent photos there is frequently a penis between tall things. Wish for intercourse? Who doesn’t? Also a feeling of being alone expressed? Who isn’t alone?…Expressiveness is thus connected with sexual practice. A conclusion that is in accord with conscious and formulated thought of my own, namely that photography is sublimation of my inability to have the sex I want. Interest in self-exploration in photography may be a reflection of my continual masturbation. Or photography is my equivalent of living…Sex is the basis, but not the ultimate expression, merely the foundation upon which the cathedral is built.6

Acknowledging all this connection doesn’t preclude criticism of those dreamy landscapes, of course. But I think it’s simplistic to frame such criticism in terms of a lack of grit.

Authenticity vs. Optimism

Soth is bothered by what he reads in White as evasion of inner conflict. He cites a Robert Adams quotation which attributes White’s successes and failures to, respectively, embrace of or retreat from “authenticity, the appearance of the world.”

I think there’s a lot of truth in that. Solipsism was the devil on White’s shoulder. But there can also be problems with taking as given the significance and worth of authenticity, honesty, integrity, or “grit.” (And with suspecting their opposites.)

In his conclusion, Moore describes the tension in White this way:

He wanted to be a realist—but he was not. He was a romantic, compelled to create images such as Untitled (Man and vertical surf ) (1951; fig. 17), in which meanings are obscured, not clarified; signs are effaced, not illuminated; beauty is closeted, not set out for all to see. White was attracted to the ambiguity of the dream because it offered cover and protection but also freedom to maneuver. The dream supported the irrational, maintained a sense of mystery, and beautified frustration. Most importantly, the dream conformed to the needs of the dreamer.

It makes me wonder if Soth’s post isn’t most usefully read in terms of the antipathy of realism and romanticism. Not sure.7

Soth is essentially criticizing White for being otherworldly in his mysticism—he says White’s photographs are “dripping in mystical hope.” This is hard to deny. And yet…

We need to remember that not all optimisms are created equal. Much depends not only on the nature of the hope, but on the person who is hopeful—and where they stand in relation to the world. I suspect being “authentically” in the world had different stakes for White than it has for Robert Adams or for Soth (or for me). And by the same token, I suspect that a withdrawal from the world should be read differently in his work than it would be in theirs.

An unattainable utopianism may not only function as a comforting alternative to the world; it can also be an implicit critique. “Dripping” hope may not merely be a deficit of realism; it may be transgressive against the existing order. And it can also have an element of self-care.

The needs of the dreamer

Moore’s mention of the dream which conforms “to the needs of the dreamer” reminded me of the opening of Gaston Bachelard’s Poetics of Reverie, and I find on pulling up a couple of the passages that they do seem quite relevant:

Upon being faced with a real world, one can discover in himself the being of worry. Then he is thrown into the world, delivered over to the inhumanity and the negativeness of the world, and the world is then the denial of the human. The demands of our reality function require that we adapt to reality, that we constitute ourselves as a reality and that we manufacture works which are realities. But doesn’t reverie, by its very essence, liberate us from the reality function? From the moment it is considered in all its simplicity, it is perfectly evident that reverie bears witness to a normal, useful, irreality function which keeps the human psyche on the fringe of all the brutality of a hostile and foreign non-self….

One can also understand the great value in establishing a phenomenology of the imaginary where the imagination is restored to its proper, all-important place as the principle of direct stimulation of psychic becoming. Imagination attempts to have a future. At first it is an element of imprudence which detaches us from heavy stabilities. We shall see that certain poetic reveries are hypothetical lives which enlarge our lives by letting us in on the secrets of the universe, a world takes form in our reverie, and this world is ours. This dreamed world teaches us the possibilities for extending our being within our universe. There is futurism in any dreamed universe. (Emphasis added)

Bachelard’s observation that realism can be hostile to us and its opposite can be healthy is one of those things that should be utterly obvious, but which in fact can be quite counterintuitive. Realism and rough and ready pragmatism (in the non-technical sense of the word) have an unearned air of epistemological superiority about them which can be difficult to shake off.

(I think it is always easiest to embrace “the demands of our reality function” when the real world is most aligned with our own assumptions and blind spots, when the norms and structures of society support the avenues of action which present themselves to us. “Reality” generally appears to be on the side of privilege.)

The connection Bachelard points out between the imagination and futurism is of particular importance. “This dreamed world teaches us the possibilities for extending our being within our universe. There is futurism in any dreamed universe.” (And I would add that the futurism is always political.)

The dreamer as escapee from the constraints of our present reality and the dreamer as architect of a possible future cannot be disentangled. (And don’t forget that White was one of the great architects of photography’s future, even if he is not remembered as clearly for it as some of similar or lesser influence.)

Which isn’t to say that every reverie is useful. The question should be whether White’s flights of fancy were those of a striving utopian or a Polyanna, providing self-care or self-deception. (I think he took plenty of each kind.)


Jumping back a bit to the Robert Adams essay8, I found it interesting that the bulk of Adams’s complaint boils down to a problem of legibility. To oversimplify, Adams likes White’s photographs with identifiable subjects; he dislikes White’s photographs without identifiable subjects and in particular where White has obscured the scale of the photograph.

Adams regards White’s abstractions as depriving the viewer of vital context:

The context is essential; miracles alone, without the norm, are not really miracles at all. Without the setting of the identifiable world we are unconvinced of White’s transcendental truths because we are not allowed to experience the conditions of their discovery.9

and he accuses White of working in a private language unavailable to the viewer, rendering “communication” impossible:

…the abstractions come to a closed landscape where, lost in our private dreams, we can no longer communicate. Sooner or later, we have to ask of all pictures what kind of life they promote, and some of these views suggest to me a frightening alienation from the world of appearances.

Entertainingly, Adams’s concerns actually parallel some of White’s. For example, in Octave of Prayer, White wrote:

They may continue, for awhile, to carry a camera because the snapshots along the Way show them where they are. camera helps them see, dimly, a direction for the next step in the fog. But such images are private; if the images communicate to others, it will be on lesser levels and accidental. (Octave of Prayer, p. 22)

In fact, White was profoundly interested in making photographs that communicate—but he didn’t perceive a contradiction between that goal and the production of photographs that were abstract, introspective, obscure, and even to many viewers totally illegible.

To make sense of this, you need to skip what White wrote about his own work, and go instead to his writings that relate to teaching photography. (e.g., in Aperture Anthology: The Minor White Years, “The Workshop Idea in Photography,” “Varieties of Responses to Photographs,” or “Some Methods for Experiencing Photographs,”) His attempts to explain his version of the photographic “equivalent” are also relevant.

That material shows that White was trying very hard to figure out how to make people able to get out of his photographs what he was putting into them. He really believed in the ability of a photograph to act as an equivalent for an inner state—to trigger feelings in the viewer corresponding to those of the photographer. His mini-manifestos on equivalents seem to be describing not an artistic genre or technique so much as a kind of slow-acting telepathy. Not merely communication, but communion.

His pedagogy and advice were phenomenological, psychological, detailed, and sometimes bizarre. They included meditation training, and, if I recall correctly, there was some mention of spectation-enhancing drugs. He was trying to articulate not just a course of study but a discipline. He didn’t set out to make photographs in an uncommunicative private language—because he believed he could teach the language.10

The trouble with this is that he believed he was discovering and articulating a universal grammar of human perception, when really he was building a very specialized conlang with some of his friends and students. It’s not that he was failing to communicate in his photographs—but that sometimes he was only doing so inside a narrow community. Catholic and democratic ideals yielding gnostic and meritocratic outcomes—if it’s not the oldest story in education (and religion), it’s close.

I agree that this is a real problem—but it’s not the result of an impulse away from communication. On the contrary, it’s the direct result of White’s overwhelming drive to communicate that which he felt could not be conveyed literally or openly.

  1. Minor White, “Varieties of Responses to Photographs,” in Aperture Anthology: The Minor WhiteYears, p. 326 
  2. Also, if there have been any developments in the intervening month or so, I probably haven’t seen them, so consider me on extreme tape delay. Sorry; this is just how long it takes me to write a post. 
  3. Written as of the third major redraft. (There’s a reason why it takes me this long.) 
  4. Although if you’ve ever seen a birder with a life list, you know that binoculars don’t preclude an acquisitive gaze. 
  5. I think the disproportionate prominence of Zen in White’s popular legend sometimes skews viewer/reader expectations, setting up disappointment or confusion. I plan to write a follow-up post expanding on this issue. 
  6. I’m not sure of the original source for this. I know it from Minor White: Rites and Passages (p. 88), which is a neat book, but light on citations. 
  7. For whatever it’s worth, Adams does cop to this in his essay. 
  8. Yeah, I bought a copy of Beauty in Photography because of this post. The book Moore’s essay is in, too. : ) 
  9. Beauty in Photography, p. 97 
  10. The assumption that the future of photography depends on fixing its audience is actually a recurring theme not just for White but for the others published in Aperture as well, and is still popular today. I know I’m not immune to it. 

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