Minor White: Manifestations of the Spirit

A new Minor White thing? Time to send up the kukkurovaca signal!1

There’s no way I’m going to LA, but I did immediately order a copy of the book. Of course.


The text provides a biographical overview of White’s life and work; the selected images are drawn from across White’s career, and include two full sequences, fragments from several other sequences, and standalone images.

The book is well-researched and detailed, but it is an overview, structured for breadth rather than depth. If the subject were almost any other photographer of White’s stature, it might seem superfluous, but in White’s case, it’s actually something we’ve badly needed for some time.

White was a great photographer and an historically important one, but he has become frustratingly obscure in popular photographic consciousness. It’s hard to find good information about him, and it’s hard to find good reproductions of his work. Googling him is barely productive at all—and for a long time, the only readily available in-print books on him were The Moment of Seeing: Minor White at the California School of Fine Arts and Aperture’s intermittently offered monograph Minor White: Rites and Passages.

Moment of Seeing isn’t…bad, as such, but it’s very narrowly focused, limiting itself just to White’s role at CSFA. Rites and Passages has a decent selection of photos, and contains a decent sample of White’s writing, but it’s confusingly organized and edited in too hagiographic a style. It seems to consistently take White at his word about himself, which is a bad idea, because White was not a reliable narrator.

I was lucky enough to stumble across a copy Peter Bunnell’s Minor White: The Eye That Shapes at one of my local brick and mortar bookstores. Bunnell’s book is fantastic, and I highly recommend it, but it’s also a dense, academic work that most folks would have to go well out of their way to get their hands on.

So, I’m very pleased that we’re seeing new, easily obtained, and reasonably accessible books about White coming out—first the Bunnell-edited Aperture Anthology: The Minor White Years, and now Martineau’s book. They should make it a lot easier for folks who are curious about White’s work to find a decent place to begin.

Manifestations of the Spirit also benefits from having greater distance from White. As I mentioned, Rites and Passages has a whiff of hagiography, and Bunnell’s work on White is marked by their closeness2—not that he isn’t appropriately objective, but his approach is definitely that of a student who values his teacher’s legacy. That care is part of what makes The Eye that Shapes and Aperture Anthology so valuable, but it’s also desirable to have other, less in-house perspectives on White.

“A love of God can grow out of a love for the flesh”

The most useful thing Manifestations of the Spirit does is not just contextualize White’s photographs in terms of his sexuality and/or his spirituality, but in terms of how the two informed each other, and how they were informed by his relationships with friends and lovers.

It’s very common to talk about White’s spirituality or his sexuality, or even to talk about them both, but generally as two influences on his photographs. The material that Martineau emphasizes points to the essential unity of spirituality and sexuality in White’s work.

It is also common to treat White’s spiritual trajectory as coming from within him, and to take his adoption of labels or ideas at face value. Thus his highly questionable status as the “zen” photographer. Actually, White’s new age spiritual journey was diverse, changeable, and meandering. And as Manifestations shows, that changeability in part reflects the input of different people at different times in White’s life.

So, it’s quite helpful to know when and by whom White was introduced to certain books or schools of thought. For example:

In 1953 White met a dancer named William Smith through a mutual friend, and they became lovers. It was the beginning of a relationship that would continue intermittently for more than three decades. Smith soon introduced White to Christian mysticism through the work of the English writer and pacifist Evelyn Underhill, and Smith became the subject of Sequence II: The Young Man as a Mystic (155). “This sequence is my heart laid bare and how!” White wrote in his journal. Some will realize that it is done for the love of God. Most will think it sentimental and for the love of flesh. But that I cannot help. Maybe it will be beautiful to a few borderline cases and who because of the sequence will realize for the first time that a love of God can grow out of a love for the flesh.”
(p. 11)


…White had met Chappell on a YMCA-sponsored outing in 1941 while he was living in Portland; they became friends after a chance encounter years later in San Francisco. It was Chappell who introduced White to the I Ching and to the esoteric teachings of Russian-born mystic G.I. Gurdjieff. In Rochester, Chappell became one of White’s students and collaborators, co-writing “Some Methods for Experiencing Photographs,” which included Gurdjieffian concepts, for Aperture.
(p. 16)

It’s very helpful to be able to put dates and human faces to these philosophical influences on White. And it’s interesting that so much of White’s spiritual direction was determined through his social contacts—as opposed to White’s more active research in other areas.3 And indeed, if one knew of White’s ideas mainly from White’s own published writing, one could easily miss this. He always wrote in the most authoritative possible terms, and he owned his every enthusiasm without hesitation.

I’m not sure what it says about White that his deepest beliefs were so shaped by others—it may be that he was just easily influenced by the ideas of those around him, or that the ideas he was most drawn to were circulating mainly through word of mouth, and so would logically come to him that way. Or perhaps—and this seems more likely to me—it is that for White, as for most people, religion was something that had to be practiced in community to have meaning. White could not fully participate in institutional religion4 available at the time, but he could discover and create an ad hoc spirituality within the community of his friends.

This is also helpful in making sense of the often messy syncretism that White came away with: it is not just a matter of the integrity (or lack of integrity) of the ideas themselves, but of their place in the community White was building. This fits with my sense of how White approached photography also—that he spoke in absolute and universal terms while actually constructing a densely coded semiprivate language for use with his students and friends.

The Temptation of St. Anthony Is Mirrors

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One of the major points of pride for the book and the exhibition is the inclusion of the entire sequence of The Temptation of St. Anthony is Mirrors, of which White made only two copies: one for himself, and one for the model, Tom Murphy.

In a particularly intense period of creative activity between 1948 and 1950, White produced three sequences expressing his love and sexual feelings for men. Intent on using the camera as a tool for self-discovery, White believed that all of his pictures were mirrors of himself; hence the unusual title of the first sequence, The Temptation of St. Anthony is Mirrors. The sequence comprises thirty-two photographs of White’s student Tom Murphy. Photographs of Murphy’s hands and feet are interspersed with the larger group of portraits and nude figure studies, which draw on the history of art, both religious and secular, from the dead body of Christ to ancient Greek sculpture. White’s photograph of Murphy’s lithe, athletic body in Tom Murphy, San Francisco communicates the complex mixture of feelings that White brought to his work and the sense that he handled it with the utmost reverence and care. These qualities are abundant in Stieglitz’s extensive series of his love and wife, the painter Georgia O’Keeffe, but through his expert use of natural light, White surpassed Stieglitz’s example.
(p. 8)

The comparison to Stieglitz’s photographs of O’Keeffe is interesting, and in some respects apropos, although possibly the comparison to Weston’s photographs of Charis Wilson, which I think Martineau made in his MAN Podcast interview, is more apt.

However, it seems clear from the title that with this subject White intended these photographs to function as reflections of himself as well as a “visual love poem”5 to Murphy. To treat the photograph as a mirror of self is in fact White’s normal modus operandi—but in this case, I think the mirroring concept also connects up to certain things White wrote about his homosexuality in relation to gender and to the concepts of self and other. For White, I think sexuality never stopped having an element of identity crisis.

“Pathetic, Ill, the Inwards Turning of One Who Became Confused Many Years Ago”

Martineau treads lightly regarding the ramifications of White’s closetedness and his sometimes wrenchingly acute self-loathing. But he does surface material that casts White in a harsher light. This, in particular, is difficult and important:

In 1962, the Los Angeles-based photographer Edmund Teske sent White two hundred photographs and asked him to make a selection for publication in Aperture. When White reviewed the prints, their message of same-sex love and lust struck close to home, and he sent Teske an astonishingly personal letter of advice:

These prints outline for me a rather tragic story of a man’s life. The story is familiar to many people in our society: childhood home, for some reason the sex wires get crossed, confusion, self pity, anger guilt all arise in various combinations. The remarkable psychological image of the nude with the tools is the most direct expression of the hidden desire to transform the male into the female that I have ever seen. Thereafter come the twisting cause by the psychological blocks, the anger, the disintegration, the denying principle in the human being becomes stronger and stronger. And there is no end to it, the inner conflict is neither resolved by solution or by death. Not a pleasant story. Nevertheless it is a story that if you wish and if you can see the story you can universalize and then offer to people as a mirror of themselves. Your photographs are still mirrors of yourself. In other words your images are raw, the emotions naked. To present these to others they need appropriate clothes. These are private images not public ones. They are “expressive” meaning a direct mirror of yourself rather than “creative” meaning so converted as to affect others as mirrors of themselves. I found tears coming to my eyes as I wen thru these photographs, the whole thing is pathetic, ill, the inwards turning of one who became confused many years ago, retreated from the world and eats his own heart out …
I have met you, seen you, and feel moved to suggest that you try to understand your work. It is very real. And further suggest out of a welling heart that you try to universalize your private images and make them for the love of other people.

The emotional tone of White’s letter is a clear indication of his ambivalent feelings as well as ability to be, alternately, tough and tender.
(p. 19)

Martineau’s summation of that letter seems…notably understated. It’s actually a pretty offensive level of projection that White seems to be doing there. It’s valuable to have the context, because I’m pretty sure I’ve seen parts of that diatribe reproduced elsewhere (in Aperture, maybe?), as examples of good Minor White criticism. (And I guess it could be, but the background should certainly inform how it’s read.)

“These are private images not public ones”—This is a kind of distinction that in White’s writing I have usually read simply in terms of the the tension between abstraction and realism in his photographs. But here it is clearly also getting at something White has internalized regarding what feelings can be expressed openly and what must be coded—no, worse, what ought to be expressed openly and what ought to be coded.

“Picking out the ultimate meaning”

One of the frustrating aspects of Manifestations is that it generally does not go very deep into specifics about White’s photographs, even as it establishes the importance and the difficulty of doing so.

White described his sequences as being like “a cinema of stills” and called on the viewer to be an active participant in experiencing the varied moods and associations that come to the fore while moving from one photograph to the next. “To engage a sequence,” White wrote, “we keep in mind the photographs on either side of the one in our eye.” Over the course of his career, White created over one hundred sequences, series, and portfolios. Viewers of his sequences must not only read each individual image in relation to adjacent images but also consider all of the images in the highly structured grouping as the complete expression of an idea. As Peter C. Bunnell has aptly pointed out, White’s sequences have many levels of meaning, but these can generally be categorized into three main groups: superficial, underlying, and ultimate. The superficial meaning is descriptive; the underlying meaning is symbolic; and the ultimate meaning is intensely personal and thus the most elusive. Picking out the ultimate meaning requires both a good deal of concentration and a thorough understanding of what was going on in the artist’s life.
(p. 10)

On that last point, Martineau has done an unusually good job. He has created a timeline for White that brings together his personal life, his spiritual growth, his artistic work, and his academic career. Very useful, but it stops short of providing the reader with an interpretive apparatus that would enable understanding the “ultimate” meaning of the photographs.

In fact, it’s may well be impossible to participate in White’s communion of meaning from the present. White seemed to think that sufficiently intense looking could enable anyone to connect with deeply with his photographs—because he thought that he was dealing in universal truths or in feelings that had deep connections to intrinsic human experience.6 But that conceit is belied by the extreme nature of his pedagogy, which extended well into the territories of both religion (or cult) and psychology in conditioning students to make and read photographs.

White wasn’t just trafficking in artistic style, but in a calling and an hermetic discipline; knowing that to be so is important, but in itself does not actually enable one to get at those embedded meanings. Martineau and others do of course call out symbolism and themes in White’s work—but if that just gets to the “underlying” meaning, then is the “ultimate” always left as an exercise to the reader?

I suspect that is likely to be the case, although I would love to be proven wrong.7 But in the absence of writing that does try to bridge that gap, I think it might be helpful to start thinking (and writing) more explicitly about the illegibility of White’s photographs—not because they are bad photographs, or because today’s audience is too dumb or close-minded to access them, but because they are composed in a visual language which may no longer have speakers, and which is very incompletely documented.

“I saw rather than heard any sound”

While it does not get at the “ultimate” meaning, one of my favorite things in Manifestations is that Martineau provides some of the literal background on the construction of some of White’s more abstract photographs, including a few in the series Sound of One Hand,8 which is included in full.

White’s chef d’oeuvre, the work that is the summation of his persistent search for a way to communicate ecstasy, is Sound of One Hand, named after the Zen koan “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” White wrote, “After several months of intensive work on this koan, I saw rather than heard any sound.” When White saw The Sound of One Hand Clapping, Pultneyville, New York, he recognized the koan, and, as he explained, “the rest of the photographs appeared slowly over a two year period.”


“The Sound of One Hand Clapping, Pultneyville, New York,” 1957

The central object in The Sound of One Hand Clapping resembles a Buddhist monk’s begging bowl. The circular marks inside, likely the result of being exposed to inclement weather, underscores the somewhat circular outer dimensions of what was, actually, a discarded water tank.


“Windowsill Daydreaming, Rochester,” 1958

In Windowsill Daydreaming, Rochester, the hard, angular forms created by the window frame are in tension with the softness of the circular light that appears to be hovering magically at the base of the sill.


“Empty Head, 72 N. Union Street, Rochester,” 1962


“Galaxy, 72 N. Union Street, Rochester,” 1959


“Burned Mirror, Rochester,” 1959


“Dumb Face, 72 N. Union Street, Rochester,” 1959


“Night Icicle, 72 N. Union Street, Rochester,” 1959

Night Icicle, 72 N. Union Street, Rochester was made in a window in White’s loft. The single-pane glass frosted up during the winter, creating the delicate filigree patterns that were softly illuminated by an electric light White had affixed to the roof of the building next door. Hanging from the eaves between the window and the light source, the icicle darkly penetrates the composition, sharply dividing it vertically.


“Ritual Branch, 72 N. Union Street, Rochester,” 1958


“Batavia, New York,” 1958


“72 N. Union Street, Rochester,” 1959


“Pavilion, New York,” 1957

As it was originally sequenced in 1960, Sound of One Hand contained ten photographs. The Getty version, with eleven photographs, is a variant, probably created for Michael Hoffman, which includes Pavilion, New York as the final image. In Pavilion, the circular form of the cement urn brings the viewer back to the circular form in the first picture, The Sound of One Hand Clapping, but instead of being empty, the presence of the two blooms this time suggests a gift given that is not present in the first photograph.
(p. 17)

The inclusion of the last “variant” image is interesting; to be honest, it does not seem to fit well with the other images. Regardless, it’s a series I like a lot, and which, whether or not it really demonstrates that White “saw rather than heard any sound,” makes a lot of…sense to me. It is the work of a man whose relationship to photography began with photomicrography and had as its turning point the adoption (with extreme prejudice) of Stieglitz’s concept of the equivalent.

Stieglitz’s canonical equivalents were clouds:


—lovely in their own way, but the sky is always pre-invested by an expectation of portentousness. White’s best equivalents, even though they be derided as inscrutable, start with a close examination of what is near to hand, and frequently what is human in scale.

In their execution, they remind me of the scientific photographs—micrography, aerial surveys, etc.—that found their way into the early attempts at photographic abstraction, except that in White’s case, they are not valuable purely for their aesthetics but for their potential to transmit an understanding that could not be put into words.

White is often criticized for making images that seem to be a retreat from the world. That criticism is not wholly wrong; as I’ve said, White worked in a semi-private language, and with little regard for accessibility. But even if White sometimes fled from the real world, he always sought connection, communication, and communion with people, and that pursuit is never far from center in his photography or his writing.

Alternate History

A tantalizing branch point in the biographical material is that White accepted—and then rejected—a position with Edward Steichen at MoMA. As Martineau explains,

[Steichen’s] appointment ruffled feathers in the photographic community because it signaled a shift in the direction of the program, from the f/64 artists favored by the Newhalls toward more populist forms of photography such as fashion and photojournalism. Beaumont Newhall, who had been hoping to be promoted to the director’s position, resigned from his post as curator in protest. Steichen needed a curator and asked White if he would join the department. White said yes, but after longer consideration he changes his mind: a loyal friend of the Newhalls, he didn’t think he would enjoy working for Steichen. (p. 6)

This didn’t stunt White’s prospects within the academic photography community, by any means, but I can’t help wonder whether his trajectory—and that of photography itself—might not have been different, and perhaps better, if he had.

If Steichen and White had been collaborating together in the 40’s and 50’s, how might that mutual influence have shaped Steichen’s Family of Man? White dismissed the exhibition as “schmaltz“, which as I said in a previous post is telling, because in many ways Family of Man succeeded in doing things that White was trying to achieve, and for a huge and diverse audience.

I would love to have seen what photography looked like in a world where Steichen’s and White’s artistic values had tempered each other rather than simply taking up sides across a widening chasm between popular and academic photography. A more challenging Family of Man or a more accessible Octave of Prayer would be getting close to what I most want from photography as a medium.

Of course, I’m sure that if White had really taken the job, he would have lasted all of five minutes in it. But gosh, what an idea.

  1. (See previously: Minor White, Authenticity, and Reverie and Minor White’s Creed
  2. Bunnell was one of White’s students in residence. 
  3. In the opening of Manifestations, Martineau describes White’s systematic plundering of everything photography-related in the Portland library. In the MAN Podcast interview, he summed this up with something along the lines of, woe betide anyone else in Portland who wanted to read a photography book that year. 
  4. Although he did try Catholicism on, under the influence of another friend, Isabel Kane. 
  5. In the same podcast, Martineau described Temptation as a visual love poem, with the camera returning at intervals to parts of Murphy (such as hands and feet) in “a kind Of rhythmic pilgrimage.” 
  6. I wonder if his readings in Buddhism brought him into contact with the idea of the Pratyekabuddha
  7. And I am definitely not the one to provide such deep readings of White’s work. 
  8. bart_one_hand

    Lisa: It’s a 3000-year-old riddle with no answer. It’s supposed to clear your mind of conscious thought.
    Bart: No answer? Lisa, listen up.
    Yes, it’s the most cliched possible title to give a Zen-influenced work. This would probably have been less painfully obvious at the time, but I won’t say it isn’t problematic—honestly, it’s unclear whether White got much farther than Zen and the Art of Archery