When I made those pictures, I knew nothing about photography. I found a wonderful book by Eugène Atget. He had photographed empty rooms and empty streets in Paris and I was stunned. So I would get out onto the streets early in the morning and take pictures. I called it my “five-finger exercise.”
All these rooms began to look like stage sets. I saw them as pure theatre. My classic example is the barbershop photo: the jacket hanging, the clock over the chair. I thought, well, this is a mise en scène. The man comes in, he puts on his barber costume, and he does his barber act. I began to see the empty streets or empty shops as theatrical backdrops. “Empty New York” is the beginning of me seeing everything as total theatre.
I have a new concept. I call it the “prose portrait.” A prose portrait doesn’t necessarily show you what someone looks like; it’s not a line-for-line reproduction of a face. A prose portrait tells you what the nature of the person is about. When I photographed Magritte, the portrait was made in the nature of Magritte. When I photographed Warhol, the portrait was in the character, the mystery—if there is one—of Warhol. You can’t capture someone, per se. How could you? The subject probably doesn’t even know who he (or she) is. So, for me, a prose portrait is about a person, rather than of a person.
Really like this interview. Really really like these two points about photos as theatrical backdrops and portraiture about the nature of the person.
The note about photos as theatrical backdrops in particular gives me some additional language to explain how ruin porn (among other photography genres) often fails.
And this is just flat-out good advice for any novice photographer too. If you’re photographing a place, give us a sense of how it’ll be populated, change., etc. If you’re photographing a person, make it about the person, not of the person.
“Look, I’m one of these people, I do not have a green thumb. I look at plants, and they wither and die. And so I had this empty flowerpot that was sitting in my studio, and a mother came in with this little 6-month-old baby, who was wearing a little woolen hat, a little fluffy woolen hat, and I saw the flowerpot and I thought, well, wow, she’d look like a lovely little cactus. And so we sat her in the flowerpot, and it was a black-and-white image, and that was that.”
From humble beginnings to a publishing powerhouse. And yes, it’s totally important to look at photographers who are popular but not necessarily good or important* since it forces you to confront issues of taste and why you like or dislike something.
Geddes is easy to use as a punchline. But she’s popular and a ton of people want to ape her style when taking photos of their kids. I have my photographic influences as well. I’d like to think that I’m not aping them just because I like what the images look like.
All of Cosindas’ portraits have, as Rohrbach says, a composition that demands the viewer study the image carefully. “They’re dark; they come from an earlier sensibility, where one was meant to look at prints over a long period of time and let these intimate images come to you up out of the darkness.” They also have a timeless feel, difficult to date to the 1960s.
A photographer I’d never heard of until reading this article. Considering how much the narrative is that we only started valuing color photography as art in the mid-1970s, it’s important to note that Cosindas was being exhibited a decade earlier.
The way Cosindas’s photos look like paintings and evoke the sense of classic portraiture is also perfectly timed on the heels of my post on erasure which thought about how photographic portraiture differs from painted portraits.
It’s commonplace to refer to Minor White as a “zen” photographer. In fact, hearing this in Jeff Curto’s excellent History of Photography podcast is what initially spurred my interest in White. I’m happy it did, because I’ve found White’s photography and writing to be consistently fascinating (even if not always coherent). But I don’t actually think “Zen” is all that accurate or helpful as a label for White.
White did have a long-time interest in Zen; he talked and wrote a lot about it, and he inspired students to pursue it—but for White, Zen was only part of a larger religious pursuit, and as far as I can tell, not the most important part.
In religious disposition, White was a devotional mystic, always oriented toward a hermetic, numinous reality—whether in western (Catholic), eastern, or other terms. His perspective, tone, and goals seem to me less in line with Zen than with Christian mysticism, Sufism or Bhakti. This is reflected in his photography’s deep concern for insides and outsides, essences, intuitions of ultimate reality, private experience, and the ecstasy of commun(icat)ion through art. There’s a ton of hot I on Thou action throughout White’s work.
More than anything, Minor White was new age. He read and worshipped widely and syncretically, with little regard for historical or doctrinal distinctions. And when he settled his spiritual course, it was not on Zen but on the somewhat culty Gurdjieff, whose philosophy in broad strokes seems to resemble the worst of gnosticism.
Yet much more is read into White’s “Zen”-ness than into his Catholic-ness, or his Gurdjieff-ness, or even his homosexuality. This is…well, suspect, and I think it can create incorrect expectations for viewers. If you’re sent to either White’s photography or his writing looking for a coherent and unitary body of work informed by or articulating a Zen philosophy,you’ve been set up for disappointment.
“Zen” as evasion and rehabilitation
So, why is White identified as Zen? I think for some folks, it’s a convenient way to avoid digging into what his real spirituality was, and where it took him in his photography and in his role as a teacher and an editor.
They exploit “Zen”’s use in American vernacular as an adjective which the speaker is excused from having to mean anything by. It’s a sort of verbal shrug with a whiff of incense attached. It’s an easy way to flag a subject as being in some way exotic, inscrutable, or mysterious, without having to account for how or why it is those things. It’s lazy.
But I think it is also sometimes used to rehabilitate White’s philosophical eccentricities. “Zen” may get a pass in circles where other influences which were more profound on White would not.
It’s hard to blame them. A lot of White’s writing reads like the dialogue of a sitcom cultist. In internet terms—well, not as crazy as the Time Cube guy, but a good bit crazier than the Friesian guy. It’s not merely wrong or dated—how does one even attempt to parse statements like “The quantum jump from confrontation to circumnambulation is the secret of the Golden Flower”?
What are we supposed to do with that utterance? Well, apparently we’re supposed to hang the “Zen” label on it like a “do not disturb” sign for ideas.
Something similar sometimes happens with images, I think. For example, take Octave of Prayer, one of the exhibitions/books White edited. (Octave is particularly relevant because it deals specifically with photographic expressions of religious experience.)
If you compare the full text of Octave of Prayer with the excerpt Peter Bunnell included in Aperture Anthology: The Minor White Years, you’ll find a marked difference. Bunnell did not only attempt to cherrypick the best images; he produced an outright unrepresentative edit, avoiding the edgy and weird imagery which occupies a central place in White’s sequence. The result is an edit that fits a much more enduring taste, and it’s hard not to prefer it. But isn’t it a bit of a problem to do that to a sequence, especially one edited by White, for whom the sequence rather than the individual photo is the significant unit of the medium?
New Age as appropriation and reinvention
Part of what’s so odd and off-putting about Octave is its strange systematicity. In order to write an essay on the relationship of photography to spiritual contemplation, White apparently felt the need to generate an entire taxonomy of prayer, unhelpfully differentiated by superscript numerals, because of course one wouldn’t want to confuse Prayer5 with Prayer8. That would be crazy.
This system is not ornamental; he actually deploys it in detailed analysis, e.g.:
While we have insisted that images are ineffectual above the level of prayer3, special moments seem to occur when images appear to serve as catalysts for prayer6 or contemplation. These moments come when a third force “enters” a state of active meditation. A dozen years ago I proposed a canon for camerawork: “When the man reflects the subject and the subject reflects the man, Something might take over.” Now I can state that canon in more technical terms: WHEN TWO FORCES (original subject or its image and a person in meditation) ARE INTERACTING (coming together with a light degree of resonance, A THIRD FORCE MAY ENTER.
He goes on in this vein at length, paralleling another exhibition/publication from a couple of years earlier, Light7 (yes, “Light7”), in which White divided the word “light” into seven “levels” and “powers.” Why only 7? Well, White actually addresses this question…sort of:
The number seven makes us wonder if 7 is the highest. Well, no. 12 disciples, 12 Tribes of Israel, 12 signs of the Zodiac, and so it is better to say that there is always more. Seven reflects what we may expect of any medium at those rarefied moments when psychology, art, science, and religion overlap in one outward manifestation.
Of course it does.
This tendency actually runs throughout his Aperture work, I think. He labored under a strong impulse to invent, or reinvent, frameworks and categories—for photography, for art, for philosophy, for faith.
This reflects the characteristically new age sense that one is both obliged and empowered to reorder the world, to reinvent wheels, to refactor history and culture. It follows from the new age attitude to the past, which combines credulous reverence with a brazen entitlement to appropriate. Whatever seems true must be so; take it, disregarding its context and cultural specificity, and redeploy it wherever it seems to fit in one’s current predicament.
But really, one could as easily say it is the characteristically photographic sense that the artist seems to be always thrust into a moment of historical crisis where he must (re)invent the medium. The impulse to reference and appropriate is equally central to photography, as is the tense and tangled relationship with past and future.
And just as the new age and its precursors have insisted on rediscovering and inventing much the same set of insights constantly or cyclically since the nineteenth century, so photography has (in a similar time frame) insisted upon constantly inventing itself, upon seceding from art and from itself, and upon always being “dead” and being born.
This is—in either case—an epistemologically and historically problematic worldview, and its very perennialism makes it inherently self-dating. And yet, it seems (in photography, at least) to have something to do with the liveliness of the medium.
Up to this point, I may have created the impression that Minor White is one of those artists whose work bears looking at but whose words do not bear reading with any seriousness. That’s not the case, however. There is a great deal in White’s writings that is worthwhile—but the trick is to locate the useful bits and and the real trick is to figure out whether and how to separate them from their context.
So, woven in between the most bonkers of White’s declarations, we find such beautiful, moving, and radical observations as this:
Considering the medium of camerawork, this exhibition is practically complete: some images are beautiful and thus art in both the profane and the religious sense, other images are symbolic and retrieve from storage hidden data in ourselves. Some images snap to the surface of the mind and can be talked about, others are “dark to the mind,” reach us intuitively and so are “radiant to the heart.” (Evelyn Underhill)….“Radiant to the heart” became the basic criterion for the selection of pictures for Octave of Prayer. As a criterion, “radiant to the heart” reduces the terrors of connoisseurship by removing evaluation from the head and putting it in the physical and psychic heart. This criterion makes the whole of photography available to cameraworker, viewer, and critic alike. When seen in depth, the radiant heart sees that all subjects are equally important. (Octave of Prayer, p. 26)
Camera lifts an image out of context—invariably. The photographer must put the image into his own context, or it remains alien to him. Any editor, in a search for binding affinities between images, takes images out of the photographers’ contexts (alien or earned makes little difference) and builds anew. The search for “the missing piece” without which no puzzle is complete, is the puppet strings by which his being a new context is given form. The editor must make the new sequence his own, or it will remain alien to him.
In all these shifting contexts who owns the image?—only photography itself, or mankind. (Light7, p. 71)
How delightful is White’s attempt at an editorial “criterion” which decenters intellectual analysis while explicitly encouraging critical judgment by all viewers? It gets at a problem of stratification which has increasingly plagued photography since the early 20th century, and has not eased off in the least since White’s death.
Of course, it is questionable whether White really applied such a criterion, and it is telling that he dismissed Family of Man, which has arguably the best claim on doing so, as mere “schmaltz.” But it was and remains a vital and necessary challenge, even if White himself did not meet it in Octave.
Similarly, White’s comments on sequence editing and image ownership in Light7 are insightful and as relevant to photography now as they were in White’s time.
And White’s writing is full of such useful material—and also full of total blather. So, one can hardly blame anyone for cherry-picking, or for producing sanitized and rehabilitated versions of Minor White for modern consumption. But it certainly does tend to produce a bit of culture shock for a reader first encountering the unfiltered original.
I’m not sure whether there is a “right” way to recontextualize the best of White’s writing. If there is, it would have to take into account all the many levels on which White operated, his capacity for deception of self and others, an awareness of White’s profound influence on the history of photography, and a world-class bullshit detector.
I know I’m not up to the task. The most useful resource I’ve encountered, which gives the best sense of White as a whole person, is Bunnell’s The Eye that Shapes, which is unfortunately out of print. If anyone has other suggestions, please let me know.
I don’t think White considered it the most important—certainly it didn’t seem to be his focus later in life. And I definitely don’t think, based on what I’ve read of his correspondence and journals, that Zen was ever really where his head was at. ↩
I don’t know all that much about Gurdjieff, but what I little I do has certainly put me off spending the time to learn more. ↩
Not to mention his interests in psychology or acting methodology. ↩
Well, okay, the roots are somewhat deeper than that. Although photography’s origin story goes back a little ways, too. ↩
I suspect that it discomfits not so much because we have outgrown it as because looking back at it reveals how we have just rephrased it. ↩
You have read The Princess Bride, right? No, you can’t just watch the movie. ↩
Indeed, we’re fast approaching a situation where one can only talk about a photograph in terms either of an MFA’s worth of background and jargon, or the nihilistic assumption of taste as an absolute arbitrary given. ↩
In my 1/125 post, my conclusion was that he very much did not. ↩
Aperture Anthology: The Minor White Years, p. 170 ↩
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.
Minor White, “Varieties of Responses to Photographs,” in Aperture Anthology: The Minor WhiteYears, p. 326 ↩
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. ↩
Written as of the third major redraft. (There’s a reason why it takes me this long.) ↩
Although if you’ve ever seen a birder with a life list, you know that binoculars don’t preclude an acquisitive gaze. ↩
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. ↩
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. ↩
For whatever it’s worth, Adams does cop to this in his essay. ↩
Yeah, I bought a copy of Beauty in Photography because of this post. The book Moore’s essay is in, too. : ) ↩
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. ↩