Tag Archives: featured

Alec Soth. Menlo Park, CA. 2013. Facebook main campus.

LBM Dispatch 4: Three Valleys

Note: This was originally posted on NJWV and references SFMOMA On the Go’s Project Los Altos which featured just the Silicon Valley photos. I saw that show last December and ordered LBM Dispatch 4 as both a catalog of my visit and for the additional context of Three Valleys instead of just Silicon Valley.

Alec Soth. Menlo Park, CA. 2013. Facebook main campus.
Menlo Park, Facebook main campus.
Alec Soth. Silicon Valley, CA. 2013.
Silicon Valley.
Alec Soth. San Joaquin Valley, CA. 2013. Woodville Farm Labor Camp.
San Joaquin Valley. Woodville Farm Labor Camp.
Alec Soth. Ione, CA. 2013. Rancho Secho Nuclear Plant.
Ione. Rancho Secho Nuclear Plant.
Alec Soth. Death Valley, CA. 2013
Death Valley.
Alec Soth. Death Valley, CA. 2013
Death Valley.

After seeing Alec Soth’s photos of Silicon Valley, I wanted to see them in his Three Valleys series to see how my perception of them changed. My reaction to the Silicon Valley photos was very personal and while I appreciated what Soth was doing, I felt that it was an inadequate portrait of my home. I like them immensely more in their Three Valleys context.

My main issue with the Silicon Valley photos involved the lack of area history in the photos.

I found myself thinking a lot about who else should have been chosen. The lack of Intel or Cisco for example are pretty striking considering what all the tech companies actually run on. I also thought about how the set would have looked different if it had been shot in 2000. Or 1990. Or 1980. Silicon Valley has been around a long time now but people only think of the current version as a new thing.

I’ve spent the last few weeks driving past the construction site for the gleaming new Apple campus, the first phase of which is to tear down what used to be the main HP campus. The constant churning of industrial park construction/destruction as industries come and go is completely absent from the photos. As is the similar churning of strip malls and suburban housing.

Alec Soth’s Silicon Valley

This is no longer an issue when the San Joaquin Valley and Death Valley photos are included. What was a portrait of Silicon Valley has become more about California and its mythos as the promised land and how closely together success & failure and new & old and nature & technology live together. Instead of being about the details of one industry, it’s become about the ways different industries come and go and how people are left behind when the industry moves on.

As someone who visits the Central Valley regularly from the Bay Area, I’m very familiar with the time-warp nature of traveling from Silicon Valley to the San Joaquin Valley. Everything is different. Life moves at a different pace. Driving huge distances becomes normal. Technology even seems somewhat marooned in the past and any cutting edge technology is like magic.*

*For the first few years when Priuses were backordered in the Bay Area, you could drive them off the lots in Fresno.

Comparing the two valleys really shows the two sides of the California dream and does a better job at suggesting the boom/bust nature of things than anything I’d hope to see in just the Silicon Valley series. Soth’s photos also consistently show how isolating the California myth is. The myth is to go out and strike it rich on your own. On. Your. Own. There’s no sense of community in any of the photos. Instead Soth shows people working on individual projects or isolated by their technology or soldiering on as the last of their kind. Kids are left to their own devices—albeit safely tethered. For such a supposedly free place we’ve erected a lot of walls for ourselves.

The people all feel familiar to me too. I know them. I’ve been them. I’ve talked to them. I’ve listened to them. They’re portraits of both people and archetypes

Bringing Death Valley into the mix adds another aspect of the California experience—namely how close the state is to getting wiped out by nature. Throughout the Silicon and San Joaquin sequences, Soth has included photos of nature butting up with industry. In the Bay Area we love that nature—whether the foothills or the bay— are right there. At the same time, both threaten to wipe us out. Faultlines go through the foothills on both sides of the bay. Global warming meanwhile promises higher sea levels in the future. In the Central Valley, it’s more about resource usage and how everything dies without water.

Nature is always there, lurking, as something to be respected. Especially with regard to water availability. Everything in California relies on water at some level. Death Valley is the ultimate warning of what we risk becoming, or returning to, should we screw up our resource management.

Death Valley also serves as an example of land which we haven’t managed to tame despite all out technological advances. For all our glittering promise and talk about being able to do anything, there are parts of the state which are inhospitable and lack mobile phone coverage and won’t be getting any of that any time soon.

I, Too, Am Harvard

Me Too Am

Note: This was originally posted on NJWV.

A photo campaign highlighting the faces and voices of black students at Harvard College. Our voices often go unheard on this campus, our experiences are devalued, our presence is questioned—this project is our way of speaking back, of claiming this campus, of standing up to say: We are here. This place is ours. We, TOO, are Harvard.

I, Too, Am Harvard

I, Too, Am Harvard
I, Too, Am Harvard
I, Too, Am Harvard
I, Too, Am Harvard

Our project was inspired by the recent ‘I, too, am Harvard’ initiative. The Harvard project resonated with a sense of communal disaffection that students of colour at Oxford have with the University. The sharing of the Buzzfeed article ‘I, too, am Harvard’ on the online Oxford based race forum, ‘Skin Deep’ led to students quickly self organising a photoshoot within the same week. A message that was consistently reaffirmed throughout the day was that students in their daily encounters at Oxford are made to feel different and Othered from the Oxford community.

I, Too, Am Oxford

I, Too, Am Oxford
I, Too, Am Oxford
I, Too, Am Oxford
I, Too, Am Oxford

We hope to offer the opportunity to build a stage on which men and women of color can be included in the atmosphere of this campus. Most of all, we want to continue the momentum pushed forth by other I Am movements across the nation and the world.

I, Too, Am Princeton

I, Too, Am Princeton
I, Too, Am Princeton
I, Too, Am Princeton
I, Too, Am Princeton
I, Too, Am Princeton
I, Too, Am Princeton

So this has become a proper meme on college campuses now. I’ve also seen a Johns Hopkins version on Twitter. I’m sure there are others going on as well. Part of me is resistant to this type of “me too” project in that it risks becoming Yet-Another-I-Too-Am project—where the perceived lack of creativity makes it easier to dismiss the concerns the project raises.

Part of me though sees it as being absolutely necessary since an all-too-easy response to seeing I, Too, Am Harvard is to think “that would never happen here.” It’s very easy to dismiss these as someone else’s problem until one shows up on your campus or alma mater.

This assumes that people, say at Princeton, even saw the Harvard or Oxford projects. I’m totally okay with doing a me too project because you think your audience is ignorant of the other projects. A lot of the point of privilege is being completely unaware of this sort of thing until it gets held up in your face.

I also like looking at these as listing microaggressions rather than completely eggregious racism since it’s very easy for us to dismiss and distance ourselves from the obviously-racist stuff and very difficult for us to even be aware of how we’re all committing microaggressions. The more we’re aware of how these little comments hurt—even the intended-compliments about “good english”and how we all use them, the better off we’ll all be.

And yes, I’m saying “we all” because I fully subscribe to the idea that we’re all a little bit racist and that acknowledging as much is the most-important  step to dealing with it.

About the form

The other thing about these projects that interests me is the form itself. This kind of portrait where the subject is holding a sign isn’t anything new. But it’s become an increasingly popular form on the web. I think a lot of this is because of how popular image macros have become; holding your own sign is a very easy way to make your own in-camera image macro.

It’s also representative of how much photography has become the medium of communication these days. It’s no longer text or images. It’s both. And fluency in both is what all the kids are doing now.

“Colby (Colby’s Music), 2001.” Beth Yarnelle Edwards

From the 1/125 Archives: Suburban Dreams

One of the things we’re planning for Hairy Beast is sporadic reposts from 1/125. This isn’t just because I’m so hard up for material I have to cannibalize our past—well, it’s not just that. I also want to make sure that stuff exists outside of the Tumblr ecosystem. First up is this post on Suburban Dreams by Beth Yarnelle Edwards, which recently came up in conversation on twitter. This post was originally published on January 23, 2013.

No one appears to be impoverished…these are not the ‘cool’ photos of down and out drug users, strippers and hookers. These are our own neighbors. We immediately recognize ourselves and our friends.

Amazon review by G. Rothman of Suburban Dreams.

“Colby (Colby’s Music), 2001.” Beth Yarnelle Edwards
“Colby (Colby’s Music), 2001.” Beth Yarnelle Edwards

This weekend I stopped by the Oakland Museum to see “Beth Yarnelle Edwards: Suburban Dreams,” an exhibition drawn from the California portion of Edwards’s Suburban Dreams series. (See here and here) The exhibit includes around a couple dozen photographs, as well as a handy binder containing reproductions of ephemera — samples of Edwards’s working notes, correspondence with subjects, etc. I went on the 19th for the talk by Edwards and curator Drew Johnson, which proved quite interesting.

Pictures authentic to the people

Edwards photographs subjects in their homes, in scenes that are staged but also intended to be “authentic” depictions of the family’s life. She follows a set protocol which includes showing subjects examples of her work, and asking if they are comfortable looking like the people in those pictures and interviewing them with intentionally vague, non-leading questions (e.g., “tell me something about your lives,” “what are your favorite things?”) Based on the interview, semi-improvised scenes are staged in which subjects act out some aspect of their daily lives. Specific poses are held for moderately long exposures.

It’s an interesting approach. Johnson contrasted it with the model of the “invisible documentarian,” and asserted that Edwards’s results can be “more real than a candid, unstaged photograph.” I’m not sure I’d agree with that, quite, but I find the approach appealing, especially in the context of my recent discussion of my hangup about portraiture. (I respond negatively to portraits in which the photographer seems to be fully in charge of what the subject means.)

Edwards’s very interactive way of working strikes a good balance: she’s producing images that have a great thematic and stylistic consistency and strong authorship, but her subjects are active in determining how they will appear. Her intention is to “make the pictures authentic to the people, not just use the people to illustrate my ideas.”

All of which is very appealing to me. But I find myself rather ambivalent about the actual photos.

Everyone can recognize

Part of my difficulty has to do with the type of photograph Edwards is making. My natural inclination is to read them as documentary, even ethnography, but that’s not really what they’re for. Edwards is actually emulating genre painting rather than making photographic documents. Her repeatedly declared intention is to portray her subjects as universal archetypes, which “everyone” can recognize. And that’s the second, larger part of my difficulty: the presumption of universality.

Edwards identifies as a cultural insider relative to the subjects she’s working with. In the California photos, the families are, while not necessarily her friends, within her extended social network — people who know people she knows, etc. In discussing her work, she used “we” and “our” often, apparently referring to a category inclusive of her subjects, herself, and those in attendance(?). (Although she also referred to the suburbs as an “aspirational” world, as seen on TV, and part of her motivation for the project is that she became “interested in the aspiration and what it meant.”)

I asked, given that she produced the work as a cultural insider, whether the photographs were intended for an insider audience as well, or whether they are intended for a different or broader audience — in short, who she thought the viewer of these photographs was. For whom are these archetypes “universal”?

Her response was that while the “stuff” is not universal, posture, gesture, etc. is. For example, a boy about to become a man will stand a certain way whether here or “two thousand miles away,” whether now or in a painting made hundreds of years ago. (The association of universality with the tradition of painting was a recurring and prominent theme.)

This jibes with her take on Europe. (The project includes several European countries, although what’s exhibited at OMCA is just from California.) She said that “increasingly, with globalization, a lot of European homes look like our suburban homes,” and in discussing distinctions between homes in Europe and homes here, she was careful to explain how what differences she did observe were in comparisons between homes of people in the same social class and professional status. And tellingly, when asked about the impact of economic recession on the people in her photographs, she pointed out that people who were doing poorly thanks to economic downturns would not be in the houses she was photographing — they would have left and been replaced by others.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with focusing on a specific social class — but I say it is telling because class is the parameter she did not use in talking about the trans-historical, trans-cultural range of viewers who are intended to be able to recognize the “universal” in her work.

(For examples of different relationships between a subject group, an insider or semi-insider photographer, and a viewership, consider Gordon Parks as “Mr. Negro”, which is a case of the photographer overtly acting as a bridge between one group and another, or Daniela Rossell, from whose Ricas y Famosas I think Suburban Dreams differs more in degree than in kind, except that Ricas y Famosas is perceived/used as indicting evidence against the subculture it represents.)

Family of (Upper Middle Class) Man

Jumping back a bit: part of the function of documentary and especially ethnographic photography is to explain a culture to an audience which is not presumed to have extensive prior knowledge of it. This is a function I know how to read in photographs (more or less). It orients the viewer toward the specific, toward information, toward the cultural context of the photograph. It helps the viewer to account for what they are seeing. And it does not presume that the viewer is an insider.

Now, that’s not the function Suburban Dreams is meant to serve, so not doing it is not an intrinsic deficit. But to the extent that the series presumes a relatively “insider” audience alongside its insider author, it is rendered less accessible and less useful to those who are not insiders. I believe Edwards that Suburban Dreams is about showing people as types that transcend place and time, but I think there is a real hiccup when it comes to class. As much as I like Edwards’s protocol and methodology, I think to some extent the photographs that result from them serve as family photographs of the upper middle class en masse: an internally directed self-depiction of people as they are willing to see themselves and be seen.

There’s nothing wrong with family photographs, and there’s nothing wrong with an insider producing something that is implicitly intended for the appreciation of other insiders. But there’s a potentially sharp discontinuity between that appreciation and the appreciation of outsiders. In the case of depictions of “universal” archetypes, the predictable outcome of crossing this discontinuity is that the archetype devolves to stereotype. The result is not an incomprehensible image, but an all-too-comprehensible one — stereotypes being always the easiest type to judge, read, and dismiss.

Our Own Neighbors

This aspect stands out to me particularly in the context of the Oakland Museum, which is located — well, here. If you don’t know what I mean, stop by some time, and walk a couple of miles in a couple of directions from the museum, and see what you see, including but not limited to, abject poverty, notable affluence, everything in between, and both urban decay and gentrification. There are few areas in California where class is more in need of socially critical interpretive context. And the rest of the museum — particularly the California history exhibits, but also plenty of the art — has that in spades.

Still, as I left Suburban Dreams, I wondered if maybe it was really just me — whether I was just personally/idiosyncratically insensitive to the universal in Edwards’s photographs. Would I find the same gazes, the same gestures, the same types, in, say, the photographs William Gedney made in Kentucky? Probably yes, at least in some cases. It’s likely that to some extent, maybe a great extent, my ambivalence toward Edwards’s photographs stems directly from my very real bias against the universal and toward the specific.

Then I went around the corner from Suburban Dreams, and I looked at photographs of Black Panthers and Diggers, and Dorothea Lange’s Richmond welders and Manzanar detainees. And I thought: images of well-off people at leisure, no matter in what posture or gesture, simply cannot be meaningfully regarded as universal representations of humanity, except insofar as rich people all look alike.

PS: To be clear, I am not presenting this as an comprehensive review — there is a great deal that one can get out of these photographs, although I think many of the best uses would go against their grain. (E.g., as records of a specific culture isolated in time and place.) What I am saying is that photographs like these do not get to casually or by default be for everyone, and if it is not clear whom they are for, it is questionable how much light they can shed on the suburban lifestyle, either as actual culture or as aspirational ideal.

Bence Hadju

Erasing and remixing

Note: This post was originally posted on NJWV.

I’ve been seeing a lot of photography projects which involve erasing the subjects of other photos. Michael Somoroff’s take on August Sander is the latest entry to generate discussion here. As with the colorization thing, an awful lot of the reactions are the same sort of outrage about “respecting the original photographer” or “desecrating works of art.” Both of which tend to amuse me, especially when people get especially worked up about it.

I’m not a fan of Somoroff’s project—only the photo of the cook really works for me—but I’m not against this sort of erasure in general. Tweaking art and changing its context is something I love and wish more museums would show—for example, Princeton’s Itinerant Languages of Photography and Re-Framing History at Galerie Lelong. These shows treated photos and images as functional items which live and change as society changes rather than confining them as specimens to be collected and kept in mint condition.

Do most people notice the river, castle, and bridge on the background? Or that there’s an empty room behind Mary? Probably not. But those are all there on purpose. The details have been chose for a reason and it’s a lot of fun to think about. When the background include city details, you can also start to see depictions and documentation of architecture and technology which most people just miss.

Looking at Backgrounds

The first thing I thought of when seeing the Sander discussion was Bence Hajdu’s Abandoned Old Master Paintings. I really like these and I mentioned them in a few discussions. A number of people agreed with me and found them a lot more interesting too. Where erasing the Sander subjects was troublesome, erasing the old master subjects not only didn’t bother them at all. I’d expect the anti-desecration people to be similarly upset but now I’m wondering if that argument is just an easy choice for a generic “I don’t like this” reaction.

For my part, I don’t like Somoroff’s project because I don’t think Sander’s work in particular lends itself to the erasure game. It’s not a portraiture thing but rather the few-props, simple backgrounds, and somewhat shallow depth of field means that there’s not much to look at besides the subject. Sander’s done his job well and left only the relevant details in the frame. The photo of the cook works for me because there’s enough extra detail for it to work here. In general though, the details are a bit too minimal.

I’d be curious to see the same approach taken to portraiture where the entire frame is full of background detail. Unfortunately, most iconic photo portraits don’t have the kind of detail I’m picturing. There are plenty of old master portraits are like this—for example, the Arnolfini Portrait is exactly what I’m thinking of. It’s very clearly about the people in the room but there is also lots of other detail to look at and take in if you bother to look. It’s also not the way you’d take a formal photo now with random shoes in the foreground and everything in deep focus.

The language of photo portraiture, even environmental portraiture, is different and it took me a while to think of iconic photo portraits which have the right mix of subject with background information. Arnold Newman is too formal with his backgrounds being too-closely tied to the subjects. Rania Matar (not iconic but internet famous) emphasizes the backgrounds too much. I finally remembered Larry Sultan. Envisioning either Pictures From Home or The Valley (NSFW) with the subjects erased feels more interesting to me and suggests a way this kind of erasure could work with photo portraiture.

The other interesting tactic on the erasure front involves modifying iconic photojournalism and news media images. Two examples here are Josh Azzarella’s and Pavel Maria Smejkal’s work, which, while not exactly the same, happens to overlap a lot. When I look through their projects, I’m struck by how recognizable some images are once I’ve put on the “do I recognize this landscape” hat. It amazes me that Mount Suribachi or wherever Capa got that soldier killed are so recognizable despite being such a small portion of the image.

These iconic photos do suggest that we’ve absorbed enough of the other details, even without there being anything specific, just through repeated exposure and references to the original images. Whether it’s the Olympic Village in Munich, a road near Trang Bang, the Valley of the Shadow of Death, or Kent State, they’re the very definition or photos which we know culturally and are continuously reminded of as they get remixed and referenced over the years.

This is another way that the old master paintings work with the erasures. They’re part of our visual canon so we just recognize them better. It may just be that, for me, August Sander isn’t part of the same shared visual culture. Or perhaps only a few of his photos, such as the cook, are.

Which brings us to Mishka Henner. His approach to Robert Frank takes one of the most-famous photo projects and remixes it through erasure. But it’s about more than just erasing the subjects to reveal the backgrounds. Henner is getting into the remix thing and reveals new compositions within Frank’s originals. Henner’s work feels a bit gimmicky to me but that’s more of a taste-based reaction. I’m good with the remix concept. I’m also good with riffing on a classic of the medium. I’m just not liking these specific results. It’s okay, liking isn’t the only thing.

Thinking about erasure as only part of the remix culture though opens up a lot of other projects which are worth considering for comparison—in particular, all the rephotography projects.

That Gardner’s* Confederate “Sharpshooter” photo has been subjected to both the erasure treatment as well as rephotography makes this connection easy. We recognize the image without the subject. And we recognize the place over 150 years later. Of all the photos in Annie Leibovitz’s Pilgrimage, her photo of Devil’s Den** is probably her best example of explicitly revisiting both national myth and photographic myth. The location still resonates and seeing what it’s like now changes my understanding of the original. It’s no longer just something from my history books. It still exists and I can see the history in it.

*Or O’Sullivan, according to the Library of Congress.

**Which I’m unable to find a good version of anywhere.

Rephotography is something else that could seem like a gimmick but, in the right hands, ends up being something much more powerful. This works especially well when the subjects being rephotographed have such a strong sense of place already. Christopher Rauschenberg’s Paris Changing where he rephotographs Atget is a great example here. It takes the past into the present, showing how much has changed, and how much hasn’t.

The pairs are really interesting to look at because they also give you an additional appreciation for what Atget was doing. Atget isn’t a photographer who most new photographers get into. It usually takes a while to start to get him but once you do you’re seeing everything much much differently—at almost a different time scale. It’s no surprise that Rauschenberg found himself shooting Atget-like photos at the same time he was rephotographing Atget.

This same impulse is what makes looking up Stephen Shore’s locations in Google Street View to be so interesting. In this case it’s not the exact replication but being able to explore the area and see what made the frame’s Shore chose to be so uncommon. Really seeing why Shore chose certain views and thinking exactly about what makes them work can only happen if you play around in the area.

If Google Street View isn’t available, the rephotographing which includes the original as part of a wider view of the scene does a similar job at showing context. Unlike the tightly-composed Atget or Shore photos, this approach often seems to be used to take vernacular photos and place them in a larger setting as a way of telling stories about the past and giving them something to anchor to in the present. Our stories and memories need these anchors so we can remember them and pass them on.

Rephotographing can also be used to remix content in order to reveal previously-unseen connections. Mark Klett and Byron Wolfe in particular are the experts in this area. Rather than just going wide, their work incorporates original photos into new panoramic images which, in addition to just showing the wider view of the area, either show how one photographer worked a scene or how two photographers happened to take photos from about the same spot.

I particularly like the panorama joining Edward Weston to Carleton Watkins since the two photographs by themselves don’t appear to be related at all. It’s always interesting when two masters photograph from the same place. It’s especially interesting when it’s not apparent that this is the case. Making that connection is something you almost have to be onsite for.

Similarly, Klett writes in the Timothy H. O’Sullivan book about discovering how some of O’Sullivan’s photos were taken from the same mountain top, only looking in opposite directions, and how this discovery could only be noticed from the mountain top and wasn’t apparent in the images themselves. He also writes about discovering how O’Sullivan would cant his camera for certain scenes and how the act of being in the field helps him learn about what O’Sullivan was doing.

Klett and Wolfe proceed to remix the old photos to show the combined results of a photo session as an unintentional panorama. The resulting new compositions are fascinating to look at since they both help me see how O’Sullivan or Ansel Adams or whoever worked and suggest David Hockney “Joiners”* in that they pick out how the eye wanders and gets interested in specific details while surveying a scene.

*Only these joiners are using 8×10 negatives.

In all these cases, Klett and Wolfe take the old photos and show us something new through their remixing. None of it is a gimmick, we see and notice new things as the context changes around the images. At its best, this is what remixing does, it adds, transforms, and makes us think about everything in a new light. This isn’t desecration of art, it’s allowing it to live.

"Sandblaster", Minor White

Minor White’s Creed

This post follows “Minor White: Authenticity, and Reverie.”; It doesn’t bear directly on the Soth post, so I’ve kept it separate.

Minor White’s creed

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.[1]

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.[2]

Yet much more is read into White’s “Zen”-ness than into his Catholic-ness, or his Gurdjieff-ness, or even his homosexuality.[3] 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”?[4]

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.)

by Chris Enos, in Octave of Prayer
by Chris Enos, in Octave of Prayer

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.

The "Full" Octave
The “Full” Octave

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[5], 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.[6] And yet, it seems (in photography, at least) to have something to do with the liveliness of the medium.

The Good Parts Version [7]

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)

or this:

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.[8]

Of course, it is questionable whether White really applied such a criterion[9], and it is telling that he dismissed Family of Man, which has arguably the best claim on doing so, as mere “schmaltz.”[10] 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.

  1. 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.  ↩
  2. 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.  ↩
  3. Not to mention his interests in psychology or acting methodology.  ↩
  4. From Light7.  ↩
  5. Well, okay, the roots are somewhat deeper than that. Although photography’s origin story goes back a little ways, too.  ↩
  6. 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.  ↩
  7. You have read The Princess Bride, right? No, you can’t just watch the movie.  ↩
  8. 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.  ↩
  9. In my 1/125 post, my conclusion was that he very much did not.  ↩
  10. Aperture Anthology: The Minor White Years, p. 170  ↩