Tag Archives: Minor White


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
"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  ↩
Minor White, in Octave of Prayer

Minor White, Authenticity, and Reverie

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

—Minor White 1

As I mentioned in the Welcome post:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First off, some quick tips…

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

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

“Frequently a penis”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Authenticity vs. Optimism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The needs of the dreamer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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