Tag Archives: Robert Adams

Henry Wessel

The Grain of the Present

Note: This originally posted on NJWV.

LaToya Ruby Frazier
LaToya Ruby Frazier
Robert Adams
Robert Adams
Robert Adams
Robert Adams
Lee Friedlander
Lee Friedlander
Henry Wessel
Henry Wessel
Vanessa Winship
Vanessa Winship

Took my second trip to Pier 24, this time to see their Grain of the Present exhibition. Pier 24’s shows are so expansive and generous with the amount of material from each artist that I find it difficult to write about the show in general. Too many directions to go and things to think about.

That said, most of the photographs on display do reflect a sublime sense of photography as a reactive, perceptive medium. Rather than being previsualized images, we see the products of the photographer recognizing something they liked and finding a way to get the shot before the moment passed. At their best, the resulting photos both show each photographer’s unique point of view and help us learn more perceptive ways of seeing the world around us.

The highlights especially deserve to get mentioned individually. I’m just going to go in alphabetical order.

For Robert Adams they had a selection of his Prairie shots up. Adams is in this show because of his involvement in New Topographics but instead of looking at any New West of suburbs and development, we got to see effectively pre-suburban living. Same eye but a very different feel. Time’s stopped. Hope remains. There’s something elegiac because we can sense the decline coming.

Lewis Baltz meanwhile continues being arguably my favorite photographer. I’ve never seen all of Candlestick Point before and I’ve very glad I got a chance to do so here. Being able to explore the photos in a grid is a wonderful way to explore the work and feel my way around both the location and the images. There’s so much sublime subtle stuff going on with the light and the shadows and reflections.

LaToya Ruby Frazier is probably the highlight of the show. I love the mix of scales and subject matter. Her family photos are small and intimate and feel incredibly personal. Yet at the same time I’m reminded of watching my grandparents age. Her cityscapes are completely different. Large, detailed, inquisitive, showing aging buildings and disappearing industries. And they work perfectly with the family images. The big photos need to be big. The small ones need to be small. But in all cases the images are keenly seen and personal.

Lee Friedlander’s Little Screens are hilarious. They’re very much of their time in terms of the hardware, furniture, and tv shows shown. But they’re also entirely suggestive of our screen addictions today. It’s one of those simple ideas which could come off as either a trite gimmick or heavy-handed snark but instead Friedlander’s treatment reveals the humor of how we just shove the TV wherever it fits in a room yet it still becomes the focal point.

I enjoyed Ed Panar’s work and how he keeps returning to the same subjects. While many of the galleries emphasize the idea of being receptive to images when you’re out and about, much of Panar’s work can be seen as recognizing that something as imminently familiar as the view from your front porch or your daily walk is also always changing and will occasionally present itself as a photo worth taking.

Henry Wessel is also always great and I was very excited to see his photo of Richmond again. It was one of my favorite things in the new SFMOMA yet I couldn’t find an image of it anywhere online. I’m glad I got a second chance. Wessel, probably more than any other photographer in this show, fits the description of someone who’s out there just finding photographs with his camera. I know there’s more to it than that but there’s a certain casual grace in his shots that I both admire and envy.

He’s neither super-precise nor is he consciously rough. The light and tones are always this perfect combination of having a slight low-contrast glow while still popping crisply off the page. And his sense California reminds me of home—especially now that I live in New Jersey.

And Vanessa Winship. I like her very much. Her work, especially her portraits, also has a certain grace about it. It’s much more precise than Wessel but there’s a gentleness in the images where I don’t feel like I’m being prompted to gawk at anyone.

I didn’t include Diane Arbus or Stephen Shore in the highlights because, as great as their work is to see in-person, I’m already very familiar with it. While all the older photographers in the show were selected because of their association with New Topographics or New Documents, only Arbus’s and Shore’s work has a massive overlap with the images displayed in those two exhibitions.

That said, Arbus is a nice example of how being receptive to a photograph doesn’t mean grabbing a snapshot and moving on. Arbus’s portraits are keenly seen in terms of how she chooses her subject. That the resulting images are part of an impromptu portrait session doesn’t diminish their spontaneity.

What didn’t fit the Theme

Bernd and Hilla Becher
Bernd and Hilla Becher

Each photographer draws inspiration from the ordinary moments of life, often seeing what others overlook—and showing us if you look closely, you can find beauty in the smallest aspects of your surroundings.

Some of the photos on display though just didn’t fit the concept of the show for me. Some may ask us to look closely and see what other people may not see. But they’re not really ordinary moments. Others are indeed ordinary moments but do not show us anything novel. Note, this doesn’t mean that I think these photos are bad, just that, within the context of this show, I wasn’t feeling it.

First, Bernd and Hilla Becher. I love them and their typologies and can sit in a room full of those photo grids for hours. But there’s no sense of moment at all in the photos.

Nicholas Nixon’s Brown Sisters is sort of similar. It’s a project I adore and am already steeling myself for when it devastates me—it’s guaranteed to eventually devastate me. And it does capture an ordinary moment. We all take family photos and can relate to the truths within this project. But this particular project has always been clearly much more than a mere family photo in both the repetition and the collaboration between all five people involved in its production that it feels out of place among the rest of the projects on display.

I feel a bit bad putting Awoiska van der Molen’s work here but I just never got the sense of moment at all from it. Her photos are nice enough and, in a different space with a different context,* may have moved me. But in this space, they felt like a more academic exercise amidst photographers who were working on a much more intuitive level.

*The Pier 24 no context thing may also have served her work particularly badly since her titles and descriptions are just as vague.

And Garry Winogrand’s Women are Beautiful was the exact wrong photo series to choose. Yeesh. I’ve tried to rationalize my feelings about it in the past but I also don’t think I’ve ever been subjected to the entire set. Caille Millner is right. It’s creepy and intrusive as all hell. Yes the ice cream woman is a great photo. As is the LaGuardia bar photo. As are a few others. But the rest? Good lord. For most of those photos there are literally only two reasons why he triggered the shutter. And they’re usually braless.

To include those in an exhibition of “see what others overlook” is either hilariously tone deaf or an ironic joke doomed to fail due to Pier 24’s lack of context. Winogrand deserves better than that. I would’ve been filled with joy had it been The Animals which got selected.

On Print Sizes

Eamonn Doyle
Eamonn Doyle

The first room of this exhibition included a sample from every photographer in the show. It was immediately apparent who the new photographers were compared to the old ones. If it’s printed huge? New photographer. If it’s a nice small size? Old photographer. New photography is hug both because new art is huge and because digital technology allows for photography to be printed huge.

I don’t like this tendency and feel like it frequently gets in the way of the photos. It’s probably no surprise that the two new photographers whose work I really liked had a mix of small and larger prints which gave me the impression that they’d really considered the optimal size for each image.

Alec Soth’s Niagara is a series I’m familiar with but which I’ve never seen in person. I like it better as a book. The giant wall-size photos of the falls and the hotels work ok. Still too large but the geometry of the hotel architecture gets abstracted nicely at that scale. The portraits though are kind of monstrous. I find myself wondering if the sitters realized their nudes would be larger than life and if Soth intended for us to gawk at them. It’s not an empathetic scale.

Eamonn Doyle’s i suffers similarly in that it feels both intrusive and, rather than inviting us to look closely, enlarges everything to the point where subtlety gets lost. I was dubious as it was about whether his cleverness was enough to sustain a book. It definitely doesn’t scale to giant-size images. Sometimes a clever idea only works at a small scale. I can see these working fine arranged as small prints on a single wall the way that Winogrand, Friedlander, and Baltz were displayed.

And holy moly Women Are Beautiful would be an order of magnitude creepier if it were printed at modern sizes.

Other Comments

A few random comments and observations which don’t fit with the rest of this post—many of which refer to specific things I’ve not seen before.

While the lack of context information at Pier 24 doesn’t bother me too much, I do find myself being dismayed by the absence of any process information too. I think it’s important to know what kinds of prints we’re looking at as the distinct photographic printing processes all result in different kinds of objects.

Henry Wessel
Henry Wessel

The grid of color Wessel photos! Not something I every imagined and definitely not my mental conception of his work. I was amazed that they kind of amazingly had the same light and contrast as his black and white photos do. How does he do that?

Bernd and Hilla Becher
Bernd and Hilla Becher

I have never seen non-typology wide Becher photos before either. I like that they still include typologies in the frame. Also, looking at their grid of spherical tanks makes me want to shoot a typology of soccer balls for all the different patch tiling.

Diane Arbus
Diane Arbus

San Francisco is full of “Summer of Love” celebrations right now. That Arbus’s Boy with Straw Hat is ALSO from 1967 is a bit of a coincidence but also felt like a wry joke at how it feels like the summer of 1967 has become a myth about peace love and happiness reigning unencumbered by war or racial inequality.

And back to Baltz’s Candlestick Point. As much as I enjoyed the entire set I also couldn’t help shaking the feeling that I must’ve parked in a few of these locations. Candlestick’s overflow lots were dirt and occupied a lot of the land that Baltz was photographing. Many of the images felt familiar to me as places which I walked through before and after Giants games with that oddly hot and direct mid-day sun or the brutal cold wind which whipped up in the afternoon.


California and the West

This originally posted on NJWV.

Timothy H. O’Sullivan, Cañon de Chelle, 1871-1873
Timothy H. O’Sullivan, Cañon de Chelle, 1871-1873
Lee Friedlander, Yosemite, 2004
Lee Friedlander, Yosemite, 2004
Robert Adams, Arvada, Colorado, 1984-1987
Robert Adams, Arvada, Colorado, 1984-1987
Stephen Shore, Fifth Street and Broadway, Eureka, California, September 2, 1974
Stephen Shore, Fifth Street and Broadway, Eureka, California, September 2, 1974
Michael Jang, TV news outside Milk-Moscone murder scene, 1978
Michael Jang, TV news outside Milk-Moscone murder scene, 1978
Pirkle Jones, Black Panther demonstration in front of the Alameda County Court House, Oakland, California, during Huey Newton’s trial, July 30, 1968
Pirkle Jones, Black Panther demonstration in front of the Alameda County Court House, Oakland, California, during Huey Newton’s trial, July 30, 1968
Jim Goldberg, Edgar G. and Regina Goldstine, 1981
Jim Goldberg, Edgar G. and Regina Goldstine, 1981
Edward Weston, Whale Vertebra, 1934
Edward Weston, Whale Vertebra, 1934
Dorothea Lange, The Road West, U.S. 54 in Southern New Mexico, 1938
Dorothea Lange, The Road West, U.S. 54 in Southern New Mexico, 1938
Larry Sultan, Hamilton Field, 2009
Larry Sultan, Hamilton Field, 2009
Klea McKenna, Rainstorms & Rain Studies, 2013 – 2016
Klea McKenna, Rainstorms & Rain Studies, 2013 – 2016

The main photography show at the new SFMOMA is on California and the West and how they have had an integral role in the development of the art form. It’s good but is more of a primer, introducing the different photographic “schools” that have developed here. In other words, it’s a bit thin and I wish it had gone deeper.

The main issue is that it sort of waffles between being organized thematically versus being ordered chronologically. The wall text suggests that things are chronological but the actual photos for a supposed time period end up covering over a century. This is most obvious in the Early Landscapes room. It feels like it’s about the 19th century Watkins, Russell, Muybridge, and O’Sullivan school of mammoth plates, albumen prints, pristine spectacular western landscapes, and our early attempts at taming them. But it goes into Ansel Adams work from ~50 years later and even includes a Friedlander photo from 2004.

In many ways the exhibition would’ve been better off just making the rooms purely thematic—similar to Oakland’s Inspiration Points show a couple years ago. This is pretty much how I chose to approach the show after the first couple of rooms. By focusing on the themes and ignoring the chronology cues, I found myself thinking about how each theme could cover ~150 years of photography in the West.

Early Landscapes was intended to set up a transition to the New West.* These photographs are very much my thing. I love Baltz and Robert Adams. Henry Wessel’s photo of the  Richmond garage tree is fantastic.** It’s always nice to see Shore prints.

*I’m tempted to start calling the pristine landscapes either “Old West” or “Old Topographics” a retronyms to either The New West or The New Topographics.

**And I’m completely unable to find it online anywhere.

The comparison between these views of The West is one which I feel deeply in my own photography. I very much love going out into nature and hiking with my camera. I also love going out into the suburban sprawl and taking photos of—and criticizing—the cityscape that has resulted. They’re more than just a core part of my visual literacy, they’re home. 

I also like the older landscape photography because of how its message differs from landscape photography today. Modern landscape photography is often environmental-minded, relying on the glory of unspoiled nature to remind the viewer that nature needs to be preserved. 150 years ago, the message was almost the opposite. The glory of unspoiled nature was all potential and something we could, and should, tame.

Carleton Watkins: The Stanford Albums

While the Old West is distinct from the New West, the New West is visible in many of the Old West photos. “Photographing the incursion of technology into nature” is one of photography’s original subjects. Watkins and Robert Adams may have had different goals with their photography, but we can see as many similarities in their work as we can see between Watkins and Ansel Adams.

I found it interesting that the conflict and chaos theme—really more about demographic change—only started with photos from the 1960s. Muybridge photographed the Modoc War 100 years prior.* Dorothea Lange has photographs from the Great Depression in the adjoining room. The history of California is a history of conflict and demographic change, it’s not something which started in the 60s.

*Also an exhibition at the California Historical Society which I need to see this summer.

I do however enjoy seeing how photographers address the social issues of their time. Where political comment is often absent from the rest of the modern art canon,* photography has always been on the front lines. As much as there’s disagreement about what the democratic camera means, it’s pretty clear that as an art form, photography is somewhat unique in how it’s accessible to many more people and has always had an element of not just witnessing, but being part of any conflicts.

*In the rest of the museum, it’s only visible in the Anselm Keifer and Gerhard Richter rooms. But for the rest of the art from the 1960s and 1970s? If there were politics in it it’s long been scrubbed from the wall texts. 

It’s not just conflicts either. A lot of the changes are long-term gradual things which may not even depict changes but rather illustrate existing inequality. These images though, by Jim Goldberg or Carrie Mae Weems, get short shrift in this exhibition. Goldberg’s Rich and Poor is hung on both sides of a hallway—which makes no sense for a series which encourages both close inspection and zig-zagging between images. Weems’s From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried meanwhile is one of those photo series which needs to be seen in its entirety yet only two of the images are on display.

That economic and racial inequality are the two big issues for this year’s election, I can’t help but sort of side-eye the way both of them are minimized here.

Speaking of Lange and social justice, while I approve of featuring the “founders/ƒ.64” as being an important theme of western photography, keeping so much of their work outside of the themes in the rest of the rooms felt strange. The group wasn’t about content but rather technique. Their photos fit with all the other themes in the exhibition. There are pristine landscapes, technological changes, and demographic conflicts on display here, but the exercise in tying them into the other rooms is left to the viewer.

As an ƒ.64 room though I liked that they stayed away from most of the super-iconic photos. There’s Lange’s road. And a few of the Weston images are very familiar. But this room could have been full of just photographs I’ve seen over and over again.* I enjoy just absorbing more of their other work.

*Note, there should probably be such a room at SFMOMA because many of those ƒ.64 photos are extremely important to both photography and the idea that photography is art and all of them are inherently part of the Bay Area’s role in art history.

The last theme involves photographers playing with the medium itself. I’ve been on record saying that I consider Weston to be part of this group but most of these photos are much more recent. As such, many of them don’t quite do it for me.* The ones that do though I really like. In particular, Larry Sultan using day laborers as models and the weird ethical questions they create in the resulting photos. Did they know what they were getting in to? What does it mean to stage photos of gente day laborers using those day laborers as models? I don’t have good answers here either but I enjoy thinking about the questions.

*Contemporary Art is still being sorted by Sturgeon’s Law.

I also loved Klea McKenna’s photograms. And it’s always nice to see Trevor Paglen on display although putting him in the playing-with-the-medium room risks reducing a lot of his work to being about technique rather than interrogating the inherent nature of photography as being surveillance.

Looking at the recent photos though provides a clear example of how art photography has embraced the “make it fucking large” ethos of the collector-driven market. So many of the prints are not just huge, but possibly too big to the point that they feel like they’re only trying to be appreciated for their size rather than as images to be looked at. I understand why this is the case* but I don’t have to like the results.

*They have to compete with paintings and other media in a “bigger is better” arms race in the art-collector world rather than focusing on just photography collectors.

So yeah. I like many of the individual photos but was kind of unsold on the larger theme of the exhibition. As with the opening shows in the rest of the museum, this felt very much like a for-the-masses sketch of possibilities for future shows while staking a claim on a lot of territory.

Richard Misrach. Wall, Los Indios, Texas, 2015.

Border Cantos

This originally posted on NJWV.

Richard Misrach. Wall, East of Nogales, 2015.
Wall, East of Nogales, 2015
Richard Misrach. Wall, Tierra Del Sol, California, 2015.
Wall, Tierra Del Sol, California, 2015

In the American West, the open road is one of those enduring, unavoidable photographic tropes. While Dorothea Lange and Robert Frank are the iconic images, I’ve always seen the photos as part of the larger theme of photographing technological expansion into the West. So photos of train construction like those by Russell* are also part of the same narrative. It’s a seductive image which captures much of the myth of The West. A technology’s-eye view full of possibilities. Places to go. Things to build. Landscape to tame. The freedom to become whatever you want to be.

*My post on Russell’s Great West Illustrated covers more of this but Carleton Watkins has some train photos too. It’s also worth looking at Marc Ruwedel’s Westward the Course of Empire here, in particular photos like this one.

I suspect that everyone in The West takes at least one photo of the big sky, unending road, and undeveloped landscapes stretching as far as the eye can see. I know I have.

That Richard Misrach’s Border Cantos is able to reference and draw on this trope while conveying the exact opposite idea is my favorite part of his show in San José. In his images we have all the myths of The West except that everything is literally turned on its side. Instead of traveling along the road and into the frame, we know that the migration direction is side to side across the frame. On foot. The road is no longer an invitation, it’s a barrier. The landscape is no longer wide-open, it’s partitioned.

This west is now explicitly about preventing travel. And it’s about traveling despite the barriers.

The wall and border cuts through without regard for the terrain or landscape—whether natural or manmade. It’s a straight line on the map which creates an artificial imposition on real life.* It slices through mountains and deserts with gaps which are large enough to allow animals but not humans or automobiles to cross.** It divides cities—we see photos of the wall crossing streets, parks, backyards, and farmland—into two with the singular purpose of keeping people, and only people, stuck on one side. It’s a visual demonstration of the absurdity of borders and what it means to say that “the border crossed us.” The land predates the border. Cities and settlements predate the border. Mexican people and their migrations predate the border.

*I prefer the concept of geography-based borders but those, as the case of Chamizal shows, can be at least as absurd due to the fact that natural features change over time.

**The wall itself also reminds me of Christo and Jeane Claude’s Running Fence except that where the Running Fence used the landscape, the border wall is imposed upon it.

Richard Misrach. Wall, Los Indios, Texas, 2015.
Wall, Los Indios, Texas, 2015

The wall is indeed absurd. Just looking at it reveals how futile the idea of making it impenetrable is. There are gaps. There have to be gaps. Sometimes the gaps are wider than the segments of wall. The frontage road gets dragged daily so that footprints show up. Migrants wear carpet over their shoes to hide their footprints. The territory it covers is so immense that the task of securing it is sisyphean. There’s no way to do it. To claim otherwise is irresponsible.

It’s a bit of a shame that there’s no equivalent photographic trope regarding fences in The West. While the myth and appeal of The West is the promise of possibility, one enduring aspect has been the struggle over land usage.* Fences have been at the heart of that for over a century. Where the fence-cutting wars signified the beginning of the end of the open range and the increased conflict between Anglo and Mexican-American conceptions of land-use, the border fence is the newest incarnation of that conflict.

*Granted, much of the history of photography in The West is the tradition of unspoiled landscapes and we have people like Robert Adams to thank for yanking us into The New West and reminding us that unspoiled landscapes are only a small part of the land usage equation.

What a lot of the land-use discussion misses though is that it’s not just about how we’re using the land, it’s about who gets to use it. Which brings us to the other part of the exhibition. It’s not just about photos of the border. It’s about the migrants, the things they drop, and the small marks which they leave on the land.

This part reminds me of Marc Ruwedel but there’s room here for multiple artists. The border may be the most-visible voice in this series, but the traces that the migrants leave are just as important. The border acts upon the landscape and the migrants. What the migrants leave behind is more passive, but still speaks to their will about making the crossing and how while they want to use the land for the same mythical hopes and dreams that The West has always promised, their very presence is in conflict with the way Anglos want to use the land now.

Guillermo Galindo. Efigie. 2014.
Efigie. 2014
Guillermo Galindo. Zapatello, 2014.
Zapatello, 2014

The artifacts—clothing, books, trash, etc.—are all things that simultaneously speak to where the migrants come from and where they’re going. After he photographed them, Misrach sent them to Guillermo Galindo as part of a companion project to the photographs. Galindo’s project transforms the artifacts into musical instruments which, in-concert with the photographs, gives them life by providing them a voice.

There are short videos featuring many of the instruments on bordercantos.com but listening to the full composition in the gallery is a completely different experience. I was struck by how close converting the artifacts to instruments cam to merely being a gimmick. But it’s not. It’s wonderful.

The music is totally gente both in terms of its sense of sound/musical memory as well as how well it embraces the ethos that everything can be repurposed. It also works wonderfully as an aural context for all of the photographs. The border and The West has a long history of humans leaving their mark as they pass through. Photography is a way to capture these traces visually. Music and sound engages another sense and takes the entire exhibition to another level.

Photoland shibboleths

Inspired by Lazenby.

Name Pronunciation
Ansel Adams Actually I prefer Robert
Diane Arbus dee-ON
Eugène Atget ah-JAY
Rineke Dijkstra DIKE-struh
Robert Doisneau row-bear dwa-no
Peter Lik I’ve never heard of him
Philip-Lorca diCorcia Just get the hyphens and capitalization correct
Lázló Moholy-Nagy mo-ho-li naj
Edward Ruscha roo-SHAY
Alec Soth rhymes with both
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.