Profiles in Black and White: Minor White

In Article, Black and White Photography on December 1, 2013 at 12:07 pm

“At first glance a photograph can inform us. At second glance, it can reach us.”

-Minor White

Minor White by Imogen Cunningham

Minor White by Imogen Cunningham

Minor White, born in 1908 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, had the advantage of learning from some of the first great photographers that graced this earth.  But it would take him awhile to truly embrace the realm of photography; he didn’t join his first camera club until the age of 30. Originally, he was more focused on the world of botany and the eloquence of written prose – his first artistic project was a five-year endeavor to create 100 sonnets while waiting tables and bartending in Portland, Oregon. After serving in World War II, White settled in New York and attended Columbia University. While it was a boon to have Meyer Schapiro help cultivate his own style, the greater boon would be White’s exposure to a circle of photography’s royalty: Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Weston, Walter Chappell, and more. Stieglitz would be particularly influential.

Unlike photographers such as Weston, Diane Arbus and Henri Cartier-Bresson, who celebrated the subjects of their photos with a candid methodology, White had a more romantic idea of how a photograph could function as art, perhaps harkening back to his days of writing. By rendering the subject of his photos to secondary importance, they became a metaphoric abstraction that enlightened the viewer to something more than first revealed. White adopted this from Stieglitz, who had called his own photographs of the methodology “equivalents,” and fully embraced it. His collection abounds with mysteries of eyes in sandstone, roses found in branches, natures own yin yang between shadow and light, and much more. The technical mastery White’s embraced visual transcendence plays with our perception and ability to identify despite the photos themselves being clear and precise.

Capitol Reef, Utah, 1962

Capitol Reef, Utah, 1962

Later in White’s career his photos started to reflect his own inner turmoil. As a closeted bisexual who feared stigmatization by society, he struggled to find peace with his attraction to young men – White’s photographs of male nudes were only released posthumously. Princeton photography professor Peter C. Bunnell helped expose much of the public to these photos by including them in the Museum of Modern Art’s 1989 retrospective on White, called “The Eye That Shapes.”

In addition to his individual career, White was active in other roles within the photography world. In 1952, he helped co-found Aperture Magazine and edited it for 23 years. White was also of educator for much of his later years. This included a stint as a professor at Rochester Institute of Technology and a decade at MIT.

White died at the age of 67 in 1976.

Minor White Photographs

  1. There has been a great deal of confusion over object and subject. The “thing” photographed is the object, the subject is always the photographer himself. Minor White as well as Walter Chappell first and foremost photographed the subject.

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