Metaphoric musings

different strokes

Metaphoric musings

Controversial, misunderstood, and sometimes overlooked, Minor White (1908-1976) is one of the greatest photographers of the 20th century, whose ideas exerted a powerful influence on a generation of photographers and still resonate today,” wrote Paul Martineau (Minor White: Manifestations of The Spirit / J Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles / 2014). “He pushed himself to live what he called a life in photography.”

In a career spanning over four decades, White made thousands of evocative black-and-white and colour photographs of landscapes, people and abstract subject matter. No wonder, he came to be known as an intellectual grafter, transposing methods and ideas from art history, literature, religion, psychology, and other photographers to his own work. As a thoughtful theoretician and trenchant critic, he presented views on aspects of art which sometimes generated controversy.

In 1952, he helped start the famed photography magazine Aperture; and became its first and longtime editor. He was also an influential and esteemed teacher always guiding and encouraging his students. Interestingly, during his career as a photographer, he also followed several spiritual, mystical and philosophical strands; at one point of time, he supposedly wanted to even write a book on astrological influences on photography!

“He was a seeker, a searcher,” recalled Carl Chiarenza, who studied under Minor in the 1950s and is today known for his unique vocabulary of visual abstraction. “From Catholicism to Boleslavksy to Zen to astrology, from I Ching to Ouspensky and Gurdjieff, from hypnosis to Schapiro and Wölfflin; from the hell of the military to the depths of music and art and the revelations he found in the photography of Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, and Alfred Stieglitz. And with all he found, he was always generous to others; especially his students, for whom he was always there.”

Minor was keen that his students spent time looking deeply into pictures, from edge to edge. “The big thing that Minor did as a teacher was to demonstrate, in word and deed, what a truly deep involvement in photography was,” recalled another of his students, Paul Caponigro, who is among America’s foremost landscape photographers today. “He showed what it was to have photography at the heart of your life. It was an inspiration and a challenge.”

Memorable fancies

Born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA, in 1908, Minor Martin White graduated with Botany and English as his subjects. He wrote poems and reportedly completed a series of a 100 sonnets in five years. Throughout his life, he kept a journal which he called ‘Memorable Fancies,’ a title derived from the work of English poet, painter, and mystic William Blake.

When he was 18, he became aware of his homosexuality. A year later, he bought a one-way ticket from Minneapolis to Seattle aiming to become a photographer. On the way, he stopped for a few days in Portland, Oregon. What was intended to be a brief stay ended in his decision to make the new city his home. It was in Portland that he developed many of his ideas and, more importantly, a lifelong obsession with photography.

He organised a camera club and built a darkroom and a modest gallery for exhibiting pictures.

After serving military intelligence during World War II, he went on to study Art, History and Aesthetics at the Columbian University. Subsequently, associating himself with leading photographers of the day including Edward Weston, Ansel Adams and Alfred Stieglitz, he developed his own style and maturity in his art.

Grappling gayhood

Haunted by his sexuality, White often described the pain and misery of being gay in his diaries. “He was constantly struggling with the compulsion to hide himself to cover his shame,” observed British studio potter and writer Emmanuel Cooper (The Sexual Perspective: Homosexuality and Art in the Last 100 Years in the West). “Like many other homosexual men, White feared public exposure and rejection — whether as an artist, friend or lover, and he also found the acceptance of his own homosexuality almost impossible.” 

That, however, did not prevent White from taking pictures of the male nude secretly throughout his life; and depicting intimate lives and lacing the images with explicit homoerotic content. In 1940, for instance, he made a series of art nudes of model Gino Cipolla. He also created “beefcake” portraits, the classic fare of physique magazines, which served as thinly veiled newsstand erotica for homosexuals. He employed photography as a creative tool to search for spiritual transcendence and to express his sexual desire for men. “White’s sexuality underlies the whole of the autobiographical statement contained in his work,” wrote an observer.

Emotional power

White himself believed that all of his photographs were self-portraits. He filled his images with symbolic and metaphorical allusions — be it an expansive landscape, portrait or a mysterious close-up of an object. Throughout his career, he sought to photograph things not only for what they were but also for what they could suggest. He perceived an unappreciated mystical dimension in ‘real’ things; and tried to build strong visible emotions between himself and his subjects.

By the end of his career, White’s pictures had become increasingly abstract, spiritual and intense. Instead of depicting his subjects (close-ups of rocks, wood and flowing water) in a single frame, he arranged them in sequences, leading viewers from one picture to another, and forcing them to make connections with the shapes.

He explained that “the sense of authenticity in a photograph is so effective it can seduce some persons who reject abstraction in painting to accept what looks like abstraction in a photograph.” At the same time, he acknowledged the limitations of photography as a path toward salvation, writing that the “camera is both a way of life and not enough to live by.” 

In conclusion, it may be worth recollecting what White told his students. “Meditate, concentrate, focus on a print for an hour. Go within, edge to edge, corner to corner. Now close your eyes and go where that hour moved you. That is where you and image blend.”

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