Minor Martin White was an American photographer, theoretician, critic and educator. He combined an intense interest in how people viewed and understood photographs with a personal vision that was guided by a variety of spiritual and intellectual philosophies. Starting in Oregon in 1937 and continuing until he died in 1976, White made thousands of black-and-white and color photographs of landscapes, people and abstract subject matter, created with both technical mastery and a strong visual sense of light and shadow. He taught many classes, workshops and retreats on photography at the California School of Fine Arts
, Rochester Institute of Technology
, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, other schools, and in his own home. He lived much of his life as a closeted gay man, afraid to express himself publicly for fear of loss of his teaching jobs, and some of his most compelling images are figure studies of men whom he taught or with whom he had relationships. He helped start and for many years was editor of the photography magazine Aperture. After his death in 1976, White was hailed as one of America's greatest photographers.
White was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the only child of Charles Henry White, a bookkeeper, and Florence May White, a dressmaker. His first name came from his great, great grandfather from the White family side, and his middle name was his mother's maiden name. During his early years he spent much of his time with his grandparents. His grandfather, George Martin, was an amateur photographer and gave White his first camera in 1915. As a child White enjoyed playing in the large garden at his grandparents' home, and this influenced his decision later on to study botany in college. White's parents went through a series of separations starting in 1916, and during those periods White lived with his mother and her parents. His parents reconciled for a while in 1922 and remained together until they divorced in 1929.
By the time White graduated from high school he was already aware of his latent homosexuality. In 1927 he wrote about his feelings for men in his diary, and to his dismay his parents read his diary without his permission. After what he called a brief crisis period, during which he left home for the summer, he returned to live with his family while he started college. His parents never spoke of his homosexuality again. White entered the University of Minnesota in 1927 and majored in botany. By the time he should have graduated in 1931 he had not met the requirements for a science degree, and he left the university for a while.
During this period he became very interested in writing, and he started a personal journal that he called "Memorable Fancies."
In it he wrote poems, intimate thoughts about his life and his struggles with his sexuality, excerpts from letters that he wrote to others, occasional diary-like entries about his daily life, and, later on, extensive notes about his photography. He continued to fill the pages of his journal until he directed most of his energy into teaching around 1970. In 1932 White re-entered the university and studied both writing and botany. With his previous credits, he was able to graduate in 1934. The next year he took some graduate classes in botany, but after six months he decided that he lacked real interest in becoming a scientist. He spent the next two years doing odd jobs and exploring his writing skills. During this period he began creating a set of 100 sonnets on the theme of sexual love, his first attempt at grouping his creative output.
In late 1937 White decided to move to Seattle. He purchased a 35mm Argus camera and took a bus trip across country toward his destination. He stopped in Portland, Oregon, on his way and decided to stay there. For the next 2-1/2 years he lived at the YMCA in Portland while he explored photography in depth for the first time. It was at the YMCA that he taught his first class in photography, to a small group of young adults. He also joined the Oregon Camera Club in order to learn about how photographers talk about their own images and what photography means to them.
White was offered a job in 1938 as photographer for the Oregon Art Project, which was funded by the Works Progress Administration. One of his tasks was to photograph historic buildings in downtown Portland before they were demolished for a new riverfront development. At this same time he made publicity photos for the Portland Civic Theater, documenting their plays and taking portraits of the actors and actresses.
In 1940 White was hired to teach photography at the La Grande Art Center in eastern Oregon. He quickly became immersed in his work and taught classes three days a week, lectured on art of local students, reviewed exhibitions for the local newspaper and delivered a weekly radio broadcast about activities at the Art Center. In his spare time he traveled throughout the region, taking photographs of the landscape, farms and small town buildings. He also wrote his first article on photography, "When is Photography Creative?,"
which was published in American Photography magazine two years later.
White resigned from the Art Center in late 1941 and returned to Portland where he intended to start a commercial photography business. That year three of his photographs were accepted by the Museum of Modern Art
in New York for inclusion in their "Image of Freedom"
exhibition. At the close of the exhibition the museum purchased all three prints, the first time his images entered a public collection. The following year the Portland Art Museum
gave White his first one-man show, exhibiting four series of photos he made while in eastern Oregon. He wrote in his journal that with that show "a period came to a close."
In April 1942 White was drafted into the United States Army and hid his homosexuality from the recruiters. Before leaving Portland he left most of his negatives of historic Portland buildings with the Oregon Historical Society. White spent the first two years of World War II in Hawaii and in Australia, and later he became Chief of the Divisional Intelligence Branch in the southern Philippines. During this period he rarely photographed, choosing instead to write poetry and extended verse. Three of his longer poems, "Elegies," "Free Verse for the Freedom of Speech," and "Minor Testament," spoke to his experiences during the war and to the bonds of men under extreme conditions. Later he would use some of the text from "Minor Testament" in his photographic sequence Amputations.
After the war White traveled to New York City and enrolled in Columbia University. While in New York he met and became close friends with Beaumont and Nancy Newhall, who were working in the newly formed photography department at the Museum of Modern Art. White was offered a job as photographer for the museum and spent many hours talking with and learning from Nancy Newhall, who he said strongly influenced his thinking about and his direction in photography.
In February 1946 White had the first of several meetings with photographer Alfred Stieglitz
in New York. White knew of Stieglitz's deep understanding of photography from his various writings, and through their conversations White adopted much of Stieglitz's theory of equivalence, where the image stands for something other than the subject matter, and his use of sequencing pictorial imagery. At one of their meetings White wrote in his journal that he expressed his doubt that he was ready to become a serious photographer. He wrote that Stieglitz asked him "Have you ever been in love?" White answered "yes," and Stieglitz replied "Then you can photograph."
During this time, White met and became friends with some of the major photographers of the time, including Berenice Abbott
, Edward Steichen
, Paul Strand
, Edward Weston
, and Harry Callahan
. Steichen, who was director of the photography department at the Museum of Modern Art, offered White a curatorial position at the museum, but instead White accepted an offer from Ansel Adams
to assist him at the newly created photography department at the California School of Fine Arts (CSFA) in San Francisco. White moved to San Francisco in July and lived in the same house as Adams for several years. While there Adams taught White about his Zone System method of exposing and developing negatives, which White used extensively in his own work. He wrote extensively about it, published a book and taught the exposure and development method as well as the practice of (pre)-visualization to his students.
While in San Francisco White became close friends with Edward Weston in Carmel, and for the remainder of his life Weston had a profound influence on White's photography and philosophy. Later he said ...Stieglitz, Weston and Ansel all gave me exactly what I needed at that time. I took one thing from each: technique from Ansel, the love of nature from Weston, and from Stieglitz the affirmation that I was alive and I could photograph.
Over the next several years White spent a great deal of time photographing at Point Lobos, the site of some of Weston's most famous images, approaching many of the same subjects with entirely different viewpoints and creative purposes.
By mid-1947 White was the primary teacher at CSFA and had developed a three-year course that emphasized personal expressive photography. Over the next six years he brought in as teachers some of the best photographers of the time, including Imogen Cunningham
, Lisette Model
, and Dorothea Lange
. During this time White created his first grouping of photos and text in a non-narrative form, a sequence he called Amputations. Although it was scheduled to be shown at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, the exhibition was canceled because White refused to allow the photographs to be shown without text, which included some wording that expressed his ambiguity about America's post-war patriotism.
From The Temptation of St. Anthony Is Mirrors (1948)
The next three years were some of White's most prolific in terms of creative output. In addition to taking dozens of land- and waterscapes, he made dozens of photographs that evolved into some of his most compelling sequences. Three in particular showed his continuing struggles with his sexuality. Song Without Words, The Temptation of St. Anthony Is Mirrors, and Fifth Sequence/Portrait of a Young Man as Actor all depict "the emotional turmoil he feels over his love and desire for men."
In 1949 White purchased a small Zeiss Ikonta camera and began a series of urban street photographs. Over the next four years he took nearly 6,000 images, all inspired by his newfound interest in the poetry of Walt Whitman. The project, which he called City of Surf, included photographs of San Francisco's Chinatown, the docks, people on the streets and various parades and fairs around town.
The period of 1951-52 is one of the formative times in White's career. He participated in a Conference on Photography at the Aspen Institute, where the idea of creating a new journal of photography was discussed by Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange, Beaumont and Nancy Newhall, Frederick Sommer and others. Soon after Aperture
magazine was founded by many of these same individuals. White volunteered for and was approved as editor, and the first issue appeared in April 1952. Aperture quickly became one of the most influential magazines about photography, and White remained as editor until 1975.
Near the end of 1952 White's father, from whom he had been estranged for many years, died in Long Beach, California. In 1953 Walter Chappell introduced White to the I Ching, an ancient Chinese book of philosophy and divination, and White continued to be influenced by and refer to this text throughout the rest of his life. He was especially intrigued by the concepts of yin and yang, in which apparently opposite or contrary forces may be conceived as complementary. Later that same year a reorganization at CSFS resulted in White's teaching role being cut back, and as a result he began to think about a change in his employment. Concurrently, Beaumont Newhall had recently become the curator at the George Eastman House
in Rochester, New York, and Newhall invited White to work with him there as a curatorial assistant. He exhibited September 28 - November 3 1954 at Limelight Gallery in New York and was included in that gallery's Great Photographs at the end of that year. Over the next three years White organized three themed exhibitions[where?] that demonstrated his particular interests: Camera Consciousness, The Pictorial Image and Lyrical and Accurate. In 1955 he joined the faculty at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), where he taught one day a week.
White's photographic output declined during this time due to his teaching and editorial work, but he continued to produce enough images that by the end of 1955 he had created a new sequence, Sequence 10/Rural Cathedrals, which included landscape images from upstate New York that were shot on regular and infrared film. By 1955 White was fully engaged in teaching, having been appointed as instructor at the new four-year photography program at RIT as well as conducting classes and workshops at Ohio University and Indiana University. Walter Chappell moved to Rochester later in the year to work at the George Eastman House. Chappell engaged White in long discussions about various Eastern religions and philosophies. White began practicing Zen meditation and adopted a Japanese style of decoration in his house. Over the next two years the discussions between White and Chappell metamorphosed into lengthy discourses about the writing and philosophy of George Gurdjieff. White gradually became an adherent of Gurdjieff's teachings and started to incorporate Gurdjieff's thinking into the design and implementation of his workshops. Gurdjieff's concepts, for White, were not just intellectual exercises but guides to experience, and they greatly influenced much of his approach to teaching and photography throughout the rest of his life.
During this same period White began making his first color images. Although he is better known for his black-and-white photography, he produced many color photographs. His archive contains nearly 9,000 35mm transparencies taken between 1955 and 1975.
In 1959 White mounted a large exhibition of 115 photos of his Sequence 13/Return to the Bud at the George Eastman House. It was his largest exhibition to date. It later traveled to the Portland Art Museum in Oregon. White was invited to teach a 10-days', all-expense paid workshop in Portland to accompany the exhibition. He took advantage of the funding to photograph landscapes and did nature studies across the country. From his experience in Portland he developed the idea for a full-time residential workshop in Rochester in which students would learn through both formal sessions and, following a combination of thinking from Gurdjieff and from Zen, through an understanding gained by the discipline of such tasks as household chores and early morning workouts. He would continue this style of residential teaching until he died. In the early 1960s White also studied hypnosis and incorporated the practice into some of his teachings as a way of helping students experience photographs.
White continued to teach extensively both privately and at RIT for the next several years. During this time he traveled across the U.S. in the summers taking photographs along the way. In his journal he referred to himself during this period as "The Wanderer," which had both literal and metaphorical meanings due to his search for understanding life. In 1962 he met Michael Hoffman, who became a friend, colleague and, later, assumed the editorship of Aperture magazine. White later named Hoffman to be the executor of his will.
In 1965 White was invited to help design a newly formed program in visual arts at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, near Boston. After being appointed as a Visiting Professor, White moved to the Boston area and purchased a 12-room house in suburban Arlington so he could increase the size of his residential workshops for selected students. Soon after moving to the Boston area, he completed a different kind of sequence called Slow Dance, which he would later integrate into his teachings. He continued to explore how people understand and interpret photography and began to incorporate techniques of Gestalt psychology into his teachings. In order to help his students experience the meaning of "equivalence," he started requiring them to draw certain subjects as well as photograph them.
White began to experience periodic discomfort in his chest in 1966, and his doctor diagnosed his ailment as angina. His symptoms continued throughout the rest of his life, leading him to intensify his study of spiritual matters and meditation. He turned to astrology in an attempt to increase his understanding about life, and his interest in it became so significant that he required all of his current and prospective students to have their horoscopes completed. By this point in his life White's unorthodox teaching methods were well established, and students who went through his workshops were both mystified and enlightened by the experience. One student who later became a Zen monk said "I really wanted to learn to see the way he did, to capture my subjects in a way that didn't render them lifeless and two-dimensional. I didn't realize that Minor was teaching us exactly that: not only to see images, but to feel them, smell them, taste them. He was teaching us how to be photography."
White began writing the text for Mirrors
, which was the first monograph of his photographs, in late 1966, and three years later the book was published by Aperture. It included 243 of his photographs and text, including poems, notes from his journal and other writings. Peter Bunnell, who was one of White's early students and then Curator of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art, wrote a lengthy biography of White for the book. During this same time White completed Sequence 1968, a series of landscape images from his recent travels. During the next several years White conceived of and directed four major themed photography exhibitions at MIT, starting with "Light7" in 1968 and followed by "Be-ing without Clothes" in 1970, "Octave of Prayer" in 1972 and "Celebrations" in 1974. Anyone could submit images for the shows, and White spent a great deal of time personally reviewing all of the submissions and selecting the final images.
White continued to teach extensively and make his own photographs even though his health was declining. He devoted more and more time to his writing and began a long text he called "Consciousness in Photography and the Creative Audience," in which he referred to his 1965 sequence Slow Dance and advanced the idea that certain states of heightened awareness were necessary to truly read a photograph and understand its meaning. In order to complete this work he applied for and received a Guggenheim
Fellowship in 1970, and Consciousness in Photography and the Creative Audience became required reading for a new course he taught at MIT called "Creative Audience." in 1971 he traveled to Puerto Rico to explore more of his color photography, and in 1974 and 1975 he journeyed to Peru to teach and to further his own Gurdjieff studies.
In 1975 White traveled to England to lecture at the Victoria and Albert Museum
and to teach classes at various colleges. He continued on a hectic travel schedule for several weeks, then flew directly to the University of Arizona in Tucson to take part in a symposium there. When he returned to Boston after nearly six weeks of travel, he suffered a heart attack and was hospitalized for several weeks. After this White's focus turned even more inward, and he photographed very little. He spent much of his time with his student Abe Frajndlich, who made a series of situational portraits of White around his home and in his garden. A few months before his death White published a short article in Parabola magazine called "The Diamond Lens of Fable" in which he associated himself with Gilgamesh, Jason and King Arthur, all heroes of old tales about lifelong quests.
On June 24, 1976, White died of a second heart attack while working at his home. He bequeathed all of his personal archives and papers, along with a large collection of his photographs, to Princeton University. He left his house to Aperture so they could continue the work he started there.