Minor White is part of a group of photographers – including Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Weston, Paul Strand, Dorothea Lange, Bernice Abbott and Imogen Cunningham – who pioneered modern photography and photography as art.
White’s work is presented in an intimate exhibition at the Michael C. Carlos Museum on the campus of Emory University through Dec. 15.
Not only was White a prolific photographer, but he taught the medium at the California School of Fine Arts and MIT. He founded and edited one of the most important photography journals, “Aperture.” He was also a closeted gay man who was very concerned with his reputation during the homophobic times when his career as a teacher and photographer were in high gear. Many of his images and his writings allude to his homosexuality, but he felt he could never make his sexuality public. Born in 1908, White died in 1976.
White was inspired by his maternal grandparents with whom he spent a great deal of his childhood. His grandfather was an amateur photographer and gave White his first camera when he was 8. His grandmother was a gardener and White studied botany in college. He abandoned botany for photography, but never ceased to be fascinated by the shapes and textures of the natural world.
The Carlos Museum exhibition, curated by Andi McKenzie, Curator for Works on Paper, is drawn entirely from the personal collection of Lindsay W. Marshall, a member of the museum’s advisory board and docent emerita.
INtown asked both Marshall and McKenzie about what went into creating this tribute to Minor White.
What inspired you to collect White’s photographs?
Marshall: As Minor White is quoted to have said, ”At first glance, a photograph can inform us. At second glance, it can reach us.” Looking and learning about art photography is something that touches my soul. After collecting photographs for a few years in the 1970’s-1980’s I saw some vintage prints by Minor White and bought one. Then I bought a few more. White photographed buildings, people in his life, and abstractions. It was his photographs in nature that attracted me. I liked photographic abstraction, and to me at his time and career Minor White was the epitome of the genre. His photographs have a spiritual quality, a mood. Minor White was an influential American photographer, theoretician, critic, educator, and editor.
Do you have a favorite of this exhibition, and why?
Marshall: Minor White was influenced by Alfred Stieglitz in making sequenced photographs, which create a total statement that is more meaningful than the individual images themselves. ”Power Spot” from the 1970 Totemic Sequence is probably my favorite. It was printed in the sequence as the first image and then in reverse as the last image. Art speaks to me and gives me pleasure. To me an individual should like what art they embrace regardless of its presumed value.
What were some of the challenges and surprises of curating this exhibit?
McKenzie: It has been such a joy to work with Lindsay. She’s an incredibly thoughtful, responsible, generous, and visionary collector. She makes the type of connections between works and artists that every curator hopes to achieve in an exhibition. In Minor White, Unburdened, I simply wanted to recreate in the gallery the same sense of Minor White that I perceived when I saw his work alongside that of his contemporaries on her walls. That was the biggest challenge. It wasn’t necessarily the Minor White of Aperture or the Minor White of the history of American photography that I was looking for. It was a quiet, more intimate narrative of White’s life as a student, teacher, theoretician, lover, and mentor. Perhaps the biggest surprise of this whole experience was Lindsay’s immediate enthusiasm and support for the exhibition. It’s not often that a collector responds to an idea like this with “Let’s do it!” without even blinking an eye. It’s been a special experience and I’m happy to come away from it with a new love for Minor White and a dear friend in Lindsay.
How do you see Minor White’s place in American photography?
McKenzie: Minor White is a foundational figure in American photography. He was a master of the craft but also committed to pushing the medium forward as an art form. To me, though, there’s an arresting, experiential aspect to White’s photographs that sets his work apart from that of his contemporaries. As I learned more about him, I found that he worked toward this very thing. He wanted to create a universal feeling in his photographs, and perhaps in this way foster a connection between himself and the viewer despite the separation inherent to photography as a medium. It’s tempting to psychoanalyze that goal as a way to overcome isolation and repressed desire, and I wonder if White might even approve of that conclusion, but there’s also an underlying sense of hubris that I find particularly interesting.
For more information, visit www.carlos.emory.edu.