Photography Exhibit 'Minor White: Manifestation of the Spirit' Arrives at the Getty Center
Since the day Louis Daguerre first exposed his bitumen-soaked pewter plates to light back in the 1820s, the artistic merits of photography have been the subject of debate. With its complicated mechanism and exotic photo-chemical process, it was seen by most 19th century artists and aesthetes as superficial — handy for recording appearances but lacking the sensitivity of the human hand essential for emotional interpretation. Such conclusions overlooked aspects like composition, shutter speed, aperture settings and processing, all variables that were subject to human foibles. Even at the turn of the century, as art moved toward abstraction, representation remained king in photography.
Coming out of World War I, Man Ray took the medium in the direction of Dadaism and surrealism, but it wasn't until after the Second World War, and the nascent days of minimalism, that abstraction began to take hold. Alfred Stieglitz's 1920s notion of "equivalence" was adopted and developed by one of his acolytes, Minor White who described it as "when a photograph acts as a symbol or plays the role of a metaphor for something that is beyond the subject photographed."
Equivalence is very much at play in Minor White: Manifestation of the Spirit, currently on view at the Getty through October 19, the first comprehensive retrospective of his work since 1989. It covers his early years shooting for the W.P.A. as well as his midcareer masterpiece like The Sound of One Hand Clapping (1965), as well as some never-before-seen photos from the artist's archive at Princeton University.
Along with Edward Weston and Dorothea Lange, White was selected by his mentor Ansel Adams to teach at the California School for Fine Arts in San Francisco, and became head of the photography program there in 1947. He co-founded and edited Aperture magazine in 1952, and a year later became curator at George Eastman House in Rochester, New York, where he also became editor of their magazine, Image.
"Minor liked to say things like, we should not only photograph things for what they are but for what else they are," curator Paul Martineau tells The Hollywood Reporter. If that sounds a little mystical, it's meant to. Eastern ideas such as Zen Buddhism and the I Ching were popular among artists and intellectuals of the time and get a proper airing in the new show.
A Zen koan asks, "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" With his series of 11 gelatin silver prints entitled,The Sound of One Hand Clapping, White attempts to provide an answer. The first print is of an indiscernible rough-textured circular object (a water tank, according to Martineau), on a dark background. Subsequent photos mostly depict the frost and ice-distorted view from his apartment window on Union Street in Rochester, though you wouldn't know by looking.
While each photo is abstract, to the casual observer they might seem unrelated, yet White insisted they be displayed in a specific order and viewed in a state of relaxation, with pauses between each. He likened the experience to cinema, noting the space between film frames where a phenomenon known as persistence of vision occurs (by which an image remains visible in our mind's eye even after it has passed). Likewise, the space between photos is where the images and symbols specific to the viewer come into play, creating a unique spiritual context for each photo.
"It's not random at all," says Martineau about the order of the photos. "I think you have to bring your own feelings to it in order to really get something from a piece of art that has great complexity and depth."
Martineau is most proud of bringing to the Getty the never-before-seen folio, The Temptation of St. Anthony Is Mirrors (1948), a collection of 32 gelatin silver prints of Tom Murphy, an artist, student, model and rumored lover of White's while he was living in San Francisco. Coming from a deeply religious background, White was conflicted by his homosexuality, and the compositions and poses of these early male nudes (rare for the period) suggest his ambivalence.
"It has never been put on view and had never been published in its entirety," says Martineau, whose book, Minor White: Manifestation of the Spirit, is currently on sale. "It was one of my goals to make sure that was published and included in the show."
Not included in the show, White's self portraits show a man with a slight frame, a bald pate and long white hair flowing to his shoulders. While they give us an image of the photographer, they tell us almost nothing compared to the sensuous black-and-white studies that make up the bulk of the new retrospective.
"All photographs are self-portraits," is a typically enigmatic quote from White that isn't really enigmatic at all. Viewers may have no idea what the man looks like, but thanks to his work they have an indelible vision of his spirit.