MINOR WHITE was an American photographer, theoretician, critic, and educator born on this date (d: 1976). 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 took up photography while very young but set it aside for a number of years to study botany and, later, poetry. He began to photograph seriously in 1937. His early years as a photographer were spent working for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in Portland, Ore. Many WPA photographers were chiefly concerned with documentation; White, however, preferred a more personal approach. Several of his photographs were included in a show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in 1941.
White served in the U.S. Army during WWII, and in 1945 he moved to New York City, where he became part of a circle of friends that included the influential photographers Edward Steichen and Alfred Stieglitz His contact with Stieglitz helped him discover his own distinctive style. From Stieglitz he learned the expressive potential of the sequence, a group of photographs presented as a unit. White would present his work in such units along with text, creating arrangements that he hoped would inspire different moods, emotions, and associations in the viewer, moving beyond the conventional expressive possibilities of still photography. White also learned from Stieglitz the idea of the “equivalent,” or a photographic image intended as a visual metaphor for a state of being. Both in his photographs and in his writing, White became the foremost exponent of the sequence and the equivalent.
White was greatly influenced by Stieglitz’s concept of “equivalence,” which White interpreted as allowing photographs to represent more than their subject matter. He wrote “when a photograph functions as an Equivalent, the photograph is at once a record of something in front of the camera and simultaneously a spontaneous symbol. (A ‘spontaneous symbol’ is one which develops automatically to fill the need of the moment. A photograph of the bark of a tree, for example, may suddenly touch off a corresponding feeling of roughness of character within an individual.)”
In his later life he often made photographs of rocks, surf, wood and other natural objects that were isolated from their context, so that they became abstract forms. He intended these to be interpreted by the viewer as something more than what they actually present. According to White, “When a photographer presents us with what to him is an Equivalent, he is telling us in effect, ‘I had a feeling about something and here is my metaphor of that feeling.’…What really happened is that he recognized an object or series of forms that, when photographed, would yield an image with specific suggestive powers that can direct the viewer into a specific and known feeling, state, or place within himself.
Among his best-known books are two collections, Mirrors, Messages, Manifestations (1969), which features some of his sequences, and Minor White: Rites and Passages (1978), with excerpts from his diaries and letters and a biographical essay by James Baker Hall.
From 1965 to 1974 White taught photography at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Boston. In 1968 he photographed in Maine and Vermont, United States and Nova Scotia, Canada. In 1973-1974 White photographed in Lima, Peru and Europe. He died June 24, 1976.