Clarence White


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Photographer. His serene, evocative images rank among the finest accomplishments of pictorialism. Living in central Ohio and relying exclusively on his family and a few friends to pose for his idylls, White created a distinctive and coherent body of work between about 1898 and 1906. His softly focused, graceful platinum prints display fresh compositions, sensitive renderings of light, and an unaffected devotion to beauty. Born in the tiny village of West Carlisle, Ohio, Clarence Hudson White moved in 1887 with his family to the nearby county seat, Newark, where he graduated from high school three years later. He worked as a bookkeeper until 1904, when he left salaried employment in order to pursue full time the photography that had been an avocation since the early 1890s. By 1898, when his work in an important Philadelphia show came to the attention of the photographic community's national leaders, he had already formed an individual style, although he remained entirely without training in either art or photography. Based largely on the examples of Japanese prints and progressive painting styles of the day, particularly James Abbott McNeill Whistler's, his highly original photographs demonstrate an understanding of asymmetrical balance, two-dimensional patterning, and composition based on tone. Many of White's photographs present staged poetic fantasies. In “Morning” (1905), a woman in white holding a glass ball drifts through a landscape suffused with the pearly illumination of dawn. Others draw on domestic life. “Ring Toss” (1899) depicts three preadolescent girls at play indoors, although their identities and activity are less important than issues of composition and lighting. With such works, White won numerous prizes and honors, and in 1902 Alfred Stieglitz included him among the founding members of the Photo-Secession.

In 1906 White moved to New York. Although this step put him at the center of the art photography movement, the city did not nourish his vision. Instead, the relocation ended the most creative phase of his life. Driven by the need to support his family and temperamentally unsuited to commercial work, he turned to teaching, eventually becoming the leading mentor to the next generation of photographers. In 1907 Arthur Wesley Dow invited him to conduct classes at Teachers College, Columbia University, where he remained for many years while also teaching elsewhere. In 1910 he and painter Max Weber founded a summer school in Maine, and four years later he established a New York photography school. Although White had distanced himself from Stieglitz since 1910, he remained active in art photography circles. In 1916, along with other disaffected Secessionists, he founded the Pictorial Photographers of America and served as its first president. White's undogmatic approach to photography served him well as a teacher. At the same time, although he photographed very little, his own practice evolved, becoming more straightforward and modern. The landscape “Croton Reservoir” (1925) exemplifies the strengths of his emerging late aesthetic. Taken from a high vantage point, it captures a dynamic pattern of forms. White's sudden death in Mexico City while on a photography trip with students prevented him from fully realizing a new stylistic phase in his career. White's widow and students maintained his school until 1943.


Subjects: Art.

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