Minor White


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Photographer. A student of Zen Buddhism and other mystically oriented philosophies, he often chose points of view and conditions of light that pushed his impeccably crafted, sharp-focus works close to abstraction. In conscious emulation of Alfred Stieglitz, he pursued the notion that a photograph should convey its maker's inner emotion, aroused by the subject before his camera. As editor for many years of the discriminating photography magazine Aperture, White published a wide range of artistic approaches and promoted a searching discourse about the medium. As well, he arranged many important photography shows that enlarged the discussion of images, often with an emphasis on metaphysical interpretation, and he served as an important mentor during a long teaching career. Born in Minneapolis, Minor Martin White graduated in 1933 from the University of Minnesota with a degree in botany. About the time he turned seriously to photography in 1937, he moved to Portland, Oregon, where the following year he joined a federal art project to work as a documentary photographer. Drafted into the U.S. Army in 1942, he fought in the Pacific. Upon discharge in 1945, he moved to New York, where he studied art history at Columbia University under Meyer Schapiro and worked with Beaumont Newhall at the Museum of Modern Art. As he developed a personal photographic style, he adopted Stieglitz's passion for the expressive equivalent, as well as his interest in sequencing, or arranging photographs in a particular order for aesthetic effect, later a key method in White's practice. After moving to San Francisco in 1946, he was attracted to Edward Weston's purism and Ansel Adams's dedication to nature. Both men also strengthened his commitment to flawless printing emphasizing tonal beauty. In 1952 he returned to New York, where, with others, he founded Aperture before moving the next year to Rochester, New York. Soon becoming the magazine's sole editor, he continued as the publication's guiding spirit until his death. With Stieglitz's Camera Work as his model, he produced an elegant, informative journal that upheld rigorous artistic standards and appealed only to a comparatively small audience of art photography enthusiasts. White was appointed to head the photography department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1965. He retired in 1974 and died in a Boston hospital, not far from his home in Arlington.

Characteristically clear, close-up views of nature fragments, White's photographs typically employ spatial and formal ambiguities to prevent precise identification of the subject and thus to encourage multiple meanings. “Moencopi Strata, Capitol Reef, Utah” (1962) pictures crisply edged geologic formations, but viewpoint, lighting, and lack of scale undercut representational readings. “Moon and Wall Encrustations”(1964) suggests a rolling landscape seen by ghostly light under a slightly misshapen moon. The title reveals that we are looking at something else entirely but does not permit the viewer to understand the subject completely. Other, more comprehensible views often suggest spiritual connotations. In 1956, he published Exposure with the Zone System (revised in 1963 as Zone System Manual), adapting Adams's system to intuitive photography. The autobiographical Mirrors, Messages, Manifestations (1969) supplements his photographs with poetic text. The posthumous Minor White: Rites and Passages (1978) accompanies a selection of his photographs with excerpts from letters and diaries.


Subjects: Photography and Photographs.

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