Photographer Minor White was a conflicted soul. A seeker who adopted a succession of mystical and spiritual world views. A teacher who exercised tremendous influence but by his own admission had no friends, only students. A closeted gay man who regarded his own sexuality as an unsolvable philosophical challenge, "a kind of koan."
Biography can tempt us toward a lazy literalism when it comes to interpreting an artist's work, but White (1908-76) invited us down that path when he declared every photograph a self-portrait. "The camera," he wrote, "is first a means of self-discovery and a means of self-growth. The artist has one thing to say — himself."
Roughly 150 of his pictures appear in "Minor White: Manifestations of the Spirit" at the Getty Museum: close-ups of natural textures (wood, stone, ice crystals) that allude to macrocosms; tender and probing portraits; landscape fragments of spare elegance and deep interiority; images made in reverence for the sacredness of all things.
White's last, large-scale exhibition in the U.S. was 25 years ago.
"It was important to get his work in front of people again," says the Getty's Paul Martineau, who organized the current show. "It was time for him to have a comeback."
Attitudes toward what makes an interesting, worthy photograph have changed in the decades since White's legacy was last given a thorough look. Martineau suspects that today's audience will be newly receptive.
"People are open to things they may not have been open to before, like beauty in photography. It's not a dirty word. Photographs can be beautiful and still have significance and power underpinning them."
Born in Minneapolis, White studied botany and English in college and originally set out to become a poet. Something of poetry's concision and distillation suffused his photographic work, which he launched in earnest in the late '30s. Settling in Portland, Ore., for several years, he found relatively quick affirmation of his chosen direction — a position shooting for the Works Progress Administration, a teaching job, and inclusion in a group show at the Museum of Modern Art.
After service in the Army Intelligence Corps during the war and a brief stint in New York, White started teaching with Ansel Adams at the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute). He took his students to Point Lobos to visit Edward Weston, one of his aesthetic mentors, and taught guiding principles based on the practices of another one, Alfred Stieglitz. Photographic images, Stieglitz believed, could be metaphors, not just records, "equivalents" to emotional conditions and states of being.
In 1953, White's affiliation with the California School of Fine Arts was unceremoniously terminated, and he moved to Rochester at the invitation of photo-historian Beaumont Newhall, curator and later director at the George Eastman House. White served there as a curator for several years and taught part time at the Rochester Institute of Technology.
Southern California photographer John Upton had enrolled at the San Francisco school in 1951. He developed a lasting allegiance to White and his methods. In 1955, Upton joined White in Rochester, spending a year as the first in a long and impressive roster of "resident students."
"Minor didn't have a close relationship with his family," says Martineau. "They were very cold. He tried to have a better relationship with them, but it didn't work out. So his students became his family."
Starting with Upton and continuing through his years teaching at MIT (1965-74) and until his death, White had one or more young men (and a few women) sharing his home, helping in the darkroom and engaging in what amounted to a round-the-clock salon of ideas and inquiry.
"It was an extraordinary year," says Upton, a longtime teacher and author of a prominent college textbook on photography. "We did a lot of reading — Evelyn Underhill on mysticism, 'Zen in the Art of Archery,' Japanese ink painting — that became a real factor in my life. I got involved in Zen and did my graduate work in Asian art history. Minor did this to a lot of his students. In the dialogues with him, ideas came up and he pointed people in certain directions. There was constant interaction, morning, noon and night."
Resident students also helped get Aperture out the door and into the hands of subscribers. White helped co-found the influential (and still in print) quarterly journal in 1952 and served as editor for more than 20 years.
"When you picked up that magazine," professor, photo-historian, curator and former White student Peter Bunnell has said, "in effect you were picking up the word of Minor White and his close associates and photographers who adhered to his set of ideas."
White also disseminated his philosophy about how to make and read photographs through decades of private workshops above and beyond his institutional teaching. What he most wanted to impart was the ability to be present, self-aware, to pay attention.
When Upton started teaching, he borrowed one of White's most effective techniques to help students engage deeply with an image: a concentration exercise.
"You get students to relax, starting with their face and moving down their shoulders," Upton said. "You bring the relaxation down to the feet, holding it there a minute. You let the energy come back up through your body and bring it to your eyes."
When students opened their eyes, they would be looking at a photograph. Upton would question them and have them write down and later share their answers.
"What did you feel in your body when you first saw the image? What kind of emotional reaction did you have? What did you learn intellectually from the image?"
The 1960 version of White's sequence, "The Sound of One Hand" (titled after the Zen k¿an "What is the sound of one hand clapping?"), consists of 10 images intimating a human presence in the natural landscape. Installed at the Getty in a single row, it is presented as a case study in how to approach one of the artist's multi-part works.
"He liked people to go from left to right in a state of relaxation and heightened awareness, letting pictures on either side of the one you're looking at influence the others," Martineau said. "It was of great importance to him that everyone would have a different reaction, based on their own associations."
White created more than 100 sequences and portfolios during his lifetime, shifting the parts around, says Martineau, "like a big puzzle, having a lot to do with where he was at that moment, intellectually and emotionally."
White had his detractors, Martineau points out, "people who studied with him who felt he went too far or said it was cultish." But his "army of acolytes" was so formidable and vast that the curator even considered making a genealogical chart to track White's legacy.
By the early '60s, Martineau writes in the exhibition catalog, White was recognized by many "as an artist-teacher endowed with creative power that bordered on the supernatural."