Is a revival of interest in the photographs of Minor White (1908-1976) worthwhile?
Once, White's work was the epitome of all that art photography aspired to be. Since his death, however — and, actually, beginning several years before — his star has fallen.
The J. Paul Getty Museum thinks rehabilitation of White's reputation is very much in order. A retrospective of his lush, poetically evocative silver gelatin prints is on view through Oct. 19. It's the first such survey in a quarter-century, and it makes a very persuasive case.
FOR THE RECORD:
Minor White review: In the Aug. 2 Calendar section, a review of "Minor White: Manifestations of the Spirit" at the J. Paul Getty Museum said that White studied art history with Meyer Schapiro at New York University. White studied with Schapiro at Columbia University.
Among its 98 photographs and several artist's books are works usually housed in the artist's large archive at Princeton University, objects that have not been exhibited before. Among them is the 1948 handmade book "The Temptation of St. Anthony Is Mirrors," an enigmatically titled suite of 32 photographs inspired by White's student and model, Tom Murphy. It's one of just two copies White made.
An addendum to the show further implies White's legacy as a lifelong teacher and museum curator. His influence is reflected in a selection of 22 photographs by Paul Caponigro and Carl Chiarenza, well-known artists who studied with White at Rochester Institute of Technology in upstate New York.
Finally, the retrospective is accompanied by a large-format book. It features a smart interpretive essay that is a model of clarity and concision by the organizer, Getty curator Paul Martineau, plus lavish reproductions of everything in the show. Beautifully produced, it is especially unusual for an exhibition not currently scheduled to travel.
"Controversial, misunderstood and sometimes overlooked," says the wall text introducing White in the first gallery. The observation borders on understatement. "Pointedly plowed under" might be closer to the truth.
Photography as an art form has undergone a dramatic transformation over the last 50 years. In America, the change begins with works like the snapshot-like image books of gas stations by Edward Ruscha, Andy Warhol's silk-screen canvases in which found photographs from mass-media masquerade as paintings and the numinous photo-collages made with an early form of commercial copy machine by Wallace Berman.
The Modernist tradition, which regarded photographs as a separate, distinctive art form that could be as powerful as paintings or sculptures, began to unravel. White was arguably its dominant voice. That made his work a very fat target.
White didn't begin to make photographs until he was nearly 30, well into his adult years, shortly after his 1937 move to Portland, Ore., from Minneapolis, where he was born. The Getty exhibition is divided into three chronological sections; they chart his rise in the photographic field.
His early career shows him learning technique and developing a photographic philosophy. He spent several months in Manhattan immediately after service in World War II. There he studied art history with Meyer Schapiro at New York University and photographic history with artist Alfred Stieglitz and Museum of Modern Art curator Beaumont Newhall and his editor-wife, Nancy.
White's midcareer is marked by extraordinary professional success. He was hired by Ansel Adams to teach in San Francisco, befriended Edward Weston, co-founded the influential photographic magazine Aperture in 1952 (he remained its editor until 1975), was hired the following year as a curator at Rochester's prestigious George Eastman House and began teaching at RIT. His work was acquired by countless museums.
By the time he moved to Boston to teach at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1965, which the Getty identifies as the start of his late career, White was virtually synonymous with American art photography.
Take "Cabbage Hill, Oregon (Grande Ronde Valley)," 1941. A ring of barbed wire hangs on a prairie fence. Artifacts of grueling daily labor on the land are arranged in an evocation of a crown of thorns atop a cross.
Using the camera as a tool for self-discovery, White began to entwine American photography's two leading strands. Pictorialism asserted its artistic status through refined, metaphoric and subjective expression that summons up paintings. Straight photography advocated a purist strain of objectivity often emphasizing underlying structure. Both resound in "Cabbage Hill."
Twenty-two years later White photographed an elegant pair of male hands cupping a bowl, which is filled with nothing but light. The composition is surprisingly similar to "Cabbage Hill," its shift in spiritual iconography now more abstract and reflecting the artist's own move from Roman Catholicism to Zen. The visual exaltation of a man-made bowl of light further resonates historically with 19th century American landscape paintings and photographs, which did something similar for nature.