In Defense Of Minor White
As anyone familiar with me and this blog should know, my point of entry into photography as a way of life was through the work of Minor White. Everything I do photographically stems from my understanding of Minor White’s work. When I read a recent blog post by the photographer Alec Soth expressing his contempt for the man and his work well I had to come out of my blog sabbatical and try to clear up some misunderstandings. I am a fan of Alec Soth’s work too. But his photographic practice and world view, at least as I can gleam from his photographic work and blog are very different from the one espoused by Minor White.
Soth’s work deals mainly with documentation of the here and now. Surfaces as document; portraits mainly, but also objects and the trappings of human existence. In his blog post Soth says that he is always wary of people who try to mix spiritual practice with photography. He then goes on to state why:
I think photography is the most anti-Zen activity. It’s all about stopping time, possessing things, holding onto them
This one baggage laden statement describes exactly Soth’s misunderstanding of White’s work. First of all White did not adhere strictly to any one single philosophy. As Estelle Jussim and Elizabeth L.. Cook state in their book; Landscape As Photograph:
A mystic and a poet, Minor White searched Swedenborgianism, Zen Buddhism, the psychology of vision, Korzybskian semantics, Sumiye paining, the metaphysics of Gurdjieff, and the teachings embodied in Tao, for cues to meaning and symbol.
What Minor White was truly after in his work was the liberation of the photograph and of the experience of viewing a photograph (or work of art). He was not interested in stopping time, in fact in many ways he was looking to transcend time. His work was an extension of the idea of Equivalence proposed by Alfred Stieglitz. A photograph can work as, for lack of a more precise term, a metaphor for an emotion that one was feeling or for an idea of the ineffable.
While rocks were photographed, the subject of the sequence is not rocks; while symbols seem to appear, they are pointers to the significance. The meaning appears in the space between the images, in the mood they raise in the beholder. The flow of the sequence eddies in the river of his associations as he passes from picture to picture. The rocks and the photographs are only objects upon which significance is spread like sheets on the ground to dry.
The goal of the artist working in the “Equivalent” tradition is to initiate a process between the viewer and the photograph (or work of art). An equivalent is a process. It’s an experience. Any photograph regardless of source might function as an Equivalent to someone, somewhere, sometime. Equivalence in photography really refers to what is going on in the viewers mind.
When one speaks of the ineffable the idea of God and Religion usually become entangles in the meaning. Although White was a religious person, his meaning of Spirit in photography isn’t really about spirituality per se. It’s about seeing what lies beyond what is right in front of you. A sense of wonder of the grandeur of the Universe and an acknowledgement that this existence contains more than what we can sense directly. For many, religion is how they accomplish this. For me (a devout atheist) it is the study of science and physics in particular.
I think this quote from an issue of Aperture (1959) sums up what Minor White was really attempting:
Dreams and photographs have something in common, those photographs that yield to contemplation at least have a quality about them that tempt one to set associations going.
What you will find will be your own. The experience cannot be compared to addition because that implies one right answer and many wrong ones. Instead the experience should be compared to an equation one factor of which is the viewer’s depth mind. When so treated there are many right answers as persons who contemplate the picture; and only one wrong answer- no experience.