The Modernist Photography Pioneer That Time Forgot

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Nude Foot, San Francisco, March 23, 1947© Minor White. Reproduced with permission of the Minor White Archive, Princeton University Art Museum. © Trustees of Princeton University

As a new exhibition opens at the Loewe Gallery in Madrid, we remember the extraordinary work of visionary photographer Minor White

Minor White was one of the most important pioneers and teachers of photographic Modernism during the 20th century, and yet, in comparison to many of his friends and contemporaries – Alfred Stieglitz, Ansel Adams, Edward Weston – his contribution to the medium remains relatively overlooked outside of his native America. This is something the Loewe Foundation is determined to rectify with a new exhibition of the image-maker’s work, opening today at the fashion house’s Madrid gallery as part of the city’s annual photography and visual arts festival, PhotoEspaña. The display will showcase 40 original prints, spanning the entirety of White’s career – from evocative early cityscapes to arresting studies of male nudes, to symbolic depictions of the natural world.

White was born in Minnesota in 1908. A great nature lover, he studied botany and writing at college, only turning his hand to photography after a move to Portland, Oregon in 1937, where he began capturing the rural landscapes that surrounded him. He found in photography what he described as “a language more universal than words” – and from the outset revelled its potential to convey meaning beyond that of its subject matter. “At first glance a photograph can inform us,” he once wrote. “At second glance it can reach us.” This idea appealed to White on multiple levels: a man of great spirituality, who devoted much of his life to studying various Eastern and Western philosophies, he saw image-making as a means of prompting contemplation. This manifests itself in his many beguiling shots of the natural world, which see the photographer employ an astoundingly diverse palette of monochrome tones and clever cropping methods to create abstracted compositions. Take his 1964 work Moon and Wall Encrustations, a spellbinding web of lines and shading that leaves you wondering if you’re gazing upon a cracked mural or a desolate moonscape.

On the other hand, he also saw photography as a means of silently expressing his repressed homosexuality – a burden he lived with for his entire life, for fear of the repercussions it would have on his teaching career. In an early moment of crisis about his photographic abilities, White’s friend and mentor Alfred Stieglitz famously asked him, “Have you ever been in love?” “Yes,” White replied. “Then you can be a photographer,” Stieglitz told him. White’s many striking depictions of the nude male form, such as the light-drenched portrait of a languorous Gino Cipolla (1940), are tender expressions of this sentiment.  

Over the years, as he undertook prestigious teaching jobs across the United States alongside his 20-year tenure as editor of esteemed photography magazine Aperture, White continued to expand upon the notions coined in his early years. He taught his students not to worry about genre or subject, but to pursue feeling and meaning. “There’s no particular class of photograph that I think is any better than any other class,” he said. “I’m always and forever looking for the image that has spirit! I don’t give a damn how it got made.” His aim for photography was that it should be an all-engulfing, mindful experience for both the maker and the viewer, be it a picture of a tumbling waterfall, a pair of majestic, silhouetted reeds, or a nude figure. And he certainly succeeded: his works are, as the Loewe exhibition attests, as powerful and as worthy of celebration now, more than 40 years after his death, as ever before.

Minor White: Metaphors runs until August 25, 2017, at the Loewe Gallery, Madrid.