July 9, 1908, Minor Martin White:
”All photographs are self-portraits.”
Minor White is an artists’ patron saint in my city, Portland, Oregon. He lived in an era when being openly queer was not a possibility, and he remained in the closet for much of his life, fearful of losing his teaching positions at the California School of Fine Arts, Rochester Institute of Technology and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). One of the most influential photographers of the 20th century, White was also a counselor, critic, and curator. A life in the closet was a terrible life, yet it helped shape White’s aesthetic vision.
White’s gayness vexed him, and considering the homophobic times in which he lived, it is not surprising that he suppressed the photographs of male nudes that he created early in his career.
White was born in Minneapolis; his father was a bookkeeper, and his mother, a dressmaker. He became interested in photography when he was 10-years-old, when he was given a gift of a Brownie box camera by his grandfather, an avid amateur photographer. Two years later, his grandfather died, and White inherited his photographic equipment.
In 1927, he began studies at the University of Minnesota, where he became aware of his attraction to other men. Being gay tormented him and upset his parents when he told them the bad news.
In college, White wrote poetry, and received a degree in Botany in 1934. Shortly after graduating, White purchased a 35 mm Argus camera and traveled to the West Coast. He worked at the Beverly Hotel in Portland as a night clerk from 1937 to1938 and started taking pictures in earnest. In Portland, White lived at the YMCA. He was active in the Oregon Camera Club and spent his time shooting, exhibiting, and teaching photography to young people.
In 1938, White was chosen as a photographer for President Franklin D. Roosevelt‘s Works Progress Administration (WPA). His assignment was to photograph the Portland waterfront and the city’s 19th century cast iron-façade buildings, which were already beginning to be demolished. At the time, Portland had the largest selection of cast iron building outside of NYC.
White presented two WPA exhibitions, one was on early Portland Architecture; the other, Portland’s working waterfront. In 1940, White was sent to teach photography at the WPA Art Center located in La Grande, Oregon, near the Idaho border. White returned to Portland in 1941 with the intention of setting up his own photography business.
The same year, he also exhibited his work in the Image of Freedom Exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in Manhattan. Recognizing the high quality of White’s photographs, the museum acquired some of his images for its permanent collection.
White’s first solo show, photographs taken in Eastern Oregon, was held at the Portland Art Museum (PAM) in 1942. PAM then commissioned White to photograph historical residences in the city.
White served in the U. S. Army from 1942 to 1945. He participated in the battle of the Philippines and was awarded the Bronze Star. He also shot portraits of soldiers in his unit stationed in Hawaii.
Prior to joining the Army, White embraced the Catholic faith while living in La Grande. In 1943, he was baptized by an Army chaplain. This was a single step on a spiritual search that lasted throughout White’s lifetime, one that lead him to Buddhism and native mysticism.
After WW II, White moved to NYC, because that is what you did. He studied Art History at Columbia University, and he became acquainted with Beaumont Newhall, curator of Photography at MoMA, and his wife, critic Nancy Newhall. They introduced White to photographers Alfred Stieglitz, Berenice Abbott, Edward Steichen, and Edward Weston.
In 1946, White accepted an invitation by the great photographer Ansel Adams to become his assistant at the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco. He remained on the faculty until 1953. During his six-years there, White discovered that he and Adams shared the same basic approach to aesthetics and technique. A group of photographers and fans, including the Newhalls, Dorothea Lange, and Weston, met at Adams’ house, where they decided to start a photography magazine that would publish and discuss photography as a serious art form. White became the editor of the new publication, Aperture Quarterly in 1952. Aperture is still published today. It did more than any other periodical to improve the quality of photographic publishing.
Throughout his life, he experimented with creating sequences, ”cinema of stills” he called them, in which a larger picture emerged from a succession of images.
In the mid-1940s, White struggled with one of his photographic series, Second Sequence / Amputations, scheduled for exhibition at San Francisco’s Palace of the Legion of Honor. The show was canceled because White refused to exhibit his pictures without the accompanying poetry that he had written, which the museum decreed was too personal. The groupings of photographs in a non-narrative form attempted to depict the private emotions of the individual soldier and the ambiguity of post-war patriotism.
White’s first encounter with censorship did not prevent him from continuing to create dangerous work for the era. Yet, it did make him increasingly self-conscious about the homoerotic content of many of his images, which led him to decide on a divide between work that was for public exhibition and work that was for his personal fulfillment.
Despite the cancellation of the Palace of the Legion of Honor exhibition, White soon exhibited a new show, Song Without Words. It traveled around the around the USA, sponsored by the American Federation of Arts. This show obliquely addressed the emotional turmoil he felt over his love and desire for men.
White had been interested in the theatre, beginning in high school, and it was natural that he sometimes worked as a photographer for theatre groups. That influence is seen in much of his photography with its dramatic compositions, expressionistic lighting, and the way he revealed the character of his models. More than any other photographer of his time, White attempted to explore the depths he perceived beneath the surfaces of his male models. He avoided the surrealism of photographers such as George Platt Lynes, and he attempted to infuse his photographs with a spirituality that would transform the worldly and the sexual.
White produced a series of pictures titled The Temptation Of Saint Anthony Is Mirrors, consisting of nude portraits of a model named Tom Murphy, and the sequence is one of White’s most evocative. A famous image, Tom Murphy (1947), shows White’s theatrical lighting, as well as his need to keep his own gayness under wraps and to transform the carnal into something spiritual.
By 1950, White began working with another young man. In Fifth Sequence / Portrait of a Young Man As Actor, White shot Mark Adams, who was also an artist and an actor. Although his male nudes were a major Minor achievement, they were not shown in public until the important exhibition Minor White: The Eye That Shapes in 1989.
Yet, a variety of exhibition venues began to open to White during the 1950s. He curated How to Read a Photograph at the San Francisco Museum of Art in 1953 and became an assistant at George Eastman House, a photography museum in Rochester. White served as curator of exhibitions there for four years and edited their Image Magazine. He curated shows and presented a huge exhibition of his own work, Sequence 13: Return To The Bud, in 1959.
In Rochester, White further developed his interests in mysticism and Eastern philosophies. He would later take these ideas into the classroom and use them to teach his students how to clear the mind and become fully present to a photographic subject.
In 1969, White published Mirrors, Messages, And Manifestations: Photographs And Writings 1938-1968, a catalog that accompanied a major traveling exhibition of White’s work that originated at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1970.
White lived an extremely active life. He curated exhibitions and taught, created his own work, plus conducted workshops across the country. The pace was grueling, and it began to affect his health. In 1974, to reduce stress, he resigned as editor of Aperture, but also saw the first substantial exhibition of his photographs tour Europe. White loved Europe and accepted an offer to lecture at the Victoria and Albert Museum, however, he suffered a heart attack that hospitalized him for a month, yet even the heart attack failed to stop his work. He continued until he died of a second heart attack in June 1976.
White was never able to be open about being gay. He believed that his career would destroyed by a even a whiff of scandal, and he refused to exhibit photographs that were sexually explicit. Even his male nudes that he failed to exhibit were portrayed in a way that kept the model’s identity in the shadows. The emotional toll of a life in the closet did not stop White from creating truly great art. A deeply religious man who made a spiritual journey of his whole life, and he made his art an integral part of that journey.
After his death in 1976, White largely fell out of the public favor. But, he is back in the spotlight again. Last year, Portland hosted two major Minor White shows, one at PAM and another at the Portland Architectural Heritage Center.