Minor White (1908 – 1976)

July 18, 2012

Photographer, teacher
Lot #9800/ 244, Meadow Road

Born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Minor White was the only child of Charles White, a bookkeeper, and Florence White, a dressmaker.  White grew up close to his maternal grandparents, whom he saw nearly every day, and credited them as being one of the greatest influences in his life.  White’s grandfather was an amateur photographer with an impressive collection of early lantern slides by famous early photographers like Matthew Brady and Timothy O’Sullivan that White eventually inherited. White was given his first camera when he was nine years old, but at the time was more interested in his grandmother’s impressive garden than photography.

White entered the University of Minnesota in 1927 to study botany.  In 1933 he graduated with his degree in botany and a minor in English. White learned how to develop and print film while in college, mostly photographs of plants.  In college White also became interested in poetry and after graduating, decided to spend five years training himself to be a poet. Although he worked seven days a week as a waiter and bartender, White still found time to complete a series of one hundred sonnets.  After completing his sonnets, he turned his attention to photography.

In June of 1938 White purchased a 35mm Argus camera and boarded a bus bound for Portland, OR.  In Portland, White found work as a desk clerk at a small hotel and lived at the YMCA for several months.  White turned more and more of his creative energies towards photography and joined the Oregon Camera Club, where he learned the finer techniques of printmaking.  In 1938 White was hired as a photographer for the WPA to produce images of Portland architecture and the Portland waterfront.  In 1940 he was sent to eastern Oregon where he was director of the La Grand Art Center for two years.  In 1941 White’s photographs were shown as part of the Image of Freedom exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, his first national exposure.  The following year he had his first one man show at the Portland Art Museum in Oregon.

In 1942, White was drafted for World War II and served in the Army Intelligence Corps from April of 1942 until August of 1945.  Most of his service was spent in the South Pacific.  White was starved for creative outlets during this period.  His only photographs shot during his service in the Army were of fellow soldiers.  He did work on a book about photography, though never published, and wrote poetry.  Some of his war portraits and poetry appear in his late published Mirrors Messages Manifestations (1969).

White returned to the U.S. in 1945 and spent a year living in New York while he studied museum methods at The Museum of Modern Art and art history and aesthetics at Columbia University.  He was offered, but ultimately turned down, a curator’s position at The Museum of Modern Art and instead accepted a teaching position under Ansel Adams at the California School of Fine Art (now the San Francisco Art Institute) in San Francisco. After six months of his new teaching position, White and Adams developed a new three-year course of study for the school’s photography students.  White became the primary teacher of the Zone System, a method he developed with Adams, which allowed more precise control over the appearance of photographs.

While in San Francisco White began to experiment with photographing the male nude figure.  His images of the male nude, an expression of White’s own homosexuality, were evocative and controversial.  Although an important achievement, his nudes were not publicly shown until 1989.  In 1952 Aperture, The Quarterly of Photography, a new photography journal for serious photographers was founded with White as its editor.  For Aperture White helped to create a serious literature for photography with careful attention paid to the analytical analysis of photographs.

In 1953 White left San Francisco after facing criticisms of his photographs and his lifestyle to take a position as curator of the George Eastman House in Rochester, NY.  At the Eastman House, White curated several important photography shows, but did not feel that his work there had any influence on his own photographs.  He left his position at the Eastman House in 1956 and supported himself by teaching part time at the Rochester Institute of Technology, traveling to give lectures and conducting photography workshops.  During this time White also abandoned portrait photography for landscape photography.

In 1964 White was offered a job at MIT to start a photography program. In early 1965 White moved from Rochester and settled in Arlington, MA to become the first Professor of Photography in MIT’s history.  After four years, his position was tenured.  The purpose of this program was to expose engineers, architects and scientists to a creative medium other than their own and MIT gave White free reign in developing a program.  Within a few years, MIT had one of the best photography programs in the country.  One of his courses at MIT, “Creative Audience,” did not use cameras at all, but instead taught students how to heighten their own sensitivity to themselves and the world around them.  White’s program also included classes in basic and advanced photography techniques, art criticism and the history of photography.

White’s demanding teaching schedule at MIT, his work as editor of Aperture and the numerous workshops that he conducted around the country each year left him little time to focus on his own photographs.

Over a six-year period, however, he did find time to hang six controversial showings at MIT’s Hayden Gallery including Light, Being Without Clothes, Octave of Prayer and Celebrations.  He also completed his first monograph of his photographs Mirror Messages Manifestations (1969) which was accompanied by a major traveling exhibition of his works.

In 1975 White retired from teaching in ill health.  He spent his time working on two final books and working with his camera.  White died on June 24, 1976 in Boston.  He was buried at Mount Auburn Cemetery on Meadow Road.  White’s slate monument reads “ALL THE WAY TO HEAVEN IS HEAVEN, FOR HE SAID ‘I AM THE WAY’” a quote from Saint Catherine of Siena.

Adapted from the research used in Mount Auburn Cemetery’s Person of the Week: Minor White, 2004.

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