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Talks & Interviews

Revisiting the Sequence:
Minor White at the Getty Center

Diana C. Stoll in conversation with Paul Martineau, curator of Minor White: Manifestations of the Spirit at the J. Paul Getty Center, Los Angeles

Minor White, Self-Portrait (West Bloomfield, New York), 1957. © Trustees of Princeton University

 

Aperture magazine was founded in 1952 by a group of luminaries that included Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange, Barbara Morgan, and Beaumont and Nancy Newhall. But the figure who truly breathed life into the new journal was photographer, teacher, critic, poet, and spiritual thinker Minor White. As the editor of Aperture during its first twenty-three years, White established the magazine’s identity as a crucial forum for contemporary art photography. His decisive influence was also disseminated through classes and workshops, and of course through his own work in photography—a medium he saw as nothing less than a vehicle toward transcendence.

Minor White: Manifestations of the Spirit, the first museum exhibition of White’s work to be presented in a quarter of a century, is on view at the J. Paul Getty Center in Los Angeles through October 19. I recently spoke with Paul Martineau, the show’s curator and the author of its accompanying catalog, about White’s work and its reception, and the thinking behind the exhibition.  —Diana C. Stoll

Diana C. Stoll: Minor White is a perennially interesting and complicated subject. How did you come to take this on as a project?

Paul Martineau: I have liked Minor White’s work for a long time—and although the Getty has an outstanding holding of modernist photography, I was surprised to learn that there were only three prints by Minor in the collection. I had the idea to do a show with the hope of obtaining more of his work for the museum. We were very fortunate to have the support of Los Angeles–based philanthropists Daniel Greenberg and Susan Steinhauser, who helped us to acquire the sequence Sound of One Hand and have promised to donate a significant number of photographs by White to the Getty Museum. In three years, when all the gifts have come in, we’ll have seventy-five!

Also, it had been twenty-five years since Minor’s last major exhibition [Minor White: The Eye That Shapes, organized by Peter C. Bunnell, opened in 1989 at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and traveled to Portland, Minneapolis, San Francisco, Rochester, Boston, and Princeton]. I realized it was time.

DCS:   Let’s talk about that twenty-five year gap. The subtitle of your show is Manifestations of the Spirit. The idea of Spirit was central to Minor’s work—but do you think it might be one of the reasons why he’s not been focused on in all these years?

PM: Yes. When I was planning this exhibition, I looked into all the past exhibitions and books on Minor—and I thought about how difficult it seemed to come to an understanding of what Minor was all about. I realized that what was needed at this time was a project that made Minor’s life and work more accessible.

DCS:  Certainly the public’s understanding of homosexuality has changed, too—since the 1989 exhibition, and even more since Minor’s own lifetime. Does this give us a new way to talk about his approach?

PM:  It’s key to understanding what he’s about. Imagine trying to understand Alfred Stieglitz without his photographs of Georgia O’Keeffe, or Edward Weston without his photographs of Tina Modotti or Charis Wilson.

DCS:  But as heterosexuals, Stieglitz and Weston didn’t face the quite same thing in their work. In his 2008 essay “Cruising and Transcendence in the Photographs of Minor White,” critic Kevin Moore talks about the idea of sexual frustration being central to the meaning of Minor’s work. For Stieglitz and Weston—and many others, of course—sexuality was important, but I don’t think they felt thwarted in finding the means to express it.

But I wonder if someday Minor’s angst will seem almost historical to us—like the fury of pre-civil-rights artists in the United States . . . we can understand where their anger and frustration were coming from, but it feels distant. Will Minor’s frustration—if that word applies—seem foreign to people as generations go by, and as sexual variations are taken for granted?

PM:   Right. I learned recently that Facebook now has fifty-one different gender designations to choose from—and the British branch of Facebook added fourteen more! It shows you how far things have come.

One of the clues to how Minor thought about homosexuality is in a letter that he wrote to photographer Edmund Teske. [In 1962, Teske sent White some two hundred photographs in the hopes that he would make a selection from them for publication in Aperture. Teske’s sexual interest in men was clear to White, who responded with a very emotional letter saying that Teske needed to “universalize” his imagery, so that his feelings wouldn’t be so obvious and the work would have a broad appeal.]

Minor White, Rochester, New York, 1963. Courtesy of the Minor White Archive, Princeton University Art Museum

 

DCS:   When I was working as an editor at Aperture magazine, many decades later, that was still the central question: how does the work communicate to the reader? The magazine has to function as a mediator between the artist and the public—and it was Minor who set up that dynamic for Aperture. How does an artist take this intensely personal thing and universalize it so that people will get it on the other end? As an editor, Minor understood: the magazine brings it to the reader, and the reader in turn has to be able to take it and go with it.

I’ve had the opportunity to talk to Peter Bunnell about Aperture’s early years, and how Minor fell into the job of being the editor. But boy, he took to it like a fish to water!

PM:   Yes. And Aperture became a sort of a Bible for insiders. But by the time the ’70s rolled around there was some reaction against Minor and his powerful influence. People were becoming interested in new things, photographically and otherwise—such as New Topographics.

DCS:  And of course sociologically, the world was changing, too. All that very important and influential stuff that Minor was disseminating with his workshops—the mystical, the esoteric, the spiritual. . . .

Minor White, The Sound of One Hand Clapping, Pultneyville, New York, 1957. Courtesy the Minor White Archive, Princeton University Art Museum

 

PM:  It was part of that period, and then it subsided.

DCS:  In a similar way, Minor was wonderfully presumptuous in what he expected of viewers—both for his own work and for other people’s photography—he demanded a kind of “heightened awareness.” He wanted you to bring your full self to the process of looking. One wonders how well later generations will be able to do that. Will they do it at all?

PM:   Today, of course, we’re constantly bombarded with images—on the sides of buses, on our cell phones. This show, however, calls on people to slow down and study the pictures. To spend time with them.

DCS:   One of White’s great contributions to photography was the idea of sequence: a body of images that is somehow greater than the sum of its parts—he used the term “cinema of stills.” But in the 1989 show, Bunnell did not include any sequences at all, because (as he says in a footnote in the exhibition catalog): “In a public gallery, crowded with people, the necessary state of concentration cannot be achieved by a viewer to properly engage the works as White intended.”

PM:   I think that might make sense for someone who has devoted a life to the study of photography . . . which is different from the average museum-goer. I think it’s a disservice to Minor and to the viewer not to include any sequences because of the fear that people might approach it in the wrong way.

Installation view of Minor White's series The Sound of the Hand, Getty Center, July 8–October 19, 2014 Courtesy Getty Center

Installation view of Minor White’s series Sound of One Hand. Courtesy Getty Center

 

DCS:   How are you presenting Minor’s sequences in this show?

PM:   The only sequence that I have in its entirety, in the original order, is Sound of One Hand (sequenced in 1965). Ten of the photographs are hung closely together on one wall with the eleventh nearby in a floor case. I placed a text explaining what a sequence is, and how Minor would want you to approach reading it, on the adjacent wall. So visitors are able to experience it the way Minor intended, if they want to. Some people won’t read it and maybe they’ll go backwards, but that’s up to them.

DCS:   In the exhibition catalog, you show The Temptation of St. Anthony Is Mirrors [thirty-two images centered on White’s student and model Tom Murphy, sequenced in 1948] in its entirety. I believe there are only two copies of that sequence, right? Minor had one, and Tom Murphy had the other.

PM:   Yes, both copies are now in the Minor White Archive, thanks to Peter Bunnell’s efforts. Hardly anyone knew about this album before we published it.

DCS:   What kind of light do you think this sequence sheds on his work?

PM:   It’s a wonderful pilgrimage of sorts through Minor’s various mental and emotional states, from anguish to ecstasy. The alternating rhythms of stillness and movement feel like a kind of a dance, as you page through the album.

DCS:   Clearly Minor considered this a private project—but there is certainly meaning to be drawn from it. It’s an interesting balance: how understanding Minor affects the understanding of his work, versus being able, as a viewer, to pull from yourself and relate to his images.

PM:  It’s the two-way street; you benefit by being able to travel both ways. If you know more about Minor, certain things come to the fore that you would probably not have realized on your own. But you can still appreciate and enjoy the power of the work without any knowledge of what Minor was about.

DCS:  Minor’s body of work—as well as his work with Aperture, and as a teacher—was very much about challenging the viewer to rise to the occasion of looking: to bring your all to the experience.

PM:   That was one of his lifelong challenges: he wanted people to study the work and bring their own associations to the viewing of it. I think a big clue to Minor’s approach is the title of Sound of One Hand—from the Zen koan that asks “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” Everyone is going to come up with a different answer.

Minor White, Tom Murphy, San Francisco, from the series The Temptation of St. Anthony Is Mirrors, 1948 © Trustees of Princeton University

DCS:  And what about the title The Temptation of St. Anthony Is Mirrors?

PM:  It refers to Anthony the Great, the mystic who helped spread the concept of monasticism and lived as hermit. When he was alone in the desert, he was continuously tempted by the Devil. And Minor believed that every portrait he took was a self-portrait—a mirror image of his desires and fears. . . . I think in all his pictures, there are these two issues: he presents himself as someone who has desires for men, but doesn’t act on them—and channels that energy into something of great beauty and power. He didn’t always live up to his ideals, but he tried to.

DCS:   Minor said at one point: “A love of God can grow out of a love for the flesh.”

PM:   Yes. Minor was hard on himself. That is part of the struggle that you can feel in some of his work.

DCS:   It’s interesting how some photographers can benefit from their challenges. All these things nourished Minor’s work.

PM:  For me, Minor’s best work was made from 1958 to 1963—that really represents the apex of his career, when I feel he was applying all the things he was learning from his study of Eastern religions to the work, and doing things that no one else was doing. Although he had been teaching for many years already, this was also when he was really starting his workshops. He liked the workshop format because it enabled him to be more experimental. He didn’t have to answer to anyone. He even studied hypnotism and used it in some of his workshops in the 1960s. That might not have gone over so well in an academic setting!

The photographer John Upton, who studied with Minor, told me that he used Minor’s relaxation techniques in an experiment that he did with two groups of students. He had them all read photographs, and the group that had completed the exercises came up with much more profound insights and reactions to the photographs.

DCS:   And what else about Minor’s legacy? What things have come down to us from him, in terms of both photography and teaching photography?

PM: At the outset, I thought it would be interesting to create a kind of genealogical tree that would show Minor and his students, and their students. Then I realized that such a project would take years to develop! Minors students are legion—Minor’s army! There are so many people who studied with him and then, in turn, taught other people

DCS:   Are there photographers today who had no contact with Minor but have been obviously touched by him?

PM: Abelardo Morell comes to mind. I don’t think he knew Minor, but he has definitely been influenced by his writing and ideas. I remember him quoting Minor at one point, about metaphorical photographs.

DCS:   Minor said: “To look at things to see what else they are.” It’s about photographing and understanding meaning on at least three levels, and probably more. He took Stieglitz’s idea of equivalency all the way to the end-point.

PM: Right. There’s nothing else to be uncovered in that theory while remaining connected to reality.

And Paul Caponigro, who was a student of Minor’s, said something I think is very important: that Minor White showed everyone, in word and deed, what it is to live a life completely dedicated to photography.

Minor White, 72 N. Union Street, Rochester, 1960. Courtesy the Minor White Archive, Princeton University Art Museum

_____

Paul Martineau is associate curator in the Department of Photographs at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

Diana C. Stoll is a writer and editor based in Asheville, North Carolina. She was the senior editor of Aperture magazine from 2000 to 2013, and co-edited Peter C. Bunnell’s 2012 book Aperture Magazine Anthology—The Minor White Years, 1952–1976.

 

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