Minor White is one of the masters of photographic modernism. Throughout his career, White sought to photograph things not only for what they are but also for what they may suggest, and his pictures teem with symbolic and metaphorical allusions. Coming of age when homosexuality was socially unacceptable, White sought comfort in a variety of Western and Eastern religious practices. Photography became both a way to make visible his ongoing search for spiritual transcendence and a medium through which he could express his sexual desire for men. White's work was highly influential to a generation of photographers and still resonates today.
Early Career: 1937–45
Born and educated in Minnesota, White began his photographic career when he moved to Oregon in 1937 and began to photograph rural landscapes in the spirit of Ansel Adams. Reflecting his nascent spiritual awakening, White's early photographs sometimes include symbolic allusions, as in Cabbage Hill, Oregon, (above), where a corner of a split-rail fence and a coil of barbed wire gives rise not only to associations with hard physical labor but also Christ's suffering on the cross.
At the invitation of Ansel Adams, White moved to San Francisco to teach at the California School of Fine Arts in 1946. There, he investigated the critical aspect called "equivalency," where an image serves as an idea or emotional state beyond the subject pictured. When White accepted a curatorial job in Rochester, New York, he intensified his study of Eastern and Western religions and made his seminal sequence of images, Sound of One Hand, the summation of his persistent search for a way to communicate ecstasy.
Late Career: 1965–76
White was appointed professor of creative photography at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1965. The following year, he experienced chest pains that were diagnosed as angina and became increasingly aware of his own mortality. Essence of Boat, Lanesville, Massachusetts (above) represents the keel and aft of a small, broken-down vessel partially covered in snow. Beautiful in its simplicity, the image is charged with great emotional power when read as a metaphor for White's journey on earth reaching its end.
The first major retrospective of White's work since 1989, this exhibition was organized by the J. Paul Getty Museum and includes photographs that are part of a larger group of promised gifts from Los Angeles-based collectors Daniel Greenberg and Susan Steinhauser.