Minor White was one of the most influential photographers of the 20th century and he generated considerable controversy in his last years for the promotion of spirituality. I met him early in my introduction to photography and admired his work. I recently renewed my interest in him because of a developing involvement in Zen practice and efforts to explore spirituality in relation to my own photographs.
Minor was not only an important artist but also a teacher, editor and curator, and his language of spirit and spirituality came at a time when it had declining credibility in the art world. Though this language had a certain resonance within the wider cultural scene of the sixties it was an early and continuing theme for White that was no doubt stimulated by the challenge of living as a homosexual in an era before gay rights. Spirituality has long been associated with finding relief from the misfortunes and injustices of the social world, as well as finding purpose in the midst of uncertainty and doubt. Of course spirituality has also been an ageless source of inspiration for artists exploring the uncharted domains of human awareness and creativity.
Many people are unaware of the importance of spiritual and metaphysical issues in the development of modernist art. Indeed there was a reluctance of many artists to talk about this, for fear it would be misunderstood. Picasso is credited with saying “Something sacred, that’s it… We can’t say that… people would put a wrong interpretation on it. And yet it’s the nearest we can get to the truth.” (Lipsey) In that sense Minor White’s concern with spirituality was mostly notable because of ways he made an issue of it. In addition, his last decade roughly coincided with the end of the modernist period in art and the development of competing sensibilities that superseded concerns about any transcendent or universal truth. Nevertheless, 2014 saw a major retrospective of White’s work at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Manifestations of the Spirit.
One of the interesting things about Minor was his persistent return to the word spirit, which has related but different associations than spiritual. Though spiritual has been traditionally associated with religious devotion, in the now more secular era of western societies it has come to have connotations with the psychology of peak experiences and non-western religions. Spirit is often used to suggest the incorporeal or invisible as in the Latin spiritus for breath, and as well as to suggest life and energy. Whereas spiritual connotes an experience, spirit suggests something other than our selves. That is certainly the sense in which White uses it, when he writes of his desire ‘to invoke the invisible with the visible’. (1959)
Spirit for White was another realm, one which he seems to have first recognized in the poems of William Blake and which he experienced deeply during his military service when he was surrounded by death and was struggling with his homosexuality. In Rites and Passages James Baker Hall shares much of nine long letters which White wrote about his war experience. These letters suggest the authenticity of White’s spiritual quest that would occupy him for the rest of his life as he explored a variety of spiritual traditions and methodologies (1978). White writes about a sense of solemnity that has a deeper pleasure than joy, “like a river turning into a powerful column as it rolls over the edge of a cliff”. Hall describes it as “an awareness of White’s sacred origins in the Creation, where all things are known to be everywhere all the time, each moment a reenactment of the cosmogony”.
In Mirrors messages manifestations Minor refers to an encounter with Edward Weston when he experienced the invisible (Point) Lobos and the invisible – deceased (Alfred) Stieglitz. Stieglitz and Weston were the two photographers who had the most influence on White. After being discharged from the Army in 1945, Minor White spent time in New York City where he met Alfred Stieglitz and other modern artists. Stieglitz did not write about spirit but he reproduced excerpts of Wassily Kandinsky’s seminal thesis Concerning the Spiritual in Art in a 1912 volume of the photographic journal Camera Work, and he seems to have derived elements of his theory of equivalence from Kandinsky. Stieglitz’s concept of equivalence was something that White advanced and developed for the rest of his life. Minor wrote extensively about it and in 1970 he received a Guggenheim Fellowship for his work. “If the individual viewer realizes that for him what he sees in a picture corresponds to something within himself – that is, the photograph mirrors something in himself – then his experience is some degree of Equivalence.” (1963)
Minor left New York for California in 1946 to work with Ansel Adams at the California School of Fine Arts. There he became identified with a West Coast style of photography associated with Adams and Edward Weston. He was a lifelong friend of Adams and was capable of photographs expressing the beauty and grandeur of nature like those of Adams. However, he made repeated trips to visit Edward Weston and was inspired by his photography of intimate landscapes, whether vegetables, the female body or the rocks of Point Lobos. In in a 1931 statement Weston wrote: “Life is a coherent whole: rocks, clouds, trees, shells, torsos, smokestacks, peppers, are interrelated, interdependent parts of the whole. Rhythm from one becomes symbols of all.” (Lyons, 1984) I am reminded of William Blake’s memorable lines from Auguries of Innocence “To see the world in a grain of sand/ and heaven in a wildflower/ to hold infinity in the palm of your hand/ and eternity in an hour”.
As a natural port of entry for trans-Pacific immigrants, San Francisco had a community of individuals exploring Asian literature, including Aldous Huxley, Kenneth Rexroth, Alan Watts, Alan Ginsberg and Gary Snyder. What Minor seemed to sense, and articulated sometimes imprecisely, was a strain of spiritualty that was cross-cultural. This was popularized at different times by the American Transcendentalists and later by the Theosophical Society, and at mid- century by the publication of Aldous Huxley’s book The Perennial Philosophy. Actually, The Perennial Philosophy was only recently published in 1945 when White arrived in San Francisco. It seems unlikely that White was unaware of this book as it was publicized widely and received enthusiastically. But whatever White’s knowledge of this book, his developing awareness was resonant with a sensibility which traces its European origins back to Gottfried Leibnitz, is reflected in many eras and cultures and presents mysticism as the essence of all religions.
The Doors of Perception
Though the West Coast was a center of Asian cultural influence it was after White’s move to Rochester in 1953 that he undertook extensive reading in comparative religion and the Orient. Among other things White is known to have read was Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception. It is worth remembering that though The Doors of Perception was published in 1954 as an account of Huxley’s experience with mescaline, its title was taken from William Blake‘s poem The Marriage of Heaven and Hell:
If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.
For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things through narrow chinks of his cavern.
Huxley’s use of mescaline was an attempt to explore the possibilities of a more direct perception that he was familiar with from Blake’s poems and paintings and that he had also written about in The Perennial Philosophy.
Carlos Castenada and Animism
Minor sometimes assigned his students to read Carlos Castaneda’s A Separate Reality. This was a follow-up to Castenada’s first book, The Teachings of Don Juan which created such a sensation that Castenada made the cover of Time magazine as the “Godfather of the New Age”. Though much of Castaneda’s popularity had to do with the use of hallucinogenic drugs, his writing was ostensibly an account of time with a Toltec shaman who introduced him to another way of seeing, “of perceiving energy directly as it flows through the universe”. Castenada acquired a wide following that was short-lived but White perceived elements of wisdom in the writing that overlapped with his other religious explorations. The importance of Castenada’s writing was as a contemporary narrative about animism – a nondual perspective that harkens back to one of the earliest expressions of perennial philosophy.
Though Castenada’s account of his apprenticeship with Don Juan eventually lost much of its credibility other writers have explored animism and the wisdom of indigenous cultures in a more credible way that vindicates White’s interest in Castenada. David Abram, ecologist and philosopher, writes about one of several states of mind common to many indigenous oral peoples:
Each phenomenon has the ability to affect and influence the space around the other beings in its vicinity. Every perceived thing is felt to be animate – to be (at least potentially) alive. The surrounding world is then experienced less as a collection of objects than as a community of active agents, or subjects. Indeed, every human community would seem to be nested within a wider, more-than-human community of beings. (2011)
Human beings are not considered separate from the rest of reality but deeply intertwined with it in stories and myth that have been superseded in large part by the advance of civilization. And Joan Halifax, anthropologist and Zen priest, writes of the nonduality described by Lakota elder Black Elk: “… I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of all things in the spirit, and the shape of all things as they must live together like one being.” (2004) For many indigenous cultures there is no distinction between the natural and the supernatural.
A central part of White’s legacy is his 20 plus year editorship of Aperture, a journal for fine art photography in the spirit of Alfred Stieglitz’s Camera Work. The 1959 Vol 7 of Aperture was published with the title The Way Through Camera Work in which White proposed to pay tribute to the legacy of Stieglitz and “set forth a mid-century, contemporary, highly condensed view of a philosophy (Camera Work) which is a name for our most spiritual and poetic use of photography”. The section begins with alternate meanings of the Chinese word chi: breath, air, manner, influence, weather, Breath of Heaven, spirit, and vital force. Clearly White wants to establish a correspondence between the (often other worldly) western concept of spirit and an eastern concept of an element in nature that is pervasive but often intangible or implicit. In Taoism Chi is considered to be a fundamental property of the physical world which if individuals recognize and nourish can be more fully revealed in their activity. Though Tao originally meant way as in pathway, Lao Tzu recast it as a spiritual path that was in harmony with the process of nature. In addition, contemporary translation shows Tao to be dynamic, as in momentum and creative expression, rather than a particular well defined path. (Ames) In the Zen of Creativity, John Daido Loori, one of Minor White’s students and an influential American Zen teacher, writes about creativity and chi:
The chi of a being or object is its spirit. It is the breath or living force that produces and permeates all life and activity. It can be sensed but is difficult to define. Ultimately it must be engaged through intuition, not through our intellect. (2007)
In other words The Way Through Camera Work could also be reframed as The Tao of Camera Work, or even The Zen of Camera Work, as the concept of Tao is very central to the understanding of Zen Buddhism and its Chinese predecessor Chan Buddhism.
White also promoted Eugen Herrigel’s Zen in the Art of Archery in his teaching. As a contemplative artist Zen had great appeal to White with its rich history of aesthetic practices. In Edward Weston and the Spirit of Zen, Amy Conger gives us reason to believe that Weston was not only inspired by Japanese art but familiar with Zen literature, and this was not likely lost on Minor White. About 1946 Edward Weston sent Minor White feedback to the draft of an article that White had composed about Weston’s photographs. He summed up his response to Minor by writing:
[This] ‘Old Zen saying’ says more that I will say in the following letter: ‘To a man who knows nothing, mountains are mountains, waters are waters and trees are trees.
But when he has studied and knows a little, mountains are no longer mountains, water is no longer water and trees no longer trees.
But when he has thoroughly understood, mountains are once again mountains, waters are waters and trees are trees. (Conger)
Though there is no record that Minor studied with a Zen teacher he did conduct meditation sessions with his students in Rochester. It was also during that period that he drew on Zen literature for titles of his images and photographic sequences, including one of his most famous ones, The Sound of One Hand – the name of a well-known Zen koan.
In 1968 Minor writes “My unfolding has been a growing pattern of awareness of the cosmos surrounding all of us constantly… the greatest hindrance has been my pride.” (1969) Substitute for pride the word ego, the source of pride, and you have a clear understanding of the conventional western sense of separateness that is considered to hinder awareness of Asian wisdom. Here he seems to articulate the application of this to camerawork:
The state of mind of a photographer while creating is a blank… For those who would equate “blank” with a kind of static emptiness, I must explain that this is a special kind of blank. It is a very active state of mind really, a very receptive state of mind, ready at an instant to grasp an image, yet with no image pre-formed in it at any time. We should note that the lack of a pre-formed pattern or preconceived idea of how anything ought to look is essential to this blank condition. Such a state of mind is not unlike a sheet of film itself – seemingly inert, yet so sensitive that a fraction of a second’s exposure conceives a life in it. (1959)
CameraWork, Equivalence, Spirit and Prayer
Following up on his 1959 writing in Aperture of camerawork as the most spiritual and poetic use of photography White writes in 1963 an important paper on ‘equivalence’ as a perennial trend in art. He relates equivalence in photography to the concept of “expressive forms and shapes” in painting and to poetry – thus emphasizing the common metaphorical quality in all three domains. He asserts that every artistic trend or style may function as a gateway to the central significance of the aesthetic experience which he calls “Spirit”. The suggestion of a commonality in the best styles of evolving art bears a remarkable parallel to the supposition in Perennial Philosophy of a common denominator in the varied wisdom traditions of the world, and the nature of that wisdom commonality exhibits correspondence to White’s formulation of Spirit as the central significance of aesthetic experience.
In his opening statement for his 1972 curated exhibit Octave of Prayer, he links camerawork and equivalence to spirit and then to grace and prayer. So grace, for White, is like spirit and chi: something essential of the object of attention is realized and manifested because there is a free flow of associations and energy, and an active receptivity and sensitivity like a blank sheet of film or a mirror. If grace is associated with giving oneself to God and chi with attuning oneself to the energy of the world what they have in common is ‘letting go’ and entering into the life outside ourselves, beyond our egos and agendas. For thirteenth century Zen Master Dogen Kigen the “dropping off of body and mind” was the path to realization. That White associates spirit with prayer is no doubt an artifact of his affinity for the Christian mysticism of William Blake and Evelyn Underhill.
Transcendence or Interpenetration
In White’s formulation, equivalence occurs when both subject matter and rendering are transcended and “matter becomes spirit”. Is it that matter is transmuted into spirit or that the vitality of matter is made manifest by a perception of aesthetic significance? For William Blake the Holy Spirit was the presence of God manifesting itself in the world. For Paul Cézanne there wasn’t a question of spirit but the idea of himself as a vehicle for his subject matter expressing itself through him, as in
The Landscape becomes reflective, human, and thinks itself though me.
I make it an object, let it project itself and endure within my painting …
I become the subjective consciousness of the landscape,
and my painting becomes its objective consciousness. (Medina)
Whether this kind of artistic inspiration is considered divine or natural it is generally considered to be made possible by a widening of awareness, an emptying of self and an opening to the unconscious that has been abetted by all sorts of methods and disciplines over the years, ranging from ritual and meditation to ingested substances. The result has been described in various ways as direct perception, mysticism and non-dual awareness.
If the essence of mysticism is a unitary awareness of reality it nonetheless often seems to privilege the invisible, as distinct from the physical reality we all inhabit, as somehow more fundamental. Despite its association with non-duality, mysticism can suggest to some a divided reality of matter and spirit, visible and invisible, relative and absolute, profane and sacred… Another way to understand this is as an awareness of complementarity, in which competing conceptual distinctions can function without obscuring their inherent interdependence, and in which the necessity of language does not obscure its limitations in representing the fullness of reality. The Taoism related symbol of Yin and Yang, now familiar to many people, is a good illustration of this interdependent and non-dual character because the two contrasting elements are interlocked and complimentary. (Ames) Though there are two entities, they define each other by what each is not, and so neither can exist without the other.
In Zen there is a postulation of two contrasting and complementary truths: that of “ordinary” reality – mediated by concepts we use to navigate the conventions of daily life; and that of “ultimate” reality – an awareness of what is prior to the ubiquitous distinctions of myriad discrete entities. These two perspectives are often referred to as form and emptiness and the Heart Sutra, a foundational text in Zen, proclaims them to be two different ways of seeing the same thing: the present time manifestation of the essential impermanence of all things as revealed in their transformations through the past and into the future.
Octave of Prayer
In the exhibit publication, White refers to Octave of Prayer as a “proclamation of the option of prayer in photography”. Though he proposed Spirit as what was most aesthetically significant in art (1963) and equivalence/camera work as the concept/discipline that can achieve that in photography, in the 1972 text he equates Camera Work with Conscious Prayer. Though Spirit and prayer share some overlap Minor seems to blur meanings and boundaries and here his text can read more like an evangelical tract.
When White’s embrace of spirituality became even more public in the 1972 Octave of Prayer exhibit, the photography critic A. D. Coleman wrote a scathing review in his Village Voice column. Coleman clearly had no sympathy or patience for things religious but he was also disturbed by White’s self-serving hierarchy of awareness and his lack of intellectual rigor – exemplified by such statements as “before man existed natural symbolism was…” Coleman was particularly attentive to the political nature of photography and saw in White’s mysticism a retreat from the real world and its exigencies. A contrasting view is provided by acclaimed poet and Zen essayist Gary Snyder: “The mercy of the West has been social revolution. The mercy of the East has been individual insight into the basic self/void. We need both.” (1969) Or consider the comments of Eugene Richards, a student of Minor White who went on to become an accomplished photojournalist and ‘socially concerned’ photographer. “I didn’t have a split between Minor’s photography and what I wanted to do. … What Minor gave me was the sense that I was about to put my soul and ideas out there and there were no excuses.” (Adams)
The postmodernist sensibility that followed the Coleman-White controversy left even less room for an appreciation of Minor White’s work. Attention shifted away from depth psychology and universal themes to social criticism, irony and skepticism of grand narratives. In photography there was declining interest in the representation of the observed and increasing interest in the construction and direction of images for the camera. Though postmodernist philosophy finds a rich variety of expressions its embrace of particularities and diversity often results in an acceptance of relativism antithetical to a spiritual quest for meaning.
In his last few invitational exhibitions at M.I.T., White was subjected to harsh criticism and even one of his oldest students and friends who shared his esoteric interests criticized his too hasty language. For James Baker Hall, White’s authorized biographer, “Minor’s greatest strength was his intuitive mind and his artistry”. His writing about spirituality was notably bold and explicit, if sometimes vague and incomplete. I am reminded of Walt Whitman’s line: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” He was fundamentally a spiritual seeker and explorer finding wisdom where he could and following his own path without much concern for who was behind him. Minor often spoke of himself as a wanderer and in his last few months he published a piece in Parabola in which he identified himself with the heroes of old quest myths. (Hall) Whatever his limitations Minor presents a remarkably courageous example of the spiritual quest. Along the way he left behind an immeasurably rich legacy of images and a critically important advocacy for photographic art.
– Roy Money
Abram, David. Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology. New York: Vintage Books 2011
Adams, Ansel, et al. A Living Remembrance. New York: Aperture 1984
Ames, Roger, and Hall, David. Dao De Jing: A Philosophical Translation. New York: Ballantine Publishing 2003
Conger, Amy. Edward Weston: The Spirit of Zen from Lao-tse to Louis Armstrong Unpublished talk at Huntington Library, San Marino, CA 1953
Halifax, Joan. The Fruitful Darkness: A Journey Through Buddhist Practice and Tribal Wisdom. New York: Grove Press 2004
Hall, James Baker. Minor White: Rites and Passages. New York: Aperture 1978
Lipsey, Roger. An Art of Our Own: The Spiritual in Twentieth-Century Art. Boston: Shambhala 1988
Loori, John Daido. The Zen of Creativity: Cultivating Your Artistic Life. New York: Random House 2007
Lyons, Nathan. “Weston on Photography” in Beaumont Newhall and Amy Conger, eds., Edward Weston
Omnibus. Salt Lake City: Peregrine Smith Books 1984
Medina, Joyce. Cézanne and Modernism: The Poetics of Painting. New York: State University of New York Press 1995
Snyder, Gary. “Buddhism and the Coming Revolution” in Earth House Hold. New York: New Directions 1969
White, Minor. The Way Through Camera Work. Aperture, Vol. 7, No. 2, New York 1959
White, Minor. Equivalence: The Perennial Trend. PSA Journal, Vol. 29, No. 7, 1963
White, Minor. Mirrors messages manifestations. Aperture, new York 1969
White, Minor. An Octave of Prayer. Aperture, New York 1972
Minor White photographs sourced from the Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney, Australia
Top: Metal Ornament, Pultneyville, New York, 1957, from the portfolio Sound of one hand 1960 – 1965, gelatin silver photograph mounted on card.
Middle: Galaxy, Rochester, New york, 1959, from the portfolio Sound of one hand 1960 – 1965, gelatin silver photograph mounted on card.
Lower: Windowsill Daydreaming, Rochester, New York, 1958, from the portfolio Sound of one hand 1960 – 1965, gelatin silver photograph mounted on card.
The Art Gallery of NSW website has more information about the life of Minor White, and a large collection of his work with excellent commentaries. Well worth a visit.
Related pages and posts on this site:
Gratitude to Roy Money for his thoughtful offer to share this article here, knowing it would be of great interest to readers of this site, and to Christine Cote, editor and publisher of Still Point Arts Quarterly where the article first appeared.
From the (highly recommended) website:
Still Point Arts Quarterly is a beautifully-designed publication of words and images focused on art, nature, and spirit. Each issue includes portfolios of contemporary artists as well as articles, essays, fiction, and poetry. Featured artists have included painters, photographers, and mixed-media artists from around the world; featured writers have included novelists, frequent contributors to literary journals, nominees for the Pushcart Prize, and chapbook poets. The Quarterly has been praised for its rich and valuable content, magnificent reproduction of artwork, and splendid layout and design. Intended for artists, nature lovers, seekers, and enthusiasts of all types, it is produced in both PRINT and DIGITAL editions.