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Book Review: Manifestations of the Spirit


Book Review Manifestations of the Spirit By Minor White Reviewed by Blake Andrews Is photography in crisis again? Well then, it must be time for another Minor White retrospective. The sage teacher has long inspired self-examination within the medium, and also few retrospectives.

Manifestations of the Spirit. By Minor White.
Getty Publications, 2014.
 
Manifestations of the Spirit
Reviewed by Blake Andrews

Manifestations of the Spirit
Photographs by Minor White
Getty Publications, 2014. 200 pp., 4 color and 160 black & white illustrations, 9½x11".


Is photography in crisis again? Well then, it must be time for another Minor White retrospective. The sage teacher has long inspired self-examination within the medium, and also few retrospectives. The first one in 25 years is currently exhibiting at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. For those who can't make the show in person, the accompanying book Minor White: Manifestations of the Spirit will have to suffice. Written and compiled by Paul Martineau, it's not an exactly a fresh look at the old master; there are too many familiar photos and thoughts for that. But it's a good opportunity to revisit the legacy of a pivotal figure in photography.

Manifestations of the Spirit. By Minor WhiteGetty Publications, 2014.

Minor White was a jack-of-all-styles in the photo world, trying his hand at just about everything at one time or another. The plates in the book give a flavor of his shifting —some might say dilettantish— photo styles. They are laid out chronologically, beginning with moody urban nightscapes, then f/64-style nudes, still lifes, beaches, street photos, infrared, abstraction expressionism, and more. He showed talent in all these areas but in my judgment his work was not extraordinary. For me it doesn't rise above much other photography being made contemporaneously. Stieglitz was better at nightscapes, Weston better at capturing natural settings. Siskind was better at morphological disguise. That left Minor White circling the middle ground. His champions might claim he was inquisitive and exploring. An alternative take is that he dipped in and out of whatever was fashionable, never quite settling into a groove.

It isn't until the early 1960s (White's fifties) when he began to hit his stride, first with a series of bewildering icescapes, then composite prints, close ups, and bizarre found textures. Some were severely cropped to emphasize White's exact vision. This work is shown in the last quarter of the book, and for me it's the strongest. One feels him abandoning outer influence to find his personal voice. Not that the voice spoke an easy language. Instead it was internalized, messy, and deliberately obtuse. The resulting images are wonderfully entertaining but barely decipherable as original subject matter. Whether White was tapping in to the chaos of the 60s, to his colleagues Sommer and Teske, or something that was in him all along, is open to debate. But something in later life seemed to unlock photographically for Minor White. He had learned about equivalents from Stieglitz as a young photographer. (Stieglitz: "Have you been in love? White: "Yes" Stieglitz: "Then you can photograph.") But it wasn't until mid-life that his output manifested in that way, as a series of inventive creative abstractions.

Manifestations of the Spirit. By Minor WhiteGetty Publications, 2014.

Of course White's photo legacy rests not just on his photos but on other exploits. It's an interesting question if his notoriety would be the same if it relied only on his photographs and not his legacy as teacher, publisher, and all around guru. Throughout a peripatetic life, White was the original photo hustler, piecing a career together through elbow grease and connections, and bouncing from one major accomplishment to the next. He helped found and later edited Aperture, taught in colleges across the country, and developed several programs from scratch into full-bore training systems. He was involved in galleries, photo clubs, and community building wherever he went. But he's perhaps best remembered for his workshops, which were by all accounts intense, intimate, and unorthodox. He used dance, poetry, and other non-photographic varieties of expression. Some of his exercises used no camera at all. White's workshops were more akin to personal therapy than skill-building.

Manifestations of the Spirit. By Minor WhiteGetty Publications, 2014.

If students got the sense he wasn't interested in photography at all, that may have been half right. White was not enamored with photography as mere recording device, but as a tool to personal transcendence. In other words, he anticipated much of what was to follow him photographically. Looking back from today's world of selfies, diarist projects, and the fracturing of all creative endeavors into individualist expression, this may not seem so radical. But during his lifetime he was on the leading edge pulling photography along through modernism, the 1960s, and beyond.

"When you try to photograph something for what it is," wrote White,"you have to go out of yourself, out of your way, to understand the object, its facts and essence. When you photograph things for what ‘Else’ they are, the object goes out of its way to understand you.” That's some heavy intellectual lifting, perhaps better suited to a mountain cave than a classroom. But White wasn't in a cave. He was firmly entrenched in the establishment, with personal connections to Stieglitz, the Newhalls, Adams, Weston, and just about anyone who was anyone in post-war photoland. Most importantly he edited the leading voice in photography, Aperture. As its editor for almost 25 years, White was in perfect position to disseminate his ideas (Many writings from the period were collected in the recent compilation Aperture: The Minor White Years 1952-1976).

Manifestations of the Spirit. By Minor WhiteGetty Publications, 2014.

Today, almost four decades after his death, White is revered as something of a guru figure in photo history. In many pictures of him from later life he seems to relish the role, appearing with long white hair, loose garments, and an assortment of wise old hats. Cave be damned. He's photography's counselor-emeritus, even from the grave, pulling in scholars like irresistible catnip. The last retrospective, 1989's The Eye That Shapes, was curated by White's former student Peter Bunnell. Twenty-five years later White's star is rising again. One could speculate the reasons for the timing, that photography is in crisis, or at least adrift, and in need of a guru. But the truth is photography has been on the therapist's couch since day one, going through this or that level of doubt or identity crisis. Is it an art? Science? Documentation? Can it be trusted? When Minor White came along none of these questions had been resolved, and they never will. But every quarter century or so it sure feels good to hang your philosopher's hat on something solid. Or at least someone self-assured.

Manifestations of the Spirit. By Minor WhiteGetty Publications, 2014.

A notable shift in scholarship since 1989 is the treatment of Minor White's sexuality. Trapped in a prudish world, he lived his entire life as a closeted gay man. It's an open question how or if this affected his photography. One can speculate all sorts of theories relating latent sexual drive to deliberate visual obfuscations. Who knows. But with greatly increased acceptance and understanding of homosexuality, particularly over the past decade, his sexuality can finally be addressed openly as a facet of his life. The book doesn't shy away.

Fact-wise, there are no new bombshells here. White took most of his sexual anecdotes to the grave with him. But some of his photos offer clues. A series of his friend Tom Murphy is published here for the first time. Made in 1948 and titled The Temptation of St. Anthony Is Mirrors, it is a sequenced series of body parts photographs. Most are shown clothed but several are nude. They look rather tame now but White was unable to exhibit them during his life due to conservative sensibilities. So here they are. Unfortunately they are rather jarring in this context, and not just because of Tom Murphy's enormous outie. In a book that samples broadly from White's long career, this is the only full sequenced series, and the only photos printed two to a page (for several pages). The Temptation might be nice as a separate portfolio, but here it seems out of place. Although I suppose it helps fill out a portrait of Minor White as someone interested in the male body.

Manifestations of the Spirit. By Minor WhiteGetty Publications, 2014.

All in all this is a serviceable retrospective. It's cloth-bound, with plate numbers and curatorial essay and all the usual trappings of a well-funded museum book. I mean, it's the Getty. They don't do anything half-assed, and this book is no exception. It fills in some of the missing gaps of White's life and work. If you are a casual fan and already own The Eye That Shapes or Mirrors  Messages  Manifestations, those books are probably enough. If you want his thoughts in his own words, seek out the Aperture compilation. But for completists or those with a particular interest in White's photos or mid-Century photographic history, Manifestations of the Spirit is worth a long look.—BLAKE ANDREWS


BLAKE ANDREWS is a photographer based in Eugene, OR. He writes about photography at blakeandrews.blogspot.com.

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