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Dreams with a memory- Minor White remembered

Minor White was one of the most influential, inscrutable, and interesting photographers of all.

With Ansel Adams he developed the Zone System, an engineering methodology which (in the primitive days of guesswork photography) allowed a photographer precise control over the appearance of his image. At a time when photographers took fuzzy, "painterly" photographs, Adams and his "f/64 Club" took tack-sharp pictures, to show natural beauty in full detail.

Unlike Adams, who mainly photographed landscapes, White turned his highly refined craft to the art of the abstract. The Zone System's manipulations were applied forcefully to drastically translate image tones into the unreal. We often see images o frost, moss, eroded rock, and driftwood employed as abstract elements of shape, line and color rather than subject matter. We often wonder just what we are seeing, and how the image was created. Pictures of barns, foliage and landscapes are often rendered with infrared-sensitive film, making leaves glow brilliantly, and skies dark with bright cluds.

White used these abstractions, filled with shapes, lines and rhythms -- "gestures" if you will -- as a tool of expression. White was a deeply religious man, and his pictures often seem mystical, even spiritual.

Minor White taught at MIT from 1965 until his death in 1976. At first, his relationship with the Institute was tenuous. It is reported that MIT was concerned that White might be too unorthodox. Soon, however, his role became clear: to expose students to creativity in a medium other than their own. This seemed to sit well with White, who offered his Creative Audience class, replete with his philosophy of heightened awareness as a precursor to seeing. Exercises included meditation and readings in Zen.

This disturbed some students who came "to study photography, not crawl around on the floor," and White was criticized for creating "little imitation Minor Whites." Still, many came away dazzled by White, with a deeper understanding of their selves and of the creative process of seeing. That's what Minor White wanted to communicate in his photographs.


There are approximately 90 prints at the MIT Museum, including much of White's best work. I went to the museum expecting a lot: I have owned the book Rites and Passages, a retrospective of his work published shortly after his death, for several years and have always been stricken by its beauty and inscrutability.

What the viewer will see in Rites and Passages, and should have seen on the gallery walls, are photographs which have a visual harmony. Curves and shapes reappear in different pictures, suggesting equivalences: mud and muscle, driftwood and hair, ropes and garden hoses and cracked glass and chalk lines on street pavement. In individual photographs, we see the objects photographed not as the subjects of the pictures, but as elements of shape: frost on a windowpane as "Empty Head;" a splotch of light as "Windowsill Daydream."

It is often difficult to recognize the object depicted, aiding an appreciation of its abstract form: note "Metal Ornament," "Burned Mirror," and "Moencopi Strata." The viewer becomes aware of a feeling, a sensation, a mood, not an object, which is what White was after.

The museum is showing virtually the same collection of pictures as in the book. However, the pictures don't seem to be arranged in any particular order. Many of his famous sequences are split all over the gallery. The photos are also of uniform size and layout, and don't seem to be up to the rigorous printing standards that White employed. Considering White's experience with gallery design and his belief in sequences of photographs as expressive wholes, it seems unlikely that White would approve of the MIT Museum's presentation.

Still, the collection presented by the MIT Museum is fairly definitive, if somewhat mis-presented. It is worth seeing for its historical and pictorial value.


MIT's Rotch Library has a complete collection of Minor White's books and exhibition catalogs. Minor White: Rites and Passages is available from Aperture, Inc., in Millertown, New York. I highly recommend this book as an essential part of a photography library, both for the strength of the collection and for the excellence of reproductions.

Bill Coderre->