White, Minor

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Minor White


Born July 9, 1908, in Minneapolis, MN; died June 24, 1976, in Boston, MA of a heart attack; son of Charles Henry (a bookeeper) and Florence (a dressmaker; maiden name, Martin) White. Education: University of Minnesota, B.S., 1933; graduate study at Columbia University, 1945-46. Religion: Roman Catholic.


Photographer. Worked as a waiter, hotel night clerk, secretarial assistant, and photographer's assistant, 1933-38; YMCA, Portland, OR, photography instructor, 1938; Works Progress Administration, photographer, 1938-39; La Grande Art Center, OR, began as instructor, became director, 1940-41; Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, photographer, 1945; California School of Fine Arts (now San Francisco Art Institute), San Francisco, instructor in photography, 1946-52; George Eastman House, Rochester, NY, assistant curator and editor of Image, 1953-57; Rochester Institute of Technology, Rochester, lecturer in photography, 1955-64; Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, visiting professor, 1964-69, professor of photography, 1969-74, senior lecturer and fellow of council of arts, beginning 1975. Aperture (photography quarterly), co-founder, editor and president, 1952-75. Exhibitions: Individual exhibitions include Portland Art Museum, Portland, OR; San Francisco Museum of Art; Photo League, New York, NY; Raymond & Raymond Gallery, San Francisco, CA; Vintage Camera Club, New York; Gateway Gallery, San Francisco; Henry Ford Museum, Dearborn, MI; Boston University; George Eastman House, Rochester, NY; Limelight Gallery, New York, NY; Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Santa Barbara, CA; Art Institute of Chicago; Pennsylvania State University, University Park, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge; Visions Gallery, London, England; San Antonio Museum of Art, San Antonio, TX; U.S.I.A. Gallery, Paris, France; and Princeton University, Princeton, NJ. Group exhibitions include: Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY; National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa; Victoria and Albert Museum, London; Houston Museum of Fine Art, Houston, TX; and Los Angeles County Museum of Art; as well as touring exhibitions throughout the United States and Europe. Military service: U.S. Army, 1942-45; became master sergeant; received Bronze Star and Philippine Liberation Medal.


Oregon Camera Club, Photo League, Society for Photographic Education (founding member).

Awards, Honors

Guggenheim Foundation fellowship, 1970; honorary doctorate from San Francisco Art Institute, 1976.


(Photographer) Sequence 6 (portfolio), [San Francisco, CA], 1951.

How to Read a Photograph, 1953.

Zone System Manual: Previsualization, Exposure, Development, Printing; The Ansel Adams Zone System as a Basis of Intuitive Photography, Morgan & Morgan (New York, NY), 1961, new edition, 1994.

(Editor) Light 7: Photographs from an Exhibition on aTheme, 1968.

(And photographer) Mirrors, Messages, Manifestations, Aperture (New York, NY), 1969, 2nd edition, 1982.

(Author of introduction) French Primitive Photography, Aperture (New York, NY), 1969.

(Author of commentary) Be-ing without Clothes (exhibition catalog), Aperture (New York, NY), 1970.

Octave of Prayer: An Exhibition on a Theme, Aperture (New York, NY), 1972.

(Author of preface) In Front of St. Patrick's Cathedral, Flower Mountain Press, 1973.

(Editor and author of text, with Jonathan Green) Celebrations: An Exhibition of Original Photographs, Aperture (New York, NY), 1974.

(With Richard D. Zakia and Peter Lorenz) The NewZone System Manual, Morgan & Morgan (New York, NY), 1975.

Minor White: Rites and Passages: His Photos Accompanied by Excerpts from His Diaries and Letters, with essay by James Baker Hall, Aperture (Millerton, NY), 1978.

Heritage Lost: Two Grand Portland Houses through theLens of Minor White, text by Fred DeWolfe, Portland Art Museum/Oregon Historical Society Press (Portland, OR), 1995.

Contributor to Photographers on Photography, edited by Nathan Lyons, 1966; contributor to photography and art magazines, including American Photography, Design, Magazine of Art, Infinity, Popular Photography, and Universal Photo Almanac. Consulting editor, Parabola, 1975.

White's personal papers and photographic archive are held at Princeton University.


One of the most noted proponents of "art photography" in the years following World War II, American photographer Minor White has been ranked with such artists as Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Weston in his mastery of black-and-white photographic technique. Beginning his career photographing his native Portland, Oregon, under a program instituted by the Depression-era Works Progress Administration, White became inspired by Oriental philosophy mid-century, and went on to teach and innovate prior to his death in 1976. As a Contemporary Photographers essayist wrote: "A bright, energetic tactician, one versed in the politics of art and the museum and publishing worlds, a teacher with provocative classroom strategies, and a photographer of richly metaphoric images, Minor White was fully conscious of the uniqueness and privacy of his vision."

White was born in 1901, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He was the only child born to bookkeeper Charles Henry White and his wife, dressmaker Florence Martin White. Grandfather Martin was the first to introduce White to the marvels of image reproduction technology, demonstrating basic photography to the young boy and sharing with Minor his collection of several hundred primitive lantern slides, which could be viewed on a carbon arc projector and contained images of the U.S. Civil War and other historic events captured by photograph. At age ten White was presented with a camera of his own—a Brownie box camera. Two years later his grandfather passed away, and left his grandson all his photography equipment, as well as his prized slide collection.

White graduated from West High School in Lake Calhoun, Minnesota, in 1927, and enrolled at the University of Minnesota, where he studied botany and poetry. Although his interest in botany, which had been inspired by his enjoyment of working in his grandmother's garden, quickly faded, the rudimentary darkroom and photography techniques he learned as part of this course of study would later serve White well. Although he dropped out of college during his junior year, he later returned and completed his B.S. degree in 1933 with a major still in botany and a minor in English.

Finds Vocation in Photography

As a teen White had gradually become aware of his homosexuality, but he kept this understanding from his family for fear it would harm his relationship with them, although his diaries written during this time would later be discovered. In his early twenties, he set about trying to discover his path in life. At first he thought poetry was his calling. For four years he dedicated his efforts to working out an ambitious hundred-poem sonnet sequence, putting in twelve-hour days as a houseboy and waiter at the University of Minnesota's University Club to support this creative venture. When the work was finally complete, poetry no longer held any allure for White. Deciding to move to Portland, Oregon, in 1937, he also decided to transfer his attentions to his second area of interest: photography.

Purchasing a 35-mm Argus camera, White moved to Portland, where he found a part-time day job as an assistant at a photography studio and balanced that with a position as a hotel night clerk in order to make ends meet. Active in the Oregon Camera Club, within a year he had developed his skills sufficiently that the Portland YMCA hired him as an instructor in basic photography. In 1938 White was hired by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a New Deal program established by the government to provide jobs during the economic depression of the 1930s, to document Portland's waterfront area and iron-faced buildings on film. White did so, and these photographs, exhibited as "Two Portland Houses" and eventually published in book form, continue to serve as a valuable historic resource for the city. In 1940 the WPA sent White to the La Grande Art Center in eastern Oregon, where he began as a photographer and quickly moved up to director, remaining there through 1941.

White had begun to gain exposure through several WPA exhibitions featuring photographs of Portland that toured the United States in 1939. His black-and-white images of Portland and eastern Oregon were also shown in area museums. In 1941 several of his works were included in the New York Museum of Modern Art (MOMA)'s "Image of Freedom" touring exhibit, which traveled throughout the country. Curators at MOMA were so impressed with White's work that they purchased several of his prints for the museum's permanent collection. The following year White's first one-man show, "Grande Ronde Valley Photographs," was staged at the Portland Museum of Art, and his "First Sequence" and the popular "Two Portland Houses" were also put on display in the city. He began to augment his reputation as a photographer with his artistic theories, publishing the article "When Is Photography Creative?" in a 1943 issue of American Photography.

Many of White's WPA photographs depict buildings and streetscapes in rich black-and-white tones. In contrast, his independent photographs capture the textures of natural objects such as wood, stone, and soil, and are based on organic rather than geometric balance. He believed strongly in natural forces as the root of all creativity, a belief that gives his images a sense of spontaneity.

White's photography also reflects his earlier flirtation with poetry in that he arranged his images in numbered "sequences"—in fact, he was one of the first photographers to do so. As the Contemporary Photographers essayist explained, "In White's hands a sequence often enacted a dialogue between two people or manifested changing moods and complex feeling-states. . . . The individual images were not conceived as from a schedule or filmmaker's script, but first as separate children with equal love and pampering. Scattered about his floor . . . there were profound differences among them in pitch, density, and velocity. These differences became some of the hidden strings of formal arrangement that ordered images."

Influenced by Stieglitz, Weston

When the United States joined the Allied forces during World War II, White enlisted, and from 1942 until the war's end served with the Army Intelligence Corps in the Pacific. During the war the opportunities for photography were minimal, so White channeled his intellectual and creative energies into writing and theorizing. He also began to embrace the spiritual curiosity that would dominate his later life, and in 1943 was baptized as a Catholic by an army chaplain. Discharged and awarded the Bronze Star, he then moved to Manhattan, then the center of American photographic arts. Meeting with the photographers Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand, Edward Weston, and Edward Steichen and talking about photographic theory, White was inspired by the possibilities open to photography as an artistic rather than merely journalistic medium. Encouraged by his colleagues, he enrolled at Columbia University and took graduate courses in art history and aesthetics under Meyer Schapiro. He also worked briefly as a photographer at MOMA under Steichen. Particularly impressed by the twenty-eight-year-old White, Steichen offered the young photographer a full-time position at MOMA, but White refused.

Although the intellectual interchange within Manhattan's photographic community was inspiring, White realized that his art drew him elsewhere. In 1946, on the advice of Weston, he moved to San Francisco, and accepted a position with the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute). Remaining there until 1952, he instructed students in basic photographic skills. He also gained the fellowship of several noted West Coast photographers, among them school director Ansel Adams, who helped White learn to work with natural light. Together the two men developed the "Zone System," a means by which shutter speed and aperture could be adjusted to obtain ultra-sharp images at specific "depths" within the photographic field.

Working with a large-format camera, White began to use the control obtained by the Zone system to manipulate images into abstractions. Stones, driftwood, pebbles, and mosses, when photographed close up and cropped in certain ways, and with heightened contrasts between black and white, became difficult to identify and gained an abstract quality. He also began to devise his sequences as a way of doing more than merely capture a balanced, aesthetically pleasing "picture"; he desired to provoke an intellectual response from viewers. Within a year White had produced his first portfolio, a series of images he titled "Second Sequence/ Amputations." Other series would follow; among the exhibits of White's works staged in San Francisco during his tenure include 1948's "Song without Words" and 1949's "The Record Shop."

To promote photography as an art form, White joined with photographers Dorothea Lange, Adams, Barbara Morgan, and MOMA directors Nancy and Beaumont Newhall to founded the quarterly journal Aperture in 1952. Designed to present the art of the camera, Aperture went on to become one of the most influential journals of its kind, largely due to the editorship of White. White also served as production manager of the journal during its early years.

By the early 1950s White was in his mid-forties. Believing that he had made a significant contribution to photography in both New York and San Francisco, he believed that he could contribute to the future of art photography in an even more significant way. In 1952 he accepted a position as assistant curator at the International Museum of Photography, located at the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York. Here he spent from 1952 until 1957 staging such exhibitions as 1955's "The Pictorial Image" and editing the Eastman House publication Image. Unfortunately, White was not happy in the relatively isolated artistic community in upstate New York, and he took advantage of calls for showings of his works in San Francisco as a reason to leave periodically. His series of photographs of the eastern United States titled "Sequence 10/Rural Cathedrals" also gave him an excuse to travel. In 1955 he also started teaching part-time at the Rochester Institute of Technology and appearing at workshops throughout the United States.

Although leaving the staff of the George Eastman House in 1957, he continued to exhibit there; his 1959 showing, "Sequence 13/Return to the Bud," was his largest group of photographs to date. Continuing to make his home base in Rochester, White hosted resident workshops at his house, providing students with instruction in photographic technique in exchange for help with household duties. He also took his workshops on the road, beginning an educational tradition that he would continue for many years. While his time was increasingly devoted to education, White's photography also benefitted: an invitation to teach a workshop in Portland inspired him to begin a sequence documenting the western U.S. landscape. In 1962 he helped found the Society for Photographic Education.

In 1964 White resigned from his part-time teaching assignment in Rochester and moved south to the Boston area, where he founded a photography program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's department of architecture and organized a department magazine, Sensorium, that was never published. As visiting professor—and after 1969, tenured professor—he hoped to inspire MIT students to do more than just document buildings; he hoped to teach them to strive for creativity in their photographic images. His classes, which were considered highly unorthodox, involved forcing students to "think outside the box" through meditation, Zen readings, and exercises designed to promote self-awareness. White also gained a reputation as a forceful personality, and some questioned whether he was not creating students in his own image rather than encouraging their creative independence. At MIT in 1965 he also exhibited his "Sequence 17," which he had first staged in the year before in Arcata, California.

Art Inspired by Heady Mix

Deeply spiritual and fatalistic, White was particularly interested in Zen Buddhism, the mysticism of the Far East, the writings of Russian mystic G. I. Gurdjieff, and Gestalt psychology. His readings in these areas influenced his attitude toward living and teaching as well as photographic theory, particularly after his war experiences. Through Gurdjieff, in particular, he strived to integrate intellectual, emotional, and instinctual energy into his works. In articles published in Aperture and other magazines after 1959, he began to set forth these ideas; his 1969 book Mirrors, Messages, Manifestations collects selections from his journals as well as many of these theoretical articles to coalesce his vision of photography. "Creativity with portraits involves the invocation of a state of rapport when only a camera stands between two people," he explains, adding that any effective portrait requires "mutual vulnerability and mutual trust."

During the 1960s White staged over a dozen one-man exhibits around the country, in venues ranging from New York galleries and museums in Boston and California to an 1960 exhibit of his work "Sequence 15A" at the Smithsonian Institute. That decade was crowned in 1970, when he was honored with a retrospective of his work at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and also was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship. Four years later he toured Europe, and in 1975, White's work was exhibited at the U.S. I.A. Gallery in Paris, France.

On June 26, 1976, White died of a heart attack in Boston. At his death he was remembered by his many students for his inspired teaching and vision, while the public remembered him as one of the most noted American practitioners of postwar art photography. But to many in the photographic community he was revered as a mentor and a tireless advocate of their art. "White's influence has depended not only on his own work as a photographer," noted MOMA director John Szarkowski as quoted in the Encyclopedia of Photography, "but on his service as teacher, critic, publisher, theoretician, proselytizer, and house mother for a large portion of the community of serious photographers. Indeed, White's omnipresence in the photographic world has made it easy to forget at times that he has remained first of all an artist: a photographer who has made some of the medium's most memorable pictures."

Biographical and Critical Sources


Adams, Ansel, Minor White: A Living Remembrance, Aperture (New York, NY), 1984.

If you enjoy the works of Minor White

If you enjoy the works of Minor White, you may also want to check out the following:

The photography of Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, and Dorothea Lange, with whom White was closely associated.

Brown, B., Minor White, Knapp Press, 1989.

Bunnell, Peter C., Minor White: The Eye That Shapes, Princeton University Art Museum (Princeton, NJ), 1989.

Contemporary Photographers, 3rd edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.

Danziger, James, Interviews with Master Photographers: Minor White, Imogen Cunningham, Cornell Capa, Elliott Erwitt, Yousuf Karsh, Arnold Newman, Lord Snowdon, Brett Weston, Paddington Press, 1977.

Encyclopedia of Photography, International Center of Photography/Crown (New York, NY), 1984.

Frajndlich, Abe, Lives I've Never Lived: A Portrait ofMinor White, Arc Press, 1981.


Aperture, Number 95, 1984, special White issue.

Artforum International, September, 2000, Andy Grundberg, "Minor White," p. 81.

Magazine of Art, Volume 45, number 1, Minor White, "The Camera Mind and Eye," pp. 16-19.

Tech, January 15, 1986, Bill Coderre, "Dreams with a Memory: Minor White Remembered," p. 7.


About Photography Web site,http://www.photography.about.com/ (December 17, 2001), "Minor White: Spiritual Journey."

Masters of Photography Web site,http://www.masters-of-photography.com/ (July 14, 2004), "Minor White."



New York Times, June 26, 1976.

Popular Photography, October, 1976, David Vestal, "Minor White, 1908-1976."*

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