Wednesday, June 1, 2011

On a Photograph by Minor White

Previously, on 12.7.09 I discussed the work of Minor White [1908-1976], noting its general thematic outlines, and commenting briefly on the ultimate reflexivity of his theory of image-making. This untitled image--reproduced in the book Celebrations: An Exhibition of Original Photographs, Selections and Text by Minor White and Jonathan Green, published in 1974 by Aperture, which is typical of White's curatorial taste, a starry-eyed luminous New Age vision of ecstatic release and mysterious abstractions and blurry epiphanic buzz--however, differs from most of the other images in the book, by being a straightforward, clear image, which commands attention not by any deliberately distorting exposure or framing, but by the inherent interest of its pictorial values and suggestiveness. [Click on the photo to see a larger version of it in a separate window.]

Often, with a White image, you can feel him straining to make a point about transcendent purpose. He wants to show you how powerful his vision is by presenting you with a weirdly disorienting composition whose literal meaning is deliberately obscured. A rock surface may suggest a sunset, or an icy puddle may look like crumpled foil, etc. These ambiguated surfaces may be persuasive, but their overall effect risks being taken as manipulations. As with all photography, White's intentions get tangled up in the tension between reportage and falsification. White would probably have said this didn't matter, that the lengths to which artists may go to make a statement, is less significant than the resulting image. The product counts, not the process.

But occasionally photographers do find exactly what they're looking for, and this may be as much a matter of luck as of talent, though talent may involve not just finding the subject, but putting the right spin on it to make it come alive in the final version.

White's image here appears to be a bouquet of two dozen roses lying on its side on some kind of masonry surface--with two permanent chain-rings set in. It's some kind of architectural detail, but I'm not sure about its real purpose. That's part of its effect, for me, I'm just not sure what it is, and that too is typical White. There's a lovely structural tension between the hard, stagey depth of the foreground backed by the wall, and the way the flowers seem to emerge into or obtrude into the space--it has a theatricality which is startling and improbable. What do the flowers signify?

What occurs to me is that the flowers are rather like faces, as in a crowd of individuals. That metaphor or simile is a common one in literature and art--plants or flowers as animate fauna. They seem to be gathered there, peering into the space, and/or outward towards the viewer. They're a kind of collective of disused, flushed, or disposed individuals, placed in ambiguous relation to the purposeful metal rings, the obdurate materiality of the masonry. Soft--hard. Temporary--permanent. Fragile--durable. Changeable--static.

The light, coming from the left, also has a stagey, dramatic quality. Appearing to come through foliage, as a dappling, it has a late afternoon mood, a gently contemplative air, perhaps even an elegaic character. In a literal sense, the roses are cut, they're dying, and their position here definitely suggests a disposability, they've been relegated to the ash-heap of time, and are drying out as we watch. However brief their passage, their beauty is no less enriching. The photograph, too, has a certain life--it extends the life of the meaning of the subject to which it refers, but it too is an organic artifact. Everything here is decaying into chaotic transparency--including the viewer--our eyes, our minds, our DNA.

The image is a poised, temporary lens of matter looking at itself, a closed system of coherences, innate, fleeting, adrift in the void. The more we think about photographs, the more abstract they seem. That's what White was after, I think.

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