Monday, December 7, 2009

Minor White & The Emptiness of Transcendence

I never saw or met Minor White, though there are hundreds--certainly thousands--alive today who did, either as friends, or students, or just stray bodies passing casually through the continuum. As a teacher, as a human being, as an artist, White was highly influential, to judge by what those whose lives were touched by his, or who had the occasion to see or know him directly, have reported.

Therefore, what I know of White, is limited to what I see or deduce from the images he left, and the words that he wrote or what was recorded of what he said. One very clear thing to be derived from White's words and images, was that there was something magical about the process of the transmission of human data via sensitized surfaces, or the symbolic meaning of words (language). For White, images, photographic images, could tell a story. Not the kind of story we think of by "once upon a time" but the very much more mysterious story that is built up out of a sequence of images, taken almost randomly (or not) over time, placed in some particular order, accompanied by titles or bridges or captions.

Alfred Stieglitz believed that what we "felt" mentally or emotionally could be visually represented, that there are correspondences in the physical/material world, to feelings and sensations that we may think have no substantiality or basis or consequence, except in our brains. Minor White took this notion to a different level. Whereas Stieglitz would often think of an individual image--static, still, fixed--as being an isolated instance of something, White thought to put multiple images into a kind of series of purposeful sequent parts of a greater whole, perhaps not a development from one time or place to another time or place, but in an abstract circle occurring inside a sort of mental carousel. (Indeed, "carousel" is the word for those old-fashioned circular slide film projector carriages we once used to project positives onto home movie screens.)

I have purposely not specifically reproduced one of White's equivalent sequences, because I think there's a value in not slavishly following the narrative that he chose to impose on his individual images. White lived a conflicted existence for most of his adult life. As a closeted homosexual, whose professional career required an official, public persona, much of his instructional effort and aesthetic preoccupation was focused on the alienation between life and medium which characterizes so much artistic compromise. But for White himself, there was an ironic non-disclosure about his own identity which drove his anxiety to "release" the mystical artistic response in photographers. Students and patrons felt an enormous pressure behind his work--a pressure that White himself could never address publicly, because of the contemptible consequences which would have ensued: Loss of job, loss of dignity, loss of reputation.      

White's work as a major theorist of the meaning and function of photography and as an exploration of self in the world, and indeed his own work itself, cannot be correctly understood outside the psychological and mystical dimensions in which he deliberately placed it, even though the separate images themselves stand alone as superior instances of successful vision, of powerful pictures which command our attention and awe. But White's private need to convey the crisis of his own creative secret--his love of men--drove him to make "stories"--barely camouflaged ballads and paeans to men, seen in the context of sequences of compellingly suggestive studies and surrealistic cul-de-sacs.     

White's big career monograph published during his lifetime--Mirrors, Messages and Manifestations--accurately defines the parameters of his aesthetic: 

Mirrors: What we see in the images we choose to take or to represent our version/vision of the world are like mirrors of who we are, what we see, how we think

Messages: Contained in our choice and realization of specific images are the subtly concealed secrets to our own identity, which--like the little riddles inside fortune cookies--offer clues to our fate, and our private nature

Manifestations: The world reveals to us its meaning through our apprehension of it through our senses--as photographers, that apprehension is visual


How we choose to interpret specific images may depend on the depth of our understanding of our own motives, of our relation to the language of visual phenomena; but whatever we may think of them, they exist apart from our ability to give them larger spheres of implication through language or music: Intuitively, we can respond in non-verbal or "emotional" ways to things we cannot explain, or which may affect us on levels we are not sufficiently in touch with to describe rationally.

In White's case, the gap between image and meaning, direct image and private secret, was never closed, and remained tacit and undeclared all his life. Thus, the ultimate celebration of private nature--the "coming out" of his desire and joy--could never be achieved, and remained unfulfilled. The sequences thus are only mute testaments to the constriction of his range.

In literature, implications about the truth of one's preoccupations in life are unavoidable, but in art, they may remain trapped in the ambiguity of messages that the world presents. In landscape photography, the choice of subject--as much as anything else--tends to narrow the available options for expression within a given frame. However we approach subject-matter, our will and identity will be expressed through it, despite whatever pre-ordained, over-arching interpretation or context we may wish to place over it. 

Several of White's injunctions about photographic practice, such as--

Let the subject generate its own photograph. Become a camera.
No matter how slow the film, Spirit always stands still long enough for the photographer it has chosen.
Be still with yourself until the object of your attention affirms your presence.

--clearly express his theoretical approach to image-making. They're intended to release the mental response in the photographer, to remove pre-conceptions and allow feeling and direct interaction with subject-matter to occur, without the interference of a priori rules and habits. 


But the riddle of identity is that we can never fully escape ourselves. Indeed, even when we may think we're acting--in some sense or other--"outside" of ourselves, this is only an illusion. The process of choosing, in photography, really plays a larger role in defining meaning and revealing our nature, than in deliberately attempting to "think outside the box" of our mental or emotional personal space.   


If, as White seemed to believe, our deepest insights are achieved unconsciously, without our conscious oversight, then what we know and how we act may be of little help in the search for meaning. If knowing--as the oversight that governs--dominates feeling, then it may be that dreams, or seemingly nonsensical or disorganized data or sequences, hold the true keys to personal revelation. 

But what happens when the truth of one's own nature is known, cherished, but suppressed by the mind? Freud believed that creative freedom was achieved when the contradictions in a life were explored, understood, and ultimately released, either in dreams, or analysis, or in altered behaviors. For White, photography was the medium in which he could explore the suppressed side of his nature. What he found in the world was what he already, intuitively, knew was what he was looking for. Himself.

White's wonderful images are the successful, partial composite of his own personality, the sum of his quest for a defining analogue of identity, in the world. This isn't an accident of fate, or the result of a victory over resistances, but--in White's case--the acceptance of a given set of options, of the conditions of life. The images speak through him, and become thus true transmissions of truth. But that truth will be different for each individual, or applicable in a uniquely useful way. Like Rorschach images, there is no "correct" answer to the question of existence, only touchstones and talismans, windows and mirrors: What we see is already there; "all the questions are answered with their own words"--Gertrude Stein   


Ed Baker said...

"Be still with yourself until the object of your attention affirms your presence."

my attitude/posture/mantra is:

(I) watch and wait for
something to happen


something always

was just working on a new piee and I see the barn/field image in your essay... so pardon me for the leap..

here, the opening of::

I put on your words
for warmth
and set out across
the frozen field

(that's "it" so far now to wait for something to enter the piece...

meanwhile after another pot of black coffee will walk the field and beyond that the woods near my house

see what my mind/my camera IS my mind/

now it s a tad too cold for these old bones so I


heck these ARE terrific images
boggling my mind

,and your "take" on (these) things.

Conrad DiDiodato said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Steven Fama said...

Excellent snap-shot here, Curtis, of Minor White and his work.

Actually, snap-shot doesn't seem right. This essay doesn't seem like a point-and-shoot quickie. You must have spent a good long time beneath the shrouded camera, intently looking at what White did.