Minor White isn’t a household name like Ansel Adams but he was one of the most important photographers of the twentieth century. He was the photographer’s photographer. While Adams was making a splash with his expansive technically perfect awe inspiring images of the big skies of the American west, White was quietly exploring the philosophical foundations of the photographic image and its relationship to modern abstract art and a rapidly changing post-WWII society.
He was a founding member and long time editor of Aperture magazine, an assistant curator and editor of Image magazine at the George Eastman Museum, he taught photography at the California School of Fine Arts, the Rochester Institute of Technology, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he was the author of many photography books and articles, and his photographs are exhibited and collected by major museums like MoMA and the Getty.
Another thing about Minor White – he hated Rochester, NY. Hated it I tells ya! In a letter written to Ansel Adams in 1954 he describes Rochester this way:
“Most of it is dull, the rest is quaint. The old houses are wrecks, even
more wrecked than I care to photograph, the paint peels in a characterless
way, the rubbish heaps and back alleys are either quietly dull or utterly
filthy. Even the wall scrawls are without imagination or daring…“
“The trees cast a gloom over the grey houses that is a sheer monstrosity
of depression. And when in sheer desperation one turns to the skies, even
the clouds are messy.“
“I don’t suppose I will, but my files would not miss it if I threw every
thing I have made here away and never made another shot in this
miserable berg. . . .“
White was originally drawn to Rochester to take up a position as assistant curator at the George Eastman House, and despite his hatred of it, he lived in Rochester from 1953 to 1965. By the end of that time I think he created some very fine photographs that would certainly be missed if he threw them away. Maybe the town just took a while to grow on him.
The featured image is titled “Garage Door (Haags Alley, Rochester)” created by White in February 1960. I think he was getting the hang of the town by this time.
If you’ve ever been in Rochester in February you know it can be plenty cold and plenty snowy with bone chilling winds blowing off the ice of Lake Ontario. I used to live in the area and had a studio just a few streets away from Haags Alley. Minor was long gone by then. Haags runs between East Main and Pitkin Street not far from the Eastman School of Music and the Little Theatre. Here is what the alley looks like these days.
The first thing that strikes me about Garage Door is that although it’s a static photograph and the overall feeling of it is one of quietness and rest, there is also a sense of movement of blowing winds and swirling snow. This may be a calm morning after a dark blustery night, but the ghost of the storm still lingers.
The light is growing. The top and the left side of the door is in shadow with the scene getting brighter as we go right and down. The snow stuck on the wall follows the same pattern, streaking down and right. The snow forms long thin drifts from left to right on the window mullions, along the edges of the raised wooden supports, and on the ground.
It was cold that day in February 1960 in an alley in that ‘miserable berg’ the morning after a storm. White felt it as he wandered the dim streets alone. Through his photograph he makes us feel it too.
“Usually I respect the privacy of yards, front or back, and the privacy of
windows, doorways, and alleys, but the snowstorm kept people indoors
and whatever could be seen was for him and his who chose to wade the
drifts and endure the cold. I cherished the storm, in a large part, because it
kept people out of the way, it presented my own privacy if I chose to take
it— and I did. The cold reached into the marrow of my bones like a
lover. . . .”
I love the lighting that White chose. He was a great advocate of the Zone System – originally developed by Ansel Adams and Fred Archer as a way to determine the best exposure for an image back before cameras had built in exposure meters and electronic histograms. Roughly speaking you break a scene down into 11 ‘zones’ of luminance from pure white through shades of grey to pure black based on the dynamic range of your film. You visualize the desired outcome and adjust your camera exposure so that correct parts of the scene fall in the zones you prefer.
We don’t know if White took the time to stand around in the cold taking light meter readings or if he just winged this one, but it came out just right. The snow is white without losing detail – just kissing the right side of the histogram. The important shadow areas of the door are dark and mysterious.
The window and the door supports form a pattern that could suggest many things. The dark interior of the garage lets the window panes become black and featureless so that they recede while the snowy outlines of the frames move forward. With the top of the window in shadow, the frame seems open so that the central pillar looks like a fork or possibly a trident. The horizontal bar and the vertical bar form a cross in the center of the frame. With the window as the head and the vertical bar as the body, it could be a human form with outstretched arms reaching beyond the frame.
White believed that a great photograph is not just a verbatim recording of a scene but is instead created in such a way that it expresses something of the mind of the photographer and portrays elements not obviously visible at first glance.
The very crux of photography as a way of life lies here: If one can not be a tree one can not photo one…to make the camera reflect that the photographer has become one with the tree is exactly the hurdle that must be met, over leapt time and time again if the photograph is to be truthful, worthy of a spectator’s concentrated attention. – Minor White
“The photographer projects himself into everything he sees, identifying himself with everything in order to know it and to feel it better.” – Minor White
White was baptized into the Catholic Church but throughout his lifetime he continued to search for his spiritual roots. Later on he become very interested in Oriental ways of life and Zen meditation practices. This spiritual search was always a part of his art. Photography for White was not just a way to record whatever was in front of him at any time for any reason like William Eggleston. It was a way to seek God and enlightenment. Photography was a form of spiritual exercise in the same way as meditation or prayer.
“Considerable reading in Oriental religions, Zen particularly, and the techniques of meditation specifically were undertaken. The meditation technique has been put into practice and it finally dawned on me that
photographs can be made while sitting quietly looking at nothing, seeing nothing, camera packed away.” – Minor White
White felt the cold of that February day in that dusky windswept alley in that miserable berg. Consciously or unconsciously he realized the symbolism of its forms. He had prepared his mind to receive the image given to him. He bundled it all together and pressed the shutter to share with us a tiny slice of the universe as seen through his eyes. The same photo could never be reproduced – it is utterly unique.