The Transmissions of Minor White

Ryan Gantz

During the late 1940’s, following his return from the Pacific theatre of World War Two, Minor White began to increasingly devote his life to still photography. Around this time, White conversed frequently with Alfred Steiglitz, and became increasingly interested in his idea of the photographic "equivalent". Steiglitz’s equivalents were often photographs of water, or sky—but the specific objects are of little importance either to the photographer or the viewer of an equivalent. Instead, such a photograph captures a sentiment or emotionally symbolic idea using formal and structural elements that are often intertwined with subtle cultural touchstones. Minor White’s career as a photographer, editor, and teacher constituted a thorough exploration of such an approach to photography. And throughout this exploration, the photographic process was for White constantly bound to his personal and his spiritual life. In an essay entitled "Equivalence: The Perennial Trend", published in 1963, White describes the photographer of an equivalent as one who "recognized an object or series of forms that, when photographed, would yield an image with specific suggestive powers that can direct the viewer into a specific and known feeling, state, or place within himself." Because of the way in which he wanted his photographs to be experienced, White was very particular with regard to the both technical aspects of his art and the quality of the images he produced (Lemangy, 192). To transmit his messages—to ‘direct the viewer’—White employs a variety of methods; he creates symbols to represent emotions, he accompanies his images with text or places them in sequence. In the late 1950’s, at the height of his productive life, White published Grand Tetons, Wyoming, The Three Thirds, and Dumb Face, Frost on Window—three photographs that convey emotional experience in three different ways. Minor White’s most successful transmissions occur when he allows the viewer of his photograph to overcome the visual certainties of his subject matter in a way that does not require a textual clue for the meaning to be conveyed. These images have a specific ability to affect the viewer because they resist verbalization and categorization.

In what we might consider his most powerful landscape, Grand Tetons, Wyoming, White captures the image of sunlight breaking through dark clouds, spreading down across the sharp peaks of Rocky Mountains. In this photograph, the Tetons are shroud in a light mist, and the light passing through this mist gives us a low-contrast view of the mountainside and peripheral sky. The areas above and below this middle third of the landscape have much higher contrast; the thick clouds shielding the sun remain almost black, and the dark field of trees in the foreground pale against the bright white of the winding Snake River. The angled rays of light echo the slope of the mountain peaks, and draw the eyes of the viewer right up to the top of the photograph, toward that source of light concealed behind clouds.

The visual effect of these elements as we perceive them does put us in a "specific" place; the photograph will not allow us to separate the landscape it has captured from this particular moment in the landscape’s life. Our emotional response centers on a recognition that the scene here depicted exists, or has existed as something any human might experience. Because White’s camera, as he often said, seems to have been "faithfully used", there is little evidence of the photographer in this image. Though he may have done some adjustment of the message during the printing process, we view the mountains and river valley as a wholly natural landscape (Rites, 14). It has been discovered, not assembled. Minor White asked of such subject matter, "What is more anonymous than the handwriting on walls and faces, rocks, clouds, and eyes? And who can interpret the message of chance without bowing? (Jussim, 93)".

Grand Tetons, Wyoming seems to capture this element of chance. The visual differences between conscious composition and conscious discovery on the part of the photographer may be subtle, but the differences in the resulting emotional message are strongly significant. The light spreading across the mountains may suggest to us the light of God; the proximity of the mountain peaks to the sun, or even the shape of the Tetons themselves, may suggest something fantastic or something Biblical. But although these visual elements may resonate as symbolic, the photographer has consciously included them as such. In their book that focuses on the specific of the genre, Landscape as Photograph, Estelle Jussim and Elizabeth Lindquist-Cook comment that "though Minor White’s landscapes are symbolic, they never employ the allegorical mode. He does not personify ideas, but creates symbols for inner feelings (76)". It is not easy to explain the implications of this clarification without looking and experiencing the photograph itself. To phrase it somewhat awkwardly, Grand Tetons does not transmit a message to the viewer through the meaning and connotations of the subject depicted, but rather directly through the experience of perception. White has discovered a massive, natural beauty, and we discover this beauty—experience spiritual awe—in much the same way when we examine the photograph.

Appropriately, Minor White did not include in the title of his photograph of theses mountains anything more than the name and location of the range. He allows the image to speak for itself—if the title serves any end, it is only to reiterate the reality of the scene depicted. This was not always the case, however; at times White has decided that the emotional message captured in the discovered moment of his photograph is less easily accessible. White accompanies these photographs with text or a title to help the viewer better understand what experience the photograph offers.

In his essay, "The Photographic Message," Roland Barthes examines the relationship between photograph and text. He focuses on press photographs and their captions, but the same principles hold true in the relationship between artistic image and title. According to Barthes, "the text constitutes a parasitic message designed to connote the image, to ‘quicken’ it with one or more second-order signifiers. In other words, and this is an important historical reversal, the image no longer illustrates the words; it is now the words which, structurally, are parasitic on the image (529)". In the case of "Grand Tetons, Wyoming", the title indeed acts as a parasitic message. One could not argue that the photograph served to illustrate the title—it seems clear that the photograph is prior to the text both in chronology and importance.

Minor White takes advantage of this ability of the title to connote the image in his 1957 photograph, The Three Thirds. The entire frame of this photograph is filled with the clapboard-covered wall of some sort of rustic building, possibly a house. The specific type of structure is of no concern. The clapboards are of various widths and lengths, and they divide the photo into horizontal strips, each with a range of gray shades. Toward the bottom of the image we see blades of field grass. In the center of the image, missing clapboards reveal planks of wood cemented together in a stack. The left third of the top half of the photo is filled with a window reflecting clouds; on the right third, the remainder of a broken window also reflects clouds. The image is well framed and balanced in its composition. Clearly, the title refers to the structural divisions visible in the photograph; three thirds denotes a whole of some kind. Making efforts to approach this photograph as an equivalent, this author had very little success perceiving the message of The Three Thirds until the photographer’s comments were read. White explains that

Identification of subject can be so offhand that a title is required to suggest that further experience of the picture is worth the effort. The photograph The Three Thirds needs such a title because the picture is not informative; it is meaningful only if the subject is treated as a kind of peg on which to hang, in this case, self-contained symbols: reading left to right, clouds in windows—youth, plaster under clapboards—middle years, broken glass—old age. What caprice of chance brought the photographer to this point exactly at the time when the continuity of birth, living and death were uppermost in his mind and when he secretly hoped to materialize his feelings that each of the three was a third of experience? Was it his need that caused the metamorphosis? (Newhall, 281).

For White, this photograph captures a chance meeting between the thoughts of an individual, and a visual metaphor that represents those thoughts so precisely. But only under very rare circumstances will that same event occur for the viewer upon his first look at The Three Thirds. How then can White’s moment of discovery—the chance experience that has "directed him into a specific place"—be successfully transmitted to the viewer? Is a moment of apparent metamorphosis for the photographer a moment that deserves to be sustained in a published photograph? According to Beaumont Newhall, "White’s goal was to make photographs that extend beyond the subject. Surface appearance, although of secondary importance, is essential, but the image must be transformed into a new event, to be discovered by the viewer. Finding the inner meaning intended by the photographer is not easy (281)". The surface appearance alone of The Three Thirds might be considered enough to constitute a successful photograph, but this would not be the photograph that White intended.

At the moment he first looks at Grand Tetons, Wyoming, the viewer recognizes the setting of landscape he has seen before, whether in photographs and in the real world. The natural beauty of mountains, sunlight, and shadow—these are almost universal representational elements, very accessible to the viewer, which after only the briefest of moments will comprise an event for the viewer to discover. It is White’s expectation that the viewer will share his conceptions of these encoded elements that allow him to direct the viewer toward that specific point of view. Barthes explains that, "Thanks to the code of connotation the reading of the photograph is always historical; it depends on the reader’s "knowledge" just as though it were a matter of a real language, intelligible only if one has learned the signs (530).

The "self-contained symbols" that Minor White refers to in The Three Thirds are much less accessible than the representational elements of Grand Tetons. First, as White himself writes, a title is required to suggest to his viewers that examination of the photograph will be worthwhile. As we have learned from Barthes, such a relationship between image and text is quite common. In this case, however, such reliance on a verbal clue changes the viewer’s approaching of the work; it is no longer the simple experiencing of an event. The interaction becomes more didactic, a conscious and rational search—one involving both verbalization and categorization, which pushes the viewer farther from the chance encounter White originally sought to capture. Second, the representational elements captured in the photograph are too specific to White’s frame of mind at the moment when he happened upon the subject. This prevents the symbols that jump out to the photographer from remaining self-sufficient. The elements do create "specific suggestive powers", but they are not "specific suggestive powers that direct the viewer". As a result, The Three Thirds is less successful in its efforts to transmit an emotional or spiritual message through an event.

Minor White found new ways to convey messages through his photography in his Sequences; these were eight or more images strung together and viewed in order. The relationships between each of the photographs in one of White’s sequences were often difficult to comprehend without lengthy examination. One such sequence, called "Sound of One Hand Clapping" includes images that appear to be abstract, solarized prints, or perhaps photographs of sand made from damaged negatives. These images give us some deep insight into the potential of the equivalent within Minor White’s uses of symbolism. Jussim and Lindquist-Cock suggest that "in [his] symbolism, the object was to create an experience similar to that of a Zen Buddhist koan, out of deep poetic intuition ( 76)". The title of one image, Dumb Face, Frost on Window, reveals the image to be a picture of frost on a windowpane. We can see in the large contrasting forms, and in the curves of the barely visible ice crystals a kind of a face.

Though both the title of the photograph and the title of the sequence serve to connote this image, theses texts seem less parasitic, and indeed less necessary, than the titles for the previous two photographs we have examined. Even when we know that the object in front of White’s camera was icy glass, we are not distracted from our discovery of the emotional message offered by the photograph. The subject of Dumb Face, Frost on Window are the mysterious and pure forms in the frost, not the frost itself. It is exceedingly difficult for the viewer to verbalize or to categorize these forms, and as a result the photograph seems to pull us out of the world of objects with which we are familiar. At the same time, we are well aware that the image must be a snapshot taken from our world. Minor strove to capture this paradox on film, and used it to his advantage in directing his viewer toward the "specific places" he has in mind:

To get from the tangible to the intangible (which mature artists in any medium claim as part of their task) a paradox of some kind has frequently been helpful. For the photographer to free himself of the tyranny of the visual facts upon which he is utterly dependent, a paradox is the only possible tool. And the talisman paradox for unique photography is to work "the mirror with a memory" as if it were a mirage, and the camera is a metamorphosing machine, and the photograph as if it were a metaphor…. Once freed of the tyranny of surfaces and textures, substance and form [the photographer] can use the same to pursue poetic truth (Newhall, 281).

Like a Zen Koan, which utilizes a paradox or a seemingly irrational statement to push a Zen practitioner beyond his reasoning mind, Dumb Face, Frost on Window forces us to focus on forms that cannot be easily verbalized as visual elements, or categorized as objects.

Unlike the common elements of landscape visible in Grand Tetons, this photograph contains no familiar symbols. And unlike The Three Thirds, the crystalline forms we see here resist any kind of conscious search for meaning. "Dumb Face" seems to capture the position of this photograph quite clearly. This photograph offers the viewer a moment of pure discovery; its content consists almost solely of metaphorical experience. Once he has freed us from all rational distraction, we are at the whim of Minor White’s suggestive powers to direct us through these metaphorical forms. White understood that "the contemporary viewer of photographs nearly always responds subconsciously to the design embedded in photographs", and he took strong advantage of this fact in his most successful equivalents (Living, 13).


Works Cited

Newhall, Beaumont, ed. The History of Photography. Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1982

Jussim, Estelle, and Elizabeth Lindquist-Cock, ed. Landscape as Photograph. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985.

Lemangy, Jean-Claude, and Rouille, Andre. A History of Photography. Trans. Janet Lloyd. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Barthes, Roland. "The Photographic Message." Photography in Print. Ed. Vicki Goldberg. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1981.

White, Minor. Rites and Passages. New York: Aperture, Inc. 1978

White, Minor. A Living Remembrance. New York: Aperture, Inc. 1984