Minor White

At the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Organized by The Art Museum, Princeton University, with a catalogue by Peter C. Bunnell.

(Originally published in The Boston Phoenix March 1989)

In Minor White‘s photograph Gallery Cove, Point Lobos, California (1948), smooth white stones on a rocky beach have an incredible presence. They look like classical sculpture, but they seem almost alive — beautiful naked bodies sleeping in the sand.  In 72 N. Union Street, Rochester (1956), a door opens slightly to reveal a staircase caressed by soft white light. The photograph exudes a thrill of expectation — the feeling that something is just about to be revealed. In Barn and Clouds,  Vicinity of Naples, New York, 1955, trees along a country road quiver in the sunlight. They point straight up to the sky and cast tall, man-shaped shadows across a road that leads up to a dark, looming mountain. The atmosphere is electric — charged with energy and light.

“Perhaps to the average viewer a door is a door, but to Minor White it was something more like the title of Aldous Huxley’s book, The Doors of Perception,” comments Clifford Ackley, Curator of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs at the Museum of Fine Arts.

White’s silvery, crystal clear photographs of nature, doorways, or male nudes convey a sense that behind the visible world is another world — a world filled with meaning and magic. He was fascinated by the transforming power of photography — its ability to show what he called “things for what else they are.” For White, seeing was a mystical experience. He studied Christian mysticism, Zen, Gurdjieff, Sufiism, the I Ching, and he liked to quote the thirteenth-century German mystic Meister Eckhart:

“…the eye with which I see God is the same eye with which God sees me.”

A pair of photographs — Tom Murphy (1948) and Cypress Grove Trail, Point Lobos, California (1951) — illuminates the way elements of mysticism and eroticism intertwine in White’s work. The first photograph shows a beautiful naked man crossing his arms over his heart. The second shows the gnarled branches of a cypress tree, mirroring the shape of his body and his hands; in the distance, the ocean ripples against a rock, then reaches out into the infinite distance.

For White, the camera was “a means of self-discovery,” “a means of self-growth,” “a way of life.”  He wrote,

“Ever since the beginning, the camera has pointed at myself.”

White was also an inspiring teacher — he taught photography at MIT from 1965 until his death in 1976, and influenced many Boston photographers. Former students remember him as

hypnotic” — “mesmerizing” — “deeply spiritual.

“Minor White was one of the central figures in the 60s and early 70s scene in Boston. It was a perfect correspondence between the spirit of the time and what he was about,” says Ackley. “He was a real guru.

by Rebecca Nemser for rebeccanemser.com

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