Many artists achieve personal greatness, but only a handful in history have managed to be equally gifted at creating a significant body of work of their own while at the same time helping their craft get its collective act together.
Minor White (1908-1976) was such a singular genius. During his 67 years he managed to cram several careers into a life so productive that it still sets a standard in the art he helped to legitimize as more than just a craft.
John Szarkowski, the dean of contemporary American photography criticism, has put the case well: “White’s influence has depended not only on his own work as a photographer but on his service as teacher, critic, publisher, theoretician, proselytizer, and house mother for a large portion of the community of serious photographers.
Indeed, White’s omnipresence in the photographic world has made it easy to forget at times that he has remained first of all an artist: a photographer who has made some of the medium’s most memorable pictures.” In Szarkowski’s opinion, only W. Eugene Smith, Harry Callahan, and Robert Frank have had comparable impact on our sense of the emerging medium’s artistic potential in the generation that reached its maturity after the Second World War.
His “zone system” of photography became a major ingredient in the curriculum of the photo teaching boom engendered by the free tuition of the GI Bill. It was that massive broadening and deepening of the serious audience for photography as an art that accounts for the medium’s high status within art museums and among collectors today.
Walt Whitman once observed that great poetry demands great audiences—in a democracy you get no more than you’re willing to pay for, whether in cash or concern. White’s propagandizing for a demanding esthetic for the professional photographer generated as well as growing minority of “amateurs” who expressed their love for the genre by being willing to accord it the same high seriousness of attention that aficionados of poetry, fiction, and drama had devoted to their favorite art forms for centuries.
White’s “zone system”—basically a mandate that the photographer previsualize the photo he was concentrating on taking—laid to rest the hobbyist curse implicit in Eastman Kodak’s advertising slogan for the first cheap camera in the 1880’s: “You push the button; we do the rest.” For photography to become more than a past-time or a commercial operation, the photographer had to not only take over control of “the button” (mastering the expressive potential of the medium’s variables—aperture, focus, shutter speed before the “click”) but he also had to “do the rest” with infinite pains in the darkroom.
Here in the midst of what might be called our era of the “managed image,” in which anything goes in transforming the image before and after the “click,” we tend to underappreciate the magnitude of White’s achievements as a philosopher of photography. And his “zone system” of imaging the grey scale potential of an image-to-be purged the medium of both its hobbyist heritage and its hankering to simulate other already arrived visual arts such as painting, sculpture, and architecture. His message was clear: Understand your machine’s expressive potential and you’ll never be mastered by the machinery. Beauty indeed had to be seen in the eye of the beholder-photographer before it could ever be achieved on paper.
That White achieved this intellectual revolution without becoming too cerebral in the process is all the more remarkable. His eye never left his own viewfinder. I think he achieved this by joining a tradition of the American as mystic. He was a great aphorist in the tradition of Walt Whitman (“The hinge of the human hand puts to scorn all machinery”) and Louis Sullivan (“Form follows function”). “No matter what role we are in—photographer, beholder, critic—inducing silence for seeing in ourselves, we are given to see from a sacred place. From that place the sacredness of everything may be seen.” The sacredness of everything. That is White’s demotic gospel.
Just as Whitman wrote the first epic in American literature by celebrating the magic and wonder of the commonplace—can you get more down to earth than by praising mere “leaves of grass”?—just so White’s trained eye teases us into appreciating the miracle of everyday surfaces. His “equivalents” are in the Emersonian tradition of finding outside signs for inner states of gracefulness.
Louis Sullivan similarly made his great banks in small towns in the Midwest (why else would you want to visit Owatonna, Minn.; Columbus, Wis.; Sidney, Ohio?) with the same vision: If you turn yourself on to the wonder of the most ordinary existence, you will never again feel the lash of boredom. Like his forebears—William Blake, Whitman, Sullivan—White was creating a secular religion of awe and respect for the commonplace.
That is the cumulative intent of his wise sayings:
“Every moment of understanding is a birthday.”