LOS ANGELES — Minor White’s photographs offer a portrait of a life lived in collaboration with the natural world, other people, and the great beyond. This collection of crisp photographs make up the retrospective Manifestations of the Spirit. It is a carefully staggered catalogue of White’s life’s work, weaving together chronological output with the photographer’s inner spiritual quest.
The exhibition begins with a tour through White’s “early career” (1937–45), starting with his departure in 1937 from the Midwestern city of Minneapolis. Relocating to Portland, Oregon, White dove into his practice, exhibiting an aptitude for a highly realist and naturalistic style of photography. It’s recognizable in “Cabbage Hill, Oregon (Grande Ronde Valley),” 1941, a gelatin silver print capturing converging angles that creates a mystical, non-focal point through circular barbed wires and a layering of wooden planks. The eye continues wandering across the photograph, unsure of where to land, yet knowing that it must keep going.
It’s strange, however, that White’s exhibition began with the “official start” of his artist career; there is no backstory about his young adult life or early spiritual experiences. The wall text touches on White’s gay identity which was, at the time, not something he disclosed publicly. Obvious queer undertones could be read into his 1948 photograph “Tom Murphy, San Francisco” (1948), of an angular, nude, muscular man, his head tilted to the side, gaze aimed down, and arms crossed over each other. White was a soldier in World War II, and queer long before ideas like gay marriage entered the public consciousness. The men in his photographs appear in anguish, using the body to express repression and desire. White is fascinated by this mysterious, almost deity-like male form.
Yet the majority of White’s works in this exhibition have little to do with his sexuality, instead focusing on harmonious minor details of the world and the natural elements. Curator Paul Martineau makes sure that viewers know the locations of each of White’s major career phases. In “Midcareer” (1946–64), viewers enter White’s career in San Francisco, where he held the position of photography professor at California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco, co-founder of Aperture magazine, and assistant curator at the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York. There’s a more staid, reserved, and quiet quality to all the photographs from the East Coast, whereas on the West Coast we experience a sort of freedom — an openness to the natural world and the road less traveled.
In “Peeled Paint, Rochester, New York” (1959), we see what looks like its literal title, and an experiment with expired photographic paper. The haunting photograph “Essence of Boat, Lanesville, Massachusetts” (1967) shows a rowboat’s length, gently covered with layers of snow. Many of White’s photographs shot during this “Midcareer” time period appear as if emerging from a dream-like state.
In his “late career” (1965–76) stage, White taught photography at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and received a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship. The Philadelphia Museum of Art gave him a final retrospective in 1971. In these later years of his life, White’s photographs appear more like meditative memories and moments of ephemeral togetherness. In “Untitled (composite print)” (1973), a black circle leaks ink, and four right hands white out the background, signaling the unknowable. Each image looks like it could have been shot yesterday — a compliment on both the timelessness to the work, and its archival quality.
Forty-three years have passed since White’s death, and 25 have gone by since the opening of his 1989 traveling retrospective Minor White: The Eye That Shapes. Manifestations of the Spirit offers nearly half a century of reflection on this mysterious photographer’s now historic contribution to our worldly questions about impermanence and the soul’s journey, both on and off this planet.
Minor White: Manifestations of the Spirit continues at the J. Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Center (1200 Getty Center Drive, Los Angeles) through October 19.