Just this morning I sent off a package containing two book on the American photographer, Minor White to a friend and fellow artist. Minor White’s photographs changed the course of my life. Back in 1989, there was a retrospective of his work at The Museum of Modern Art and the images just blew me away. And the idea that someone no longer on this earth (White died in 1976) could somehow reach out and touch me so deeply with his images simply altered the reality I had created for myself.
My friend had mentioned how he needed to find out more about Minor White after meeting a former student of Minor White working atThe National Gallery of Art as a photographer. Never one to miss an opportunity to spread the ideas of this great man, I offered to send my friend some duplicate copies of books I had in my library. He graciously and enthusiastically accepted.
In the package I included a letter that summed up White’s philosophy and I thought I would share it on this blog.
Enclosed are the books I promised. I hope you get something out of them, not only as a photographer but as an artist in general. Below are a few quotes from Minor White’s writings that sum up what he was all about, artistically
On becoming a photographer:
I asked if I could be a photographer, and [Alfred] Stieglitz said: ”Well, have you ever been in love?” and I said: “Yes,” and he said: “Then you can be a photographer
The camera is first a means of self-discovery and a means of self-growth. The artist has one thing to say—himself.
To see through, not merely with, the eye, to perceive with the inner eye, and by an act of choice to capture the essence of that perception. This is the very core of the creative process.
The essence of the practice of Equivalence:
The secret, the catch, and power lies in being able to use the forms and shapes of objects in front of the camera for their expressive-evocative qualities… the ability to see the visual world as the plastic material for the photographer’s expressive purposes.
..innocence of eye has a quality of its own. It means to see as a child sees, with freshness and acknowledgment of the wonder; it also means to see as an adult sees who has gone full circle and once again sees as a child—with freshness and an even deeper sense of wonder
On the practice of sequence:
A sequence of photographs is like a cinema of stills. The time and space between photographs is filled by the beholder, first of all from himself, then from what he can read in the implications of design, the suggestions springing from treatment, and any symbolism that might grow from within the subject itself.
On viewing photographs (and all art I say):
What you find will be your own. The experience cannot be compared to addition because that implies one right answer and many wrong ones. Instead the experience should be compared to an equation one factor of which is the viewer’s depth of mind. When so treated there are as many right answers as persons who contemplate the picture; and only one wrong answer – no experience.
I will add one additional quote which I think puts things in perspective:
I have discovered camera is both a way of life and not enough to live by.
I just returned from a conference in Washington DC. While I was there I went to the National Portrait Gallery and saw they had a show dealing with varying depictions of celebrities. Some of what was quite interesting, especially the video portrait of Esperanza Spalding. To my surprise as I walk into a small side room I see this:
Two Boricuas and a Mexicana. To my delight one is a Supreme Court Judge and the other two, while actors, are also activists in immigration issues. Pretty good.
Walking around New York City on Saturday I stumbled on a Bernie Sanders Rally in Union Square. Sanders was supposedly at The Vatican this weekend so I was not expecting him to show up. The crowd seemed to be really pumped up and there were some strange sights that day; juxtapositions, oppositions, and near collisions!
Just before this past Easter, Google announced that they would give away for free their Google Nik Collection. The Nik Collection was for a very long time a highly respected set of photo editing plugins for Photoshop. To a lot of – not that old – photographers it meant the end of a beloved set of plugins. Surely this was the end of any updates to the software suite. I suspect that this was Google’s way of unburdening itself of this product with no fuss or muss.
Google’s actions also foreshadow a trend that will encompass all of photography. As this article in the New Yorker discusses, Desktop based photo editing applications are being phased out in favor of mobile apps. In hindsight this point should have become obvious when Adobe started introducing mobile versions of their Lightroom and Photoshop products a couple of years ago. There has been a bit of hand wringing over this especially among older, err, more experienced photographers.
I personally have no problem with this state of affairs. There are the selfie makers and then there are photographers. The difference between them is not how technically good their photographs are but rather how much thought went into them. I write tons of e-mails, blog posts and texts but I would not consider myself a Writer (capital W). Rather, I am a writer (small w). I do not pull my hair out searching for that perfect phrase or sentence. My writing is more utilitarian just like the selfie photographers (selfieographers?) aim is more about communicating a message or making note of some thing or event albeit with a little flourish. And so I don’t think the definition of Photographer (Big P)is changing, rather I think a new class of picture takers, photographer (with a little P) has come into prominence with the new technologies. They are prominent and voracious and technology companies like Adobe and Google see a market in catering to them.
While the target audience for the mobile photo editing apps is most likely this new group of selfieographers, Artists and Photographers will always take advantage of whatever technology is available in their slice of time. While for now I concentrate on making exhibition prints of the photographs I take and make (and don’t park them somewhere in the Cloud) I can see a time where I could make a portfolio of image made with an iPhone and some mobile photo editing apps. There is already an app for calibrating the color of ipads (made by X-Rite) geared towards professionals (i.e. those who make a living off photography). Of course I would try to have some sort of overarching idea that I would try to embody in the images and then try to extend the practice of iPhone photography somehow, either in the presentation of the images (25 iPhones mounted on a gallery wall?) or possibly in how the iPhone is used in creating the images. Regardless, just like the writer sweating over choosing just the right word to put in a sentence, I will always question the what and why of my photography practice.
There is an old adage heard hundreds of times a year in writing workshops; “write what you know.” This can also apply to some forms of photography. My image making and that of many photographic artist I admire tend to be the poetic kind. We share a vision of the world. We do not attempt to try and capture a truth about the world. At best we might create an image that is poetically universal from a personal experience.
In this day and age, where everyone carries a camera and where most people are visually sophisticated, at least compared to a couple of decades ago, it is impossible to sell photography as truth. Photography reflects the biases and physical limitations of the person wielding the camera. Photojournalists try to ameliorate the biases but the images they bring back are still infused with their particular set of inherent limitations.
As I think more and more about my proposed project on the Puerto Rican experience, I come to believe that photographing what I know, my extended family and friends and also creating images about childhood memories, seems the best way to communicate these ideas. Photograph what I know and push that romantic, Robert Frank road trip to the side.
Like I said before the difference between a photographer and everybody else with a phone, err, camera is the thought involved.