In the middle decades of the 20th century, Minor White (1908-1976) was a major figure in American photography. As a co-founder of the journal Aperture in 1952, and its editor for the next 23 years, he helped to arbitrate taste and promote the medium around the country. The inspiring courses that he taught at art schools and universities in San Francisco, Rochester, N.Y., and Boston were no less consequential.
In the Beginning: Minor White’s Oregon Photographs
Portland Art Museum
Through Oct. 21, 2018
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The waning of his influence over the past 40 years can be attributed to the deaths or aging of his many students. Personal philosophies for artists—he preached a brand of Gurdjieffian mysticism—are no longer deemed so necessary either. The flickering flame of his reputation is kept alive mainly in the Northwest.
“In the Beginning: Minor White’s Oregon Photographs,” at the Portland Art Museum, is a show about a crucial phase in his early development. In 1937, for unknown reasons, White left his birthplace in Minneapolis and settled in Portland. He took a job as a hotel clerk and lived for the next 2½ years at the downtown YMCA. In this city he committed himself to becoming an artistic photographer and discovered his calling as a teacher.
Most of the approximately 50 black-and-white prints in the show—organized by
the museum’s Minor White Curator of Photography, and displayed in six dimly lighted galleries—concentrate on his work of the late 1930s, when White was hired for the Oregon Art Project, part of the federal government’s Works Progress Administration.
This was a period when he was synthesizing his admiration for a few early modernist masters into a style of his own. In a nighttime photograph (c. 1939) of a courthouse in downtown Portland, the streetlamps glowing behind a pair of trees and against a moonlit sky, the mimicry of early
isn’t hard to detect. Countering this penchant for nocturnal romanticism was the astringent aesthetic of
the photographer with whom White felt the strongest lifelong affinity.
As White began to document the Portland waterfront for the WPA, Weston’s attention to the unique geometry of industrial forms seemed to be guiding his eye. The pictures here of tubular grain silos and of sharply angled cranes on the decks of cargo ships, and the close-ups of a helical propeller and of striations in the wood on the planks of a dock, are examples of imitation as flattery.
The show also points toward classic images from White’s maturity in the 1950s, such as “Windowsill Daydreaming” and “The Three Thirds,” which are more ethereal and enigmatic than Weston’s but similarly guided by the effort to harmonize clearly observed fragments of the natural and manmade world with Modernist principles of black-and-white abstraction.
“Portland” (1939) is at first glance a linear squiggle. Only on closer look is the object revealed to be a ship’s cable half-buried in sand, the hoop of its exposed portion casting a shadow that completes the shape into the outline of a heart. “Hand Forge” (c. 1939)—a glove, with the fingertips worn away, atop an industrial blower on a dock—exhibits a curiosity about Surrealist still-life that would later be more pronounced in White’s work.
argued convincingly in his 1989 traveling retrospective, “Minor White: The Eye That Shapes,” that White’s closeted homosexuality was never far below the surface of his photographs. These veiled emotions are most apparent here in his portraits of winsome youths. Although, so far as we know, White lacked the nerve to photograph male nudes until the 1940s, homoerotic glimmers can be seen in “Shipmates Visit the Photographer,” “Untitled (Man Praying)” and “Untitled (Young Man),” all circa 1939.
White’s career as a photography teacher began at the YMCA, in 1938, and continued at a small WPA center in Eastern Oregon, in 1940, when he also began to write reviews and essays. His friends in these years were mainly theater people, and his portraits of them here betray his weakness for melodramatic lighting.
White first gained national recognition in 1941 when he had three photographs in the Museum of Modern Art’s “Image of Freedom” exhibition. But it was the Portland Art Museum that gave him his first one-person show, in 1942, accessioning his WPA photographs—the first ones to enter PAM’s permanent collection. In that year he left the city to join the Army.
Next year, PAM will exhibit a second group of prints from White’s Oregon years, primarily of Portland buildings—some with cast-iron facades—that were slated for destruction in the early ’40s. A tribute to a photographer who was a local hero before he became a national one, both shows are part of a program, led by Ms. Dolan, to make sure that White doesn’t disappear, too.
—Mr. Woodward is an arts critic in New York.