PRINT December 1978


Minor White: Rites & Passages; His Photographs Accompanied by Excerpts from his Diaries and Letters

IN THE PAST YEAR the crushing torrent of books on photography, including tiresomely redundant surveys, historical potboilers and full-scale monographs purveying the most inconsequential reputations, has not let up. We do, however, come across something quite extraordinary in the form of the 80th number of Aperture, that justly famous periodical series of photographic books. The 80th number is Minor White: Rites & Passages; His Photographs Accompanied by Excerpts from his Diaries and Letters, edited by James Hall Baker and Michael E. Hoffman (Aperture). Frankly, I don’t readily take to driftwood lyricism. And formalistic-romantic barn-door abstraction is something whose appeal, to me, is specific and historically limited. Also, I find maudlin those Zennish closeups of shyly natural inflections in otherwise formalized natural motifs: shivering little lichens or the exposed “inner life” of wood grain. It is not surprising to me that White should have been so wrapped up in the “zone system,” since so much of his work is about picking something lyrically “natural,” and setting and balancing everything out to an inhibited, inorganic stillness—or rather, a stillness all arranged like a fantasy for the private but complete sovereignty of a single (lonely) external (but not unnarcissistically conflated) artist/viewer. Yet there are some astonishingly fine landscapes, especially those concerned more with tonal nuance than just with composition, composition being so easy to do in photography and so thoroughly boring to contemplate. And there are some portraits, almost all of young men, that have a stunning ordinariness, in that the romance—and even the embarrassment—of affection seems here honest, kind and deserved.

I do not, in theory, like the idea of justifying an artist’s work, which should by definition be an objectification of some kind, by reference to, especially, his most private life. But what is more satisfying than the worthy exception? This book, with its very personal images and its extensive quotations from the most private, even confessional, letters or diaristic notes, documents, often touchingly, a specific life in art—one that included editing Aperture itself for 23 years, from 1952 to 1975. Things can get a little mushy, but even then in a dignified way, considering the absorption in precious extremes of sentiment. At any rate, how refreshing it is to read of a life lived in the age of Abstract Expressionism that was more involved with sensitivity, even at the risk of effeteness, than with the display of bravura (which is just as suspect anyway, since it is something that men do for each other’s esteem). We follow some of White’s most intimate thoughts on army life during World War II, on reconciling sexuality and faith, and on art as a mode of revelation and a way of life. And if much here should suggest a specifically homoerotic tradition (Edward Carpenter, John Addington Symonds, Walt Whitman) it is nevertheless something that can become really precious when shared with everybody.

Joseph Masheck