Friday, February 1, 2008


Photographer/teacher Minor White believed there was more to photography than what normally lay in the eye of most beholders. For him the act of recording images on film and the viewing of the finished product became a life long quest for his own personal Holy Grail. At the end of his life in 1976, White was as energetically caught up in the pursuit of this quest as he had been at the beginning some 30 years previous. Along the way he had some pretty good inspiration from photographers Edward Weston and Alfred Steiglitz, who was responsible for giving a name to the gut of White's quest...a theory he called Equivalence.
Steiglitz theorized that what a photograph was about was something other than the thing that had been photographed. Steiglitz was interested in his own reaction to the things he had recorded, as well as the reactions of others.
Edward Weston spent a lifetime making pictures of ordinary things and turning them into objects of art for the camera. The objects in his photographs often became something greater than their original reality. At the center of these three men's search for the visual was a deep belief in the importance of the technical purity of the resulting photographic print. The quality of the photographic process became a thing unto itself...aside from the content of that resulting image.

Minor White spent the majority of his adult life trying to understand this concept and then pass it on to several generations of young student photographers. Along the way he help to found and edit the landmark photography journal known as Apeture magazine. As with most of his other life-long pursuits, Apeture served as a vehicle for "understanding" for himself and others.
Edward Weston came the closest to visually explaining the concept of Equivalency. His close-up of a simple pepper is much more than a record of a object. It also resembles a nude female figure viewed from behind. Weston had recognized this physical resemblence and transformed it into a photographic reality. White often explained his concept of Equivalency as not about what the thing photographed was about, but what it was ALSO about. He was alluding to what later photographic thinkers theorized was the power of transformation inherent to the photographic process. This is not unlike the theory put forward by photographer Garry Winogrand that photography was not about the thing that was photographed, but instead what the thing photographed looked like as a photograph.

Minor White spent years studying Zen philosophy and equating metaphysical theory to photographic vision in his teachings while New York City street photographer Winogrand found a few simple words to describe Steiglitz's complicated theory of Equivalency.
Indeed. Words often appear inadequate when trying to describe and explain the visual. Possibly because words and pictures communicate on different levels.
Words work as learned visual symbols keyed to a structured set of meanings while photographs communicate through shared visual experience which is open to a less defined interpretation than words. Words can explain while photographs generally suggest, hence the greater chance for ambiguity of meaning.
Finding words to explain the intuitive is probably the greatest challange to understanding this important function of the creative process. White's personal insights into this process were difficult for him to convey. One of his former students, teacher/photographer Jerry Uelsmann remembered his own difficulties in understanding his former teacher's words. It was, he said, difficult to understand another person's poetic experience in art if one had not experienced a poetic moment themselves.
Indeed. Once that level of creativity has been reached there does seem to exist a spark of understanding between individuals who are talking together about that experience.
White created an atmosphere around him which encouraged his students to quiet their internal selves down to a level that would encourage the understanding and possibly the experiencing of this intuitive creative state. For each student it had to be a solitary journey into this ultimate understanding. A journey custom fitted to each person's unique abilities and perceptions. White seemed to understand that he could not force this understanding. It had to come, if at all, at it's own pace and in it's own time.
Garry Winogrand understood. It was not necessary for him to read Zen poetry or become involved in the study of metaphysics. He had found order in the chaos of the street. He exposed that thing that French surrealist writer Pierre Mac Orlean had written about in the 1920's. That only photography had the power to capture...that "otherness" of reality that seemed to exist side-by-side with our so-called normal perceptions
Winogrand wrote, "If you put four edges around some facts, you alter those facts".White wrote," I photograph things to see what else they might be".

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