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Minor White, Who Lived A Life In Photographs, Saw Images As Mirrors

Tom Murphy, San Francisco, 1948 gelatin silver print (The Minor White Archive, Princeton University Art Museum)

When we point smartphones at our kids or smile for a selfie, we're not necessarily thinking of photography as an art form. But in the early days of the medium, when big cameras and flashbulbs were lugged around and propped on tripods, art was often the goal. An exhibition at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles focuses on the work of one such photographer, Minor White.

Curator Paul Martineau finds the name "Minor" appropriate. "It has a relationship to music and the minor key, which is somewhat of an unusual quirky key, and that fits in with his own personality," he says.

An outsider with a quirky sense of humor, White had different ideas, Martineau says. He was brave in what he chose to photograph, at a time when some subjects were dangerous.

In 1948, White made a series of pictures of his friend Tom Murphy. Beautiful, muscular — and naked — Murphy poses like a ballet dancer: elbows held in front of his chest, hands crossed, his long, graceful fingers pressed together.

Martineau says Murphy's hands look like the wings of a dove. His head is tucked sideways, birdlike. The lighting, Martineau points out, is very sensitive.

There's art, photography and love in this arresting black-and-white image — and also a story that involves the great Alfred Stieglitz, the early 20th century photography pioneer and avant garde art impresario.

"When Minor visited Alfred Stieglitz in New York, he still had many questions about his own direction and whether or not he could be truly a great photographer," Martineau says. "Stieglitz asked him the question: Have you ever been in love? And Minor replied: Yes I have. And Stieglitz replied: Then you can be a photographer."

It was 1946, and White was 38 years old. He'd gone from Minneapolis to Portland, to New York, where Stieglitz was a major influence on him. So were Ansel Adams, with his parks and mountains, and Edward Weston, with his nudes and vegetables.

"Ansel looked at the world in a big way," says Catherine Opie, a photographer and professor at UCLA. "He was interested in landscape that extended. Weston made the pepper look like a beautiful, sexy body. Minor is always up close and up tight and looking at form."

White was really talking to himself, looking inward, through the pictures he took. Martineau says there was torment in that search.

"His struggle with his homosexuality was a key factor in his work," Martineau explains. "Throughout his entire career he remained closeted. He had to. He was teaching in various university art programs, and if someone had found out he could've lost his source of livelihood, so it was very serious."

"I think that Minor thought that photographs themselves were mirrors," adds Opie.

By the end of his career — he died at 68 in 1976 — White's pictures were abstract, black-and-white closeups of rocks, wood and water. The gleaming images were spiritual and intense. He arranged them in sequences, leading viewers from one picture to another, slowing us down and forcing us to see connections and relationships between the shapes.

In a 1957 photograph, a discarded water tank, weathered by the elements, looks like an encrusted snail shell. "Look at how the light is caressing the rim at the top of this circular object. It's just gorgeous," Martineau says.

These days, everyone is a photographer ...

" ... but is everyone a good photographer?" Opie asks with a laugh. "Does everyone spend their life thinking about it? ... Every bit of their love and energy and relationship to the medium? That's the question."

That's what Minor White did, Martineau says.

"He worked very hard his entire life," he says. "He was practically living at poverty levels until the very end of his life. He was completely committed in mind, body and soul to living a life in photography."

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Smartphone camera's are now so good that almost anybody can take a great photograph. But there is still an art to photography. And in the hands of an artist, a well-composed photo can be like the language of a novel. The image may say one thing on the surface and convey other meanings beneath. One such photographer is featured in an exhibition at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. NPR's special correspondent Susan Stamberg says his work is almost forgot these days, but Minor White was a major figure.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: First of all, the name - Minor White - M-I-N-O-R. It's a family name, a great-grandparent was called Minor. Curator Paul Martineau finds the name appropriate.

PAUL MARTINEAU: It has a relationship to music and the minor key, which is somewhat of an unusual quirky key, and that fits in with his own personality.

STAMBERG: Quirky, a quirky sense of humor. Minor White was always an outsider. He had different ideas. Brave in what he chose to photograph at a time when some subjects were dangerous. He had a friend names Tom Murphy. A beautiful muscular young man. In 1948, Minor White made a series of pictures of Tom, naked. FYI, Tom is an outie. He poses like a ballet dancer - elbows held in front of his chest, hands crossed, his long graceful fingers pressed together.

MARTINEAU: My own title for this picture is Tom Murphy With Hands Like A Dove - like the wings of a dove.

STAMBERG: And he's beautiful, has a beautiful body and his head is tucked sideways as if he too is a bird.

MARTINEAU: And of particular interest here would be the lighting because it's so sensitively done.

CATHERINE OPIE: This is an art photograph.

STAMBERG: That's Catherine Opie, a photographer and professor at UCLA. There's art photography and love in this arresting black and white image. And a story that involves the great Alfred Stieglitz, early 20th century photography pioneer and avant-garde art impresario.

MARTINEAU: When Minor visited Alfred Stieglitz in New York, he still had many questions about his own direction and whether or not he could be truly a great photographer. And Stieglitz asked him the question - have you ever been in love? And Minor replied, yes, I have. And Stieglitz said, well, then you can be a photographer.

STAMBERG: It was 1946, White was 38 years old. He'd gone from Minneapolis to Portland to New York where Stieglitz was a major influence on him. So were Ansel Adams, with his park and mountains, and Edward Weston, with his nudes and vegetables. Catherine Opie.

OPIE: Ansel looked at the world in a big way. He was interested in landscape that extended. Weston, you know, made the pepper look like a beautiful, sexy body. Minor is always up close, up tight, looking at form.

STAMBERG: An influential teacher of photographer at MIT, the Rochester Institute of Technology, the California School of Fine Arts, Minor White was really talking to himself through the pictures he took, looking inward. Curator Paul Martineau says there was torment in that search.

MARTINEAU: His struggle with his homosexuality was a key factor in his work. Throughout his entire career he remained closeted, he had to. He was teaching in various university art programs and if someone had found out, he could have lost his source of livelihood. So it was very serious.

STAMBERG: Minor White examined his struggle with his work. Self-discovery through a camera.

OPIE: I think that Minor thought that photographs themselves were mirrors.

STAMBERG: By the end of his career, he died in 1976 at age 68, Minor White's pictures were abstract black and white close ups of rocks, wood, water, the gleaming images were spiritual and intense. He arranged them in sequences, leading viewers from one picture to another, slowing us down and forcing us to see connections and relationships between the shapes.

MARTINEAU: This looks like a Buddhist begging ball. But in fact, it's actually a discarded water tank that's been scored by the weather having been left outside.

STAMBERG: I would have said it was a snail shell. It's encrusted with what?

MARTINEAU: The residue of being left outside in all sorts of weather. But if you look at how the light is caressing the rim of the top of this circular object, it's just gorgeous.

STAMBERG: It is gorgeous. This piece of art photography from 1957, especially in these 2014 days when everybody is a photography.

OPIE: But is everybody a good photographer? (Laughing). Does everybody spend their life thinking about it? Their absolutely - every bit of their love and energy in relationship to the medium. That's the questions.

MARTINEAU: And that's what Minor did. He worked very hard throughout his entire life. He was practically living at poverty levels until the very end of his life. He was completely committed in mind, body and soul to living a life in photography.

STAMBERG: "Minor White: Manifestations Of The Spirit" is at the J. Paul Getty Museum. The show will not travel, but if you find yourself Los Angeles and in need of some visual spirituality, the images are on view through mid-October. I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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