Mirrors Messages Manifestations
Most commentators have pointed out that Minor White's most important aesthetic influences were Ansel Adams, Alfred Stieglitz, and Edward Weston, the great trilogy of Modernist American Art Photography. In many ways it's true. From Adams, White learned the Zone System of exposure and development and the technical virtuosity that was a hallmark of his photography. From Stieglitz, White picked up the notion of equivalency-that photographs could communicate emotional and symbolic meaning as well as visual information-and also sequence form-the combination of photographs into larger visual statements. From Weston, White gained a sense of subject, an intuitive connection between place, photographer, and camera. As important as these relationships were for White, they are only part of his artistic lineage, basically his formal training. The meaning White struggled to construct from these formal techniques was very different than anything attempted by the Big Three.
To understand what and why White was trying to communicate, we would have to look even further into his past-to his pre-photographic journal (begun in 1932 and kept up for over 40 years). White called his journal "Memorable Fancies," a term borrowed from William Blake, the eighteenth century English religious mystic and poet. Discovered while taking English Literature courses at the University of Minnesota, Blake became White's first and longest lived inspiration. Like Blake, White combined words and pictures into works whose meaning depended on both. Like Blake, White was a mystic, a religious artist whose true subject was Spirit. We don't necessarily have to agree with White's mysticism, but if we don't grant those views some validity, if we don't consider the religious component in his work, we can never understand his true accomplishment. White bent the secular tools of modernist photography into a religious art and practice. Based on a rigorous photographic technique that produced prints of great sensual beauty, White's work and spirituality arose from and remained grounded in the specific processes of photographic rendering.
Luckily, White created a record of the way art and religious experience coalesced in his work. Published in 1968, Mirrors Messages Manifestations (MMM) functions both as a spiritual guidebook and as that most important modernist form: the retrospective catalog, complete with extensive documentation (a complete listing of White's writings numbering over 200 articles is included). The first thing that is apparent from MMM is that White's early work examined subjects that were not exactly what we would think of as religious. Adding poetry to strings of photographs, White explored a hybrid form he dubbed "sequence." One of White's first explorations was "Amputations," a bitter and devastating anti-war statement produced in 1947 and banned by the San Francisco American Legion. While teaching at the California School of Fine Arts, White pushed the boundaries of sexual representation, a period recalled in MMM through the symbolic homoeroticism of "Sequence 4" and "Sequence 8." Interspersed with these early works are a variety of texts that provide a running commentary on everything from the theory of sequential meaning to the experience of photographing at Point Lobos.
Beginning in the late 1940s, White met several people who introduced him first to Christian mysticism (John of the Cross, Catherine of Sienna) then to Zen Buddhism, and finally to the teachings of the twentieth century mystic G.I. Guardjieff. The second half of MMM is the story of White's understanding and commitment to these various religious systems, all of which conceive of a physical relationship with the Divine, whether through prayer, meditation, or physical movement. More importantly, MMM maps out the ways White approached religious experience through photographic technique and meaning. From the early symbolism of "Rural Cathedrals" (created to accompany Evelyn Underhill's masterpiece Mysticism) to the visual physicality and formal brilliance of "One Hand Clapping" to the book's coda "Sequence 1968," White pushes beyond the symbolic illustration of religious texts into a mystical experience of Spirit consummated at the moment of exposure and based on a profound rereading of the photographic act.
The heart of White's new understanding of photography is a short piece situated at the center of MMM and titled "Three Canons":
Be still with yourself
Until the object of your attention
Affirms your presence/
Let the Subject generate its own Composition/
When the image mirrors the self
And the self mirrors the subject
Something might take over
A combination of how-to and aphorism, "Three Cannons" is a perfect illustration of White's hybrid of contemporary photographic conventions and the traditions of mystical experience. But the revolutionary idea at the heart of "Three Cannons" is a new vision of photographic relations. Gone is the modernist notion of authorship in which everything in a photograph depends and can be traced to a single photographer acting in isolation. In its place, White supposes a relationship with subject that is a two way street: by granting the world some role in its own representation we create a photograph that is not so much a product solely of individual actions as it is the result of a negotiation in which the world and all its subjects might participate. White then takes the next step and proposes that when this relationship is truly entered into, something might take over the entire process, something larger than subject or photographer, something like Spirit. Mirrors Messages Manifestations is White's proof that Spirit did just that, the autobiography of a soul born in the age of mechanical reproduction and nurtured on the possibility of the eternal.