Minor White and James Ensor at the Getty

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As we move firmly into the digital era and photography comes along with us, we have less and less opportunity to experience extremely beautiful silver gelatin prints. A true master of this medium was Minor White, an icon from the early 1950s to his death in 1976. Yet, in the pell mell forward motion of history, his name and his work have ceased to be familiar. The first retrospective since 1989 is at the Getty Museum through October 19, Minor White: Manifestations of the Spirit. Organized by curator Paul Martineau, it turns out to be an unexpected marvel.

72 N. Union Street, Rochester, 1960
Minor White

All of the pictures are black and white and you can see first hand, in a way that digital imagery can never provide, the ways in which the simplest building, landscape or nude fairly vibrates with refined tones of silver. There was a magic to his printing process, through the use of quality papers and film developed in a darkroom, that brought an almost heartbreaking aura to the simplest of compositions. I’d forgotten how rewarding such work could be and how accustomed I’d become to huge color digital images spewed out on an ink jet printer.

Empty Head, 72 N. Union Street, Rochester, negative February 1962; print 1962 - 1965
Minor White

White, born in 1908 in Minneapolis, was himself captivated by the possibilities of photography after working for the Oregon Art Project, part of the WPA, providing Depression era relief for artists in 1938. After World War II, he was studying art history at Columbia when he met Alfred Stieglitz, shortly before the great photographer and dealer died. Stieglitz’s Equivalents, images in nature that corresponded with his emotional states, proved to be a model of for White. His next supporter was Ansel Adams, who invited him to teach at California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco. By 1947, White was head of the program and five years later, co-founded the photography journal Aperture, which he edited for 23 years. In 1953, he became assistant curator at George Eastman House in Rochester and taught at the Institute of Technology. Part of his legacy is as a talented and devoted teacher for an entire generation of photographers.

Burned Mirror, Rochester, negative June 1959; print 1960
Minor White

Teachers can lose touch with their muse. White only became more and more dedicated to his spiritual beliefs, specifically Zen Buddhism and Christian mysticism. His best photographs, many of which are abstractions based on natural phenomena, declare their presence quietly yet insistently as evidence of higher consciousness. One series, based on the Zen koan, is Sound of One Hand, and each picture is a symphony of quiet genius such as 72 N. Union St., Rochester, (1960) or Burned Mirror (1960).

Tom Murphy, San Francisco, 1948
Minor White 

The exhibition and the accompanying book, with nude photographs of Tom Murphy, clarify for the first time that White lived much of his life as a closeted homosexual, a position as personally anguishing as it was necessary, he thought, at that time. One result was The Temptation of St. Anthony is Mirrors, a series of nude photographs of Murphy, some in the show but many more in the book.

The Intrigue, 1890
James Ensor

Coincidentally, The Temptation of Saint Anthony (1887) features as well as a vast and complex drawing in the exhibition The Scandalous Art of James Ensor, which closes at the Getty on September 7. This is a focused and revelatory exhibition of works that were mostly made prior to the artist’s completion of his chaotic masterpiece from the Getty’s own permanent collection, Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889. It was completed when the artist was only 28 years old, in 1888. The show exposes the history and development of the furiously idiosyncratic artist. Consider these shows a balm for end of summer blues. For more information, go to getty.edu.

The Temptation of Saint Anthony, 1887
James Ensor