Object of the Week: Windowsill Daydreaming by Minor White

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Minor White (1908-1976) was an American photographer from Minneapolis who explored the ways in which photographs conveyed spiritual meaning. White received his first camera at age eight from his family, and photography quickly became a hobby. He attended the University of Minnesota (G’34) and minored in botany, literature, and pottery. Throughout college, White experimented with poetry as his main source of self-expression and stated that the “language of metaphor was natural to him.” In 1937, White transitioned from expressing himself with the written word of poetry to visual expression using photography, as he felt the change in medium could better express the spirituality of his poetry to audiences. That same year, White moved to Portland, Oregon and began photographing for the Oregon Art Project, a federal works project under the Works Progress Administration. For the Oregon Art project, he photographed nineteenth-century cast iron facades and buildings on Portland’s First Avenue. He also read books on photography from his local public library and attended events held by the Portland Camera Club. White stated in interviews that his time working for the WPA allowed him to learn basic photography skills that propelled his later abstract works. In 1942, White received his first solo exhibition at the Portland Art Museum, and some of his works were purchased by the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Just as White reached critical acclaim, he was drafted into the Army in 1942. Upon his discharge in 1945, he briefly returned to Portland before travelling to New York City to study at Columbia University. It was here that he developed close ties with Beaumont Newhall, Alfred Stieglitz, and other members of the Photo League. White ascribed to Stieglitz’s art theory of equivalence, which stated that a photograph is the “equivalent” to an artist’s experience. White took this ideology and expanded on its mystical qualities. He believed that aside from experience, photographs could also convey mysticism, Zen Buddhism, Jungian philosophy, and other forms of spiritual awakening. White claimed that his photographs conveyed the inner self as the camera could transform his artistic persona into a poetic reality. Windowsill Daydreaming embodies White’s mystic philosophy. The photograph depicts the corner of an open window, with plain linen curtains, radiant sunlight, and an abstract circle of light and shadow. In this work, White aimed to transform the familiar into something magical and extraordinary. Viewers will recognize the window frame, but the amorphous blob in the foreground keeps the viewers guessing about what is entering through the window. Is it light? Is it a reflection of light from a luminous surface inside the room? Or is a ghost or specter sneaking into the space? Windowsill Daydreaming combines documentary photography (in the realism of the window) and Abstract Expressionism (in the mystical shape of light). For White, the visual effects of light entering a room evokes an otherworldly quality that can mesmerize and move the soul. White taught photography at numerous universities, including the California School of Fine Arts, Rochester Institute of Technology, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He also helped to co-found the photography magazine Aperture in 1952 along with Dorothea Lange, Barbara Morgan, Nancy and Beaumont Newhall, and Ansel Adams. The magazine strove to connect creative photographers and to provide a space for discussion on aesthetics. White became the magazine’s first editor. He stated in later interviews that he felt compelled to use Aperture to share his theory of Equivalence to other aspiring photographers. Windowsill Daydreaming is currently on display in Portal: The Window in American Photography, an exhibition drawn from the Everson’s collection that examines the formal and symbolic potential of a simple aperture.

—Tyler Valera, Curatorial Intern

Sources:1. Bunnell, Peter C. Minor White: The Eye that Shapes. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Art Museum, 1989.2. Danziger, James. “Minor White.” In Interviews with Master Photographers, 14-35. New York: Paddington Press, 1977.3. Glowen, Ron. “Finding ‘Equivalents’ in Minor White.” Artweek vol. 20 (October 28, 1989).4. Grundberg, Andy. “Minor White’s Quest for Symbolic Significance.” The New York Times. April 30, 1989. 33 and 37.5. “Minor White: The Eye that Shapes, through November 12.” Oregon Art Institute (October/November 1989): 4-5.6. Murray, Joan. “Prints by a Mystic.” Artweek vol. 15 (July 28, 1984): 15.7. Myers, Jane, ed. Celebrating America: Masterworks from Texas Collections, exhibition catalog. Fort Worth, TX: Amon Carter Museum, 2002.8. Van Deren Coke, F. Photography, A Facet of Modernism: Photographs from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. San Francisco: Hudson Hills Press, 1986.9. “White, Minor.” Encyclopedia Britannica vol. 12. 628.

Minor White, Windowsill Daydreaming, 1958, gelatin silver print, 11⅝ x 8¼ inches, Everson Museum of Art; Museum purchase, 89.24. Reproduced with permission of The Minor White Archive, Princeton University Art Museum © Trustees of Princeton University.