Hope, Failure and Binoculars – Meditations on Minor White

Followers of my Instagram feed know that I’ve been thinking a lot about the Buddhist teachings of Pema Chödrön. I’ve particularly latched onto this quote of hers from the book When Things Fall Apart:

As long as we’re addicted to hope, we feel that we can tone our experience down or liven it up or change it somehow, and we continue to suffer a lot. In a nontheistic state of mind, abandoning hope is an affirmation, the beginning of the beginning. You could even put “Abandon Hope” on your refrigerator door instead of more conventional aspirations like “Everyday in everyway, I’m getting better and better.” We hold onto hope and it robs us of the present moment.

One might wonder why I’ve been trying to digest this concept on Instagram. How can a profound Buddhist concept be understood through a media platform built on our desperate hope to be ‘liked.’  I’ve always been wary of people who try to pair spiritual practice with photography. This is what I said in an interview from 2010:

I think photography is the most anti-Zen activity. It’s all about stopping time, possessing things, holding onto them. And you know, if my goal was to be a healthy person, photography would not be the thing. I have this joke about becoming a binoculographer: you go around and look at the world without photographing. That would be a spiritually healthy way of taking things in. But this wanting to possess it is not so healthy.

For this reason, I’ve never given the least bit of attention to Minor White. Until recently I didn’t even know he was born in Minneapolis and attended the University of Minnesota. While I acknowledged White’s historical importance as both a teacher and as a co-founder of Aperture, I wrote off his photographic work as dream-catcher schlock.

I don’t own a single Minor White book. But earlier this week, a friend lent me White’s opus, Mirrors Messages Manifestations. My sincere hope was to see White’s photographs with fresh eyes and perhaps find an opening for pairing photography and spirituality. But after going through the book a dozen times, I couldn’t talk myself into the pictures. While I can understand some of the dated elements like infrared, even the straightest pictures felt over-idealized.

In trying to figure out what bothered me about White’s pictures, I turned to Robert Adams. Despite cherishing his book Beauty in Photography, I’d always skipped his essay on White. As always, Adams comments are insightful:

At his best, White made pictures because of that authenticity, the appearance of the world. When he failed, it was because he tried to escape it, to travel to what e.e. cummings sardonically called a “hell of a good universe next door.” Because we have all wanted to make that trip, in sheer weariness with home, we can sympathize, but because there is no hope [emphasis mine] of reaching such a destination short of death, we are obliged to resist it.

The problem I have with White’s photographs is that they are dripping in mystical hope. It appears that this was his ambition for the medium from the beginning. Here’s a passage from Mirrors Messages Manifestations:

During April of 1937 before moving to Oregon from Minneapolis to take up photography, I wrote, as William Blake used to, “A Memorable Fancy”: “Changing from verse to photography will only be a change of media, not the core. I have known the taste of poetry while writing, the taste will be the same in photography. If a few years pass without the ecstasy of poetry while I learn the camera, what matter – If some day the taste of Poetry is a Photograph. Contemplation of Deity in all manifestations is the true work of the soul.

But it isn’t long before White sees failure on the horizon. This diary entry is from 1947:

It is hardly surprising that I have concluded, after five years research, that camera is both a way of life and not enough to live by…psychologically speaking. Glass between me and the world is both a channel and a barrier. To live through the lens, to live out my inner conflicts and brambles through the camera, to turn to the camera to help me return to the world was an experiment I set out to explore five years ago. I knew it was headed for failure in some way, but I persevered because little else was left open.

What bothers me about White’s photographs is that they are an evasion of these inner conflicts. His pictures are like dream sequences in a movie – they only work if they are surrounded by the grit of reality. In a fantastic essay on White entitled ‘Cruising and Transcendence,’ Kevin Moore shows some of this grit. In 1939, shortly after taking up photography, White made a picture that I think is better than any of the 226 photographs in Mirrors Messages Manifestations:


Why does this picture work for me so much better than White’s mystical landscapes? I think it is because his longing is so rooted in the present moment. White isn’t dreaming for a better world, he’s looking at a hot guy in a garbage-strewn doorway with, as Moore describes it,  “his index finger exposed and pointing downward toward a prominent bulge.”

So where does this leave my Instagram investigation of spirituality? Should I just drive around like Garry Winogrand looking at cute ladies on the street with binoculars and make that my new religion?

Or should I give up photography?

Lately I’ve been practicing meditation. The process has been rocky, but now and then I glimpse the potential. After this morning’s visit to the meditation center, I came back to the studio and read this passage of Mirrors Messages Manifestations:

Finally only meditation seems to generate input worth tapping. Hypnosis, drugs, camera, all appear to be skeleton keys to the locked rooms of my house I have never entered. Skeleton keys that open dead rooms.

When I make key for these doors by being still with my Self, the room, opened, is full of flowers, furniture, friends.” – 1963

24 Replies to “Hope, Failure and Binoculars – Meditations on Minor White”

  1. Chogyam Trungpa, Pema Chodron’s teacher, developed with his students a practice of contemplative photography called Miksang (“good eye” in Tibetan). The focus of the practice is not so much on the result -ie- a good photograph, but on seeing the ordinary world around us in a fresh way. I guess the process is the result in some way.

  2. As this is a blog for the ages, it’s Garry not Gary Winogrand.

    I always liked White’s craftsmanship; I never thought about his writing and all you’ve brought up. You’re smarter than the average bear, and way smarter than the average photographer. Which is why, I suspect, you are the star that you are. Oh yeah, it’s true. Art world denizen, magnum, publisher. Go go go Mr. Soth.

  3. There is a saying that goes something like this…
    The layman sees mountains and a stream.
    The intermediate meditator looks and sees nothing.
    The master looks and sees mountains and a stream.

    Maybe, through photography, there is a way home again.
    I wrestle with these same ideas.
    And then I realize that the struggle is what is pulling me from the moment.
    Then I raise the camera and click the shutter.

  4. I don’t know that photography is as much a tool for self-discovery as much as it is about ego. Certainly a photograph holds the presumption of veracity, but the act of composing a photograph reveals a good deal about the photographers intended message, and in turn, the photographer themselves. Further, in an exponential way, the ability to read and interpret certain semiotic connotations reveals as much about the viewer as the society the viewer belongs to.

    Your image of the treadmill had me thinking. Why walk so slow? What was the significance of the monk? I slept on it and it came to me on my morning walk. We are trying to find a connection to the spiritual realm in a day an age where we so tightly construct every aspect of our lives. We walk on treadmills because it is quick and convenient and can be removed from the distractions of the outside world. The notion that spiritual discovery could be as quick and convenient is one that I personally had never contemplated; so an image has taught me to consider and contemplate.

    In turn, a photograph has taught me to observe and interpret the world in which I live in a different way than I did last night. And that, for me, is how photography can be a spiritual endeavour. I tune my eye and mind to experience the world in a way in which I had not before. But that comes from looking at other photographs and seeking their meaning and relating that to my own experiences. Without the photographer to communicate their ideas, I would remain the same.

  5. I think Adams is both a great counterpoint and also *possibly* a guilty suspect. He writes: “I began making pictures because I wanted to record what supports hope: the untranslatable mystery and beauty of the world. Along the way the camera also caught evidence against, and I eventually concluded that this too belonged in pictures if they were to be truthful and useful.” A good argument in favour of making space for necessary contradictions.

    But then in “Turning Back” there’s virtually no space for any reading other than a very binary condemnation. The pictures leave little or no space for an alternative vision, or for the pragmatic necessities that govern our wastefulness. We are, in the end, very few of us free to choose sustainability when the margins are so slender.

    Tod Papageorge’s commencement speech to the Yale School of Art in 2004 begins to end with this:

    “…the real, and only true, moment of art, or its possibility, occurs when an individual consciousness opens itself fully to the questions and signs that James’s “virus of suggestion” has infected it with. Then all worlds fall away, and meaning, or some fragment of it in the form of a possible object or poem or picture, has at least an opportunity to be glimpsed, if not seized and claimed.

    This aesthetic virus, or infection, however, will be more or less limited in the fever it causes in the artist by the fact that, as Goethe had it, “We see only what we look for, and look for what we know.” In other words, our work as artists can only be as capacious, as instructive, as true, as what we’ve allowed ourselves to learn and to know.

    It seems, then, that what I finally mean to say here is that, at a moment when the world is pressing so overbearingly on all of us, it may be nothing less than your responsibility, even as relatively free spirits cruising out on borders of a national disaster (by which, of course, I mean the perpetual state of war our country seems to have fallen into), to consider what your role as an artist in this America – this new, shifting America – might be now. And that this consideration should ultimately find room for a method that allows you ways of knowing that will stretch beyond the workings of your self-regarding mind and ambitions deep into the disorder and furtive sweetness of the world around you.”

    I think perhaps White was so convinced of his spiritualism that it left little room for the mess and contradiction of the world that surrounded him, and maybe Adams has at times lost the thrill of those three improbable kumquat bushes from “Los Angeles Spring”. My sense of Papageorge’s quotation of Goethe is that he is urging us to resist the symmetry of our own powerfully held convictions – to try to make room for contradiction, or to forestall the persuasive effect of our own judgements. To allow for the sincerity of an opposing point of view.

    1. Thanks for steering the conversation toward Adams…he is the photographer I think has most successfully dealt with spiritual matters in his photography. I once asked Mr. Adams if he was a Buddhist. He said: “though I once published a little book called Bodhisattva, I am not a Buddhist, though I respect elements of Buddhism, especially its acknowledgement of suffering and its emphasis on compassion.”

      I also asked Adams about Sergio Larrain’s decision to give up for photography for spiritual practice. “It is something I think I can understand,” said Adams, “though my own experience has been more or less the reverse, having started out thinking I might be a Protestant minister and then turning to photography.”

      1. I’d agree (from what I know so far), and I think so much of that spiritual inflection stems from the quality of light he’s drawn to. There’s a sense in which so much of that early work clusters in the finely nuanced midtones and then rushes in a kind of ascension toward those electric highlights. For me it both mirrors and produces a kid of reverence. That’s one reason why the landscapes in Los Angeles Spring are so startling, because there the pictures are so weighted toward these deep pools of jagged shadow. They’re as equally balanced by extremes, but in an almost inverse manner to the early work, so that the highlights seem at odds with the earth rather than in sympathy with it. The paradox is of course that they’re beautiful images of a kind of moral and physical devastation, so their well-deserved success as art, in the face our unchanging habits of depredation toward his subject matter is deeply ironic. Easier to love the poetic lament than to find ways of turning that affection toward the land itself… That said, I do think that (at least cumulatively) there is a record in that incredible body of work of a determined ‘acknowledgement of suffering,’ and an ’emphasis on compassion’.

        There was a recent piece in Aeon magazine by Dougald Hine that maybe closes some of the loop between the excess of images, the constant stream of information, and the hope that seeing and knowing can be combined in an effort at finding meaning, which I think is at the root of Adams’s work and the spiritual motives of his images. Hine writes:

        “Knowledge has a point when we start to find and make connections, to weave stories out of it, stories through which we make sense of the world and our place within it. It is the difference between memorising the bus timetable for a city you will never visit, and using that timetable to explore a city in which you have just arrived. When we follow the connections – when we allow the experience of knowing to take us somewhere, accepting the risk that we will be changed along the way – knowledge can give rise to meaning. And if there is an antidote to boredom, it is not information but meaning.

        There is a connection, though, between the two. Information is perhaps the rawest material in the process out of which we arrive at meaning: an undifferentiated stream of sense and nonsense in which we go fishing for facts. But the journey from information to meaning involves more than simply filtering the signal from the noise. It is an alchemical transformation, always surprising. It takes skill, time and effort, practice and patience. No matter how experienced we become, success cannot be guaranteed. In most human societies, there have been specialists in this skill, yet it can never be the monopoly of experts, for it is also a very basic, deeply human activity, essential to our survival. If boredom has become a sickness in modern societies, this is because the knack of finding meaning is harder to come by.”


  6. I’m not sure it (photography) is as cut and dried as you assert – although the having, holding and possession may be a personal psychosis for you to deal with. I don’t agree. I see photography (for me) as this – it is one of the fee devices that enable pure mindfulness to be prosecuted. The act of living exactly in the moment. No more or less. If I am able to craft a beautiful exposure at an even more beautiful (whatever that is) moment – then I am living in it. No more or less. And I get evidence of the fact. If I am able to be insignificant enough with a camera to record someone else in their pristine moment of mindfulness – then for me the connection with that subject is profound. I think its the same with any genre or category. It’s being there. Post exposure, the work has a latent capacity to become a kind of rumour, and act as conduit between the viewer of that image and the moments it was made. So it is like an echo. The more significant the moment, then the more the opportunity for a certain transcendence to take place in that empty space between the surface of the print*, and the back of the viewers eyes.

    It seems to me that perhaps the way express your understanding of photography indicates it is a kind of imperialist practice, like game fishing or hunting. Seeking trophy, accumulating asset and other things entirely acquisitive. That is not all it is – but it clearly is for some. Even the term ‘shooter’ and ‘take a photo’ has a kind of primitive hunter like ethic.

    It doesn’t have to be this, or that. It can be more or all. Its personal and not necessarily is it for others as it is for you. Minor White was complex and much of his stuff as you say – was fraught. But his concept of what things could be and how it might be one day was significant and not to be discounted either. I don’t think its of much value to reduce his work to the struggles of a man dealing with concepts and practices of sexuality. But again – my view is just that. Its one of the things that make the game enormously challenging, frustrating and fun.

    1. Thanks for your comments Richard. I agree that photography is a perfectly good way to practice mindfulness. To use the binocular analogy, it is like birdwatching. Along those lines, I’ve always said that photography is great hobby, but an awfully problematic art. To exhibit photographs for an audience, I think the work needs to be about more than mindfulness. A comment below just alerted me to Miksang – the practice of contemplative photography. I think it is great that people do that, but I have no interest in looking at the results. Nor do I really want to watch people meditate or read a birdwatchers diary. For photography to be art, I think it needs to do something more. And yes, to some extent, this means the act of mounting and stuffing the hunter’s kill. The is partly why I see the art of photography as being counter to spiritual practice.

      1. Hi Alec! And Stanley too! And Greta! Ha! It feels like old home week. I should have brought a hot dish to this party.

        Jumping here though… I would happily watch someone meditate. Maybe I would join or make pictures or maybe I would nap with my head in their lap. Not sure what I would do when such a moment came to pass. And if a birdwatcher could really write then why not read it? I do agree with the trophy concept as I see it so often and it is a particular weakness of mine… but I wouldn’t quibble with any other work stylistically or conceptually without first experiencing it. Judging something that is held out as as an example but only a theoretically flawed one seems sort of convenient to me as such examples could also be theoretically mindblowingly perfect. Is that a strawman argument? I think there is a term I am looking for… Anyway, ‘show me’ is also a good piece of theoretical advice. I know you are writing off the cuff and so maybe you would polish that thought differently but it colors my perception of the thought.

        Speaking more personally. Sometimes when reading the heavier philosophical musings here and around, the zen tinted karma shootra of thoughtful practitioners, I wonder if there is a meta-spiritual hot pocket for those of us who careen gracelessly from situation to situation sometimes getting the camera up in front of us quick enough that we don’t get hit in the face as we carom into the next visual maybe-slash-maybe-not, laughing and confused even while the tears from earlier collisions and misses are still drying.

        Not really being glib at all. Among the folks I admire, there are those whose creative impulse is measured by long practiced appreciation for particular subjects of interest. But there are also radical outlier expressions of romantic love, political reaction, social response… and those can sometimes catch fire. And then there are some with instinctive and spontaneous interest in anything and everything that cannot be anticipated. And process can be at the root of exploration and practice – perhaps even more fluidly.

        When one considers all of the ten-dollar words and high falute of top-shelf photographic theory and then compares that to haphazard picture monkeys who make mischief when the visual mischief is good, you might make a case that the twitching, clicking intuitive may be just as – or more – able to rest in the unknowing.

        Subsequent exploration might could be do great editors really have a soul?

  7. Interesting to read your thoughts on a photographer you don’t like. I tend to agree. I think Minor White’s photos are devoid of so much it’s almost as if they haven’t been taken yet. Still, in some ways, I think his photos were inevitable for the time, if only because nature abhors a vacuum. The space was there, and he took advantage.

    Many of the things that are annoying about White’s photos are actually the same things that are annoying to me about Instagram: the filters, the over saturation, the stripping away of context in exchange for a certain look. Before Instagram I used to think of it as the “calendar effect.” If photos are bland enough, you can look at them for a second or two in your feed or for a whole month on your wall. For me that means artists like White, Winogrand, sometimes (but certainly not always) Ansel Adams, occasionally Edward Weston. And so on. By contrast, I think the best photos belong in photobooks and not on the wall or on your phone. Perhaps you’d agree. For my way of thinking, at least, it seems that spending some measure of time with a good photo is necessary. To do that, it needs to be still, and not coming down a “feed.” But, if it’s good enough, its effect on you will be so strong that you can’t spend forever with it. You need to be able to close the book and move on. Just like you can’t stand behind the camera forever. Eventually you have to press the shutter button.

    (That’s about as Zen as I’m going to get on a Friday night…)

    1. I tend to agree Steven. However, there is something about the fleeting nature of the streaming digital feed that actually seems more in keeping with the spirit of Zen than trying to preserve a moment on paper for eternity.

      1. I get that. So, if you indeed shoot mindfully and then let the images slip away in a digital stream, that would be awesomely Zen. And if you are usually shooting with books in mind, it would really be good practice. I had the chance to practice that today, because my camera was stolen last night. I have insurance, but I hadn’t had the chance to copy the SD card, so I lost some work. I wonder where those images are right now. Interestingly, yesterday I had photographed a small offering of food behind a Thai restaurant. As I happened upon this plate of food sitting there on a snow bank, I wondered if I were breaking a spiritual law by taking those pictures. Maybe so. Perhaps the camera is a “hungry ghost.”

  8. Alec,

    In the Ten Oxherding Tales, a classic zen text with images, one translation says that at the last stage, Return to Society, the student goes and drinks with the butchers. (Neither of which is terribly kosher for Buddhists.)

    1. I’ve been listening to Leonard Cohen lately and thinking about him drinking with his Zen master. Embracing the contradictions does seem to be essential. Thanks Doug.

  9. …really fascinating post and a lot of great replies for me to make my way through. Apologies if the comment I’m about to make here is too simplistic but as I neared the end of the replies a scene from The Deer Hunter flashed in to my mind, I’m sure you can guess which part of the movie this was…

  10. Que buen post!!!

    Realmente creo que la conexión más directa que tiene la fotografía con la meditación es poder de cierta forma agudizar ese instinto que todo fotógrafo tiene al momento de trabajar, ese algo inexplicable del momento de hacer la foto y el momento de editar. Por qué esta imagen? y por que no aquella?, siempre hay un por que pero al mismo tiempo es un echo de que la imagen existe. En lo que concuerdo con el señor Alec Soth es la pretensión de intentar trasladar al espectador a paisajes oníricos, ya que sin hablar nada acerca de la fotografía del señor Minor White podría trasladarse a la época del manejo digital como un HDR, esa sobré exageración de lo real para dar de una manera simplista un impacto al espectador.

    Recomiendo un libro marabilloso de un yogi llamado Nisargathatta Maharaj (I am that) realmente es muy bueno, hay una frase que la conecto enteramente con la fotografía y con el acto de fotografiar.

    “It is the unknown that we live and move, the known is the past”

  11. Thanks for your continued discussion – I think if an artist works with the intent of exhibiting, with the intent to formally show and possibly instruct audience – then one could seriously consider motive. I guess it depends on the premise and the context / structure of the ‘well from which it – the work – was drawn’. Many many artists just painted because they simply had to – the act of producing something significant was the driver. The audience and the (if you like) the narrow/medium and broadcasting of the image/ s was far from their initial intent, and then the production of the work. I think – then bringing that premise to photography – that acting in a kind of evangelist role and creating work which is at its conception is intended for a wall somewhere, or an audience somewhere – can be highly fraught. Questions or concequences swoop in around the purity of the work. ‘Are you showing me what you think I want to see ‘ ‘where is you’ ‘what did you want to see and feel’ and of course for me there is something around your discussion on the objectification and ‘othering’ of the subject photographed.’ (Enter the hunted/hunter premise).

    Somewhere on the periphery of this then sits a discussion around truth. I was shattered at the McCurry Pirelli work being displayed on the same web gallery as his other work. ‘Which was real… What did it say about the women in Pirelli and non Pirelli work – was authenticity and issue etc etc’ The pond seemed to become cloudy, and no longer could I feel I could wander into the images without questioning context my capacity to dream was disturbed.

    Good discussion great blog. Thank you

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