Minor White's Legacy

In anticipation of the exhibition Minor White: Manifestations of the Spirit, opening at the J. Paul Getty Museum on July 8, Katherine A. Bussard, Peter C. Bunnell Curator of Photography at the Princeton University Art Museum, and former curator Peter C. Bunnell discuss the Art Museum’s Minor White Archive, from which thirty photographs are on loan to the exhibition.

John Weiss (American, born 1941), Minor White, 1974. Gelatin silver print. The Minor White Archive, bequest of Minor White (MWA-X362). © John WeissKB: Within the photography holdings at the Museum, the Minor White (1908–1976) Archive is among the most formidable. The archive includes thousands of White’s photographs, negatives, and proof prints, as well as documents and works by his colleagues and students. Can you tell us why Princeton became the repository for such a rich trove of material? What was your connection to Minor White?

PB: I first met Minor White in 1955, when I was a student at the Rochester Institute of Technology, where he was on the faculty. I took his classes, and, as was his practice, he drew a group of students around him outside the Institute. These were informal sessions where he explored in more depth his philosophy and attitudes toward photographing. In this context I became close to him on a more personal level, and I became his assistant on Aperture magazine, which he edited. As I embarked on my career, I kept in close contact with Minor and visited him often. When I came to Princeton in 1972, he was excited about the program we were developing in the Department of Art and Archaeology and in the Art Museum. Minor visited campus a few times, lectured here, and conducted seminars. With knowledge of the program and of my background, he decided that he would bequeath his archive to Princeton, indicating in his will that I was to be responsible for it.

Minor White, The Sound of One Hand Clapping, Pultneyville, New York, 1957. Gelatin silver print. The Minor White Archive, bequest of Minor White (MWA 57-25). © Trustees of Princeton UniversityKB: Since the Minor White Archive’s arrival at Princeton in 1976, there have been notable exhibitions that have drawn heavily on its contents. Can you say something about these?

PB: The most significant exhibition was Minor White: The Eye That Shapes, which featured 185 of White’s photographs, all drawn from the archive. The exhibition opened in 1989 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and then traveled to those cities where Minor lived and worked: Portland, Minneapolis, San Francisco, Rochester, and Boston. In 1991 the tour closed with a showing here in Princeton. Accompanying the exhibition was an extensive catalogue that I authored with two associates and which, in some respects, is a record of what is contained in the archive. Over the years, many institutions have requested loans from the archive, and there has been an increasing interest in reprinting Minor’s writing. The only other solo museum exhibition, which brought his work to the attention of Europeans, was a show in 2000, heavily derived from the archive, that was organized by the Civic Gallery of Modena, Italy, and traveled to venues in Salzburg and Milan.

KB: Recently there’s been a real surge of interest in Minor White. First and foremost, there’s your outstanding reference book, Aperture Magazine Anthology: The Minor White Years, 1952–1976, published in 2012. Last year, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, dedicated an exhibition to their photographs by Minor White. And this year, we look forward to the opening of the first major American exhibition dedicated to the artist since 1989. Peter, you were in close communication with Paul Martineau, the curator from the Getty who is organizing this exhibition and catalogue. Can you share the aspects of his project that have you excited?

Minor White (American, 1908–1976), Cypress Grove Trail, Point Lobos, California, 1951. Gelatin silver print. The Minor White Archive, bequest of Minor White (MWA 51-61). © Trustees of Princeton UniversityPB: I have long held the belief that there is no single way to interpret and write about a photographer’s work. In that respect, I welcome Paul Martineau’s forthcoming catalogue. I helped him with research in the archive; however, he has his own approach, and he has kindly let me read a draft of his essay. I was impressed with his selection of images from the archive, and I am also pleased that the Getty has chosen to expand their own collection of Minor’s work.

KB: I am certainly looking forward to the Getty exhibition and catalogue, but I’m even more enthusiastic about exploring and learning from the archive myself, and helping future scholars access this great resource.