In his book, The Zen of Creativity, photographer, writer, and Zen master John Daido Loori describes the first time he saw his workshop leader, photographer Minor White:
He was a striking figure, well over six feet tall, with a flowing mane of white hair. He moved quietly, gracefully, and when he entered a space, he filled it completely.
An American photographer, White (1908-1976) was influenced by the great photographers of his time – Edward Weston, Ansel Adams and Alfred Stieglitz.
He, in turn, was a teacher and mentor to many, including Loori, as well as a co-founder of Aperture Magazine, still going strong.
Here are three examples of White’s contributions to contemplative photography.
1. Image as Metaphor
White continued the exploration of Stieglitz’s concept of equivalence.
While we cannot describe its appearance (the equivalent), we can define its function. When a photograph functions as an Equivalent we can say that at that moment, and for that person the photograph acts as a symbol or plays the role of a metaphor for something that is beyond the subject photographed.” ~ John Paul Caponigro
According to White, there are levels of equivalence. The first occurs when something in an image corresponds emotionally with something in the viewer. The second level has to do with what comes up in the viewer’s mind as a result of this correspondence. The third level is the mental image the viewer retains after no longer seeing the photograph.
Through the image, the photographer or the viewer relates to the image in a way that reflects something in his or her own experience. This is very different from the Miksang approach to contemplative photography, which stays with the original perception of reality, without any interpretation.
2. Found Photographs
In his essay, Found Photographs, White describes what happened when a porcelain bowl shattered on the floor and led to the seeing of images that would not have been without that accident.
As one porcelain bowl died a thousand thoughts were born; a score of unexplained photographs were seen to be, not accident, but photographs that found themselves. By my discipline of seeing I put myself where photographs can find themselves.
I often find images that I call “accidental art” – the way blossoms fall on a sidewalk or the way rain obscures the view in a window or reflections in the side of a car.
White taught how to go beyond seeing images (as an observer) to experiencing them in every sense.
3. Preparing the Mind
White was no ordinary teacher. His instructions reflect the mindset of a contemplative photographer.
- Venture into the landscape without expectations.
- Let your subject find you.
- When you approach it, you will feel resonance, a sense of recognition.
- If, when you move away the resonance fades, or if it gets stronger as you approach, you’ll know you’ve found your subject.
- Sit with your subject and wait for your presence to be acknowledged.
- Don’t try to make a photograph, but let your intuition indicate the right moment to release the shutter.
- If, after you’ve made an exposure, you feel a sense of completion, bow and let go of the subject and your connection to it.
- Otherwise, continue photographing until you feel the process is complete.
The Zen of Creativity (p. 16)
Some of this language may seem foreign to you. It does to me, although I know I’ve had the experience.
The image, above right, is an example. Walking down a street I traverse often, and suddenly the light hits a wall a certain way and I see where I haven’t seen before. I’m always drawn to clinging vines, but here it was first the soft green that had an emotional resonance with me. As I looked more closely, the small dots seemed to mirror the dots on the vines. They became one and I was like one of those dots, standing in a certain place at a certain time.
Learn more about Minor White and see his images here.
22 Quotes by Minor White – John Paul Caponigro