Princeton Art Museum Digitization Project Focuses on Photographer Minor White
TREASURES FROM THE MINOR WHITE ARCHIVE: This picture of two women, taken in 1949 in San Francisco, is among the thousands of images in the archive available on Princeton University Art Museum’s website.
The recent announcement that more than 5,000 images and related material by American modernist photographer Minor White are now available through the Princeton University Art Museum’s website was welcome news, and not just for those already familiar with Mr. White’s groundbreaking work.
The site, which was funded in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, is geared also to the uninitiated who might see one of Mr. White’s photographs and be curious about seeing more. “We worked very hard to imagine a user who might not be familiar and know exactly how to begin exploring White’s work on the site,” said Katherine Bussard, the museum’s Peter C. Bunnell Curator of Photography. “The searchability was very important to us. You can go by any number of key words, geographic locations, or subjects.”
Type in “winter,” for instance, and haunting black and white images of snow-covered landscapes, slushy New York streets, and close-ups of icicles appear — lots of them. Male nudes is another category with numerous entries. A “word cloud” offers ideas of some keywords that might pique curiosity.
Minor White, who died in 1976 at the age of 68, is considered one of the most important photographic artists and teachers active during the 30 years after World War II. Born in Minneapolis, he was given a Brownie camera by his grandfather when he was seven years old. According to a timeline on the website, he learned the basics of photography while studying botany at the University of Minnesota and making photomicrograph transparencies of algae.
He went on to have a busy career that included teaching at California Institute of Fine Arts, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Rochester institute of Technology, founding the photography magazine Aperture. “Minor White is one of the most important figures in 20th Century American photography,” said Ms. Bussard. “This is not only because of his images, but especially because of the role he had as a teacher. If you look at any number of photographers who came in the decades after him, all roads lead back to him.
“The images are arresting and sometimes quite mystical,” she continued. “They are formally very beautiful. But the reach of his legacy does have a lot to do with his role as a teacher.”
Mr. White’s Princeton connection dates from a one-day workshop in 1974 organized by his former student, photography professor and curator Peter C. Bunnell. Mr. White donated his archive to the University in 1976. “My understanding is that he was deeply impressed with how seriously photography was being taken at Princeton,” said Ms. Bussard. “Bunnell’s was the first endowed professorship within a university art history department to teach photography.”
The Minor White Photographic Archive is a digitization and cataloging project begun in 2014. It marks the first time there is online access to more than 6,000 finished prints, artist’s proof cards, and bibliographic history. Plans are for the entire archive — more than 26,000 items including 19,000 artist’s negatives and 7,000 undocumented, finished photographs, along with correspondence, personal and published writings — will be made available online.
The launch of the new Minor White Archive is part of the museum’s recently established Minor White Project, described in a press release as “a comprehensive effort to consider and deploy opportunities to exhibit, publish, research, acquire, and reconsider White’s work and legacy.” Mr. Bunnell curated the exhibit “Minor White: The Eye That Shapes” in 1989, which traveled to six other venues including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
Ms. Bussard has overseen the Minor White Project, along with an advisory committee of experts. Going through the images over the past two years, she made some interesting discoveries. “He is well known for the male nudes and a certain kind of landscape photography, but the big surprise for me was just how many times, especially early in his career, he was really a street photographer,” she said.
“There are wonderful images of the historic waterfront in Portland, Oregon, where he spent a lot of time. In San Francisco, he was working with modernist architects of the day to document their buildings. He had a real sensitivity to the built environment that I was not that familiar with. I had thought of him as someone more tied to the land and the landscape.”
The museum displays works by Mr. White on a rotating basis. Currently, one of his famous sequences, “The Sound of One Hand Clapping,” is on view as part of a show in the Asian Gallery.
The website is the single most comprehensive guide to Mr. White’s process and career. “We have worked hard to make it accessible, and hopefully there is something for everyone,” Ms. Bussard said. To access the archive, visit artmuseum.princeton.edu/MWA.