Culture

Clarence White and His World: When the Art of Photography Was Young

Detail of Girl with Mirror, 1912, by Clarence H. White (George Eastman Museum)
An exhibit of his daring work a century ago, as well as that of leading contemporaries, will soon go on tour.

‘Clarence H. White and His World: The Art and Craft of Photography, 1895–1925,” is an exhibit at the Portland Museum of Art in Maine. It’s a collaboration between two of my favorite museums. Princeton University’s superb museum organized the show, which has a national tour going next to the Cleveland Museum of Art. Stimulating the exhibition was the museum’s archive of White’s work, smartly acquired years ago. The tour will enable Princeton’s scholarship to reach many thousands more people. It fortifies the museum as a leader in the nation’s museum community. Portland hosts it, continuing its record of elegant, scholarly summer shows. The show makes sense for Portland. White’s Seguinland School of Photography, founded around 1911 as America’s first art school devoted to the medium, was nearby.

Clarence White (1871–1925) was one of the pioneers of modern American photography, and like most pioneers he started dreaming and tinkering perhaps not in his garage or basement but as an amateur at home. Home was Newark, Ohio (near Columbus), where he lived and worked until he moved, already well known, to New York in 1906. Photography in America, though the medium was decades old, was still an emerging art, with its visionaries far flung. Newark was as likely a hub as any, and for a time White’s mere presence there made it a focal point, or focus point is more apt, for a movement of geeks turned aesthetes.

“Lyrical” is the word most often used to describe his work, but that’s too glib and dismissive in that it suggests a reassuring beauty, almost a mild sedative. Yes, he did many photographs of young women, psychologically absent, as allegories of spring, and Spring in Triptych from 1898 is the best known. They’re beautiful, and I have no quibble with beauty, but in White’s case they’re daring and new. He used low light to reduce shadows, creating a limited, consistent tone and flattening space but only as much as he wanted. He made contact prints from his negative, cut and cropped, and moved bits around. He found a composite pose of the figure and distribution of foliage he liked and arranged the puzzle pieces in a Renaissance-style triptych. Drops of Rain from 1902 is an abstract, offbeat play of forms — the glass orb became a favorite prop — juxtaposed against the drops of rain. His son was the model. Like the boy’s youth, it’s about transience and fragility.

In Telegraph Poles (1898) he uses a uniform sepia tone, reflections, and tipped perspective to give gravity to a scene that’s mundane at best, ugly at worst. I tend to look at this and the rest of White’s photographs for their formal qualities. White was an interventionist artist, seeking the right light, cropping, massaging, and chemically tweaking his images to get the look he wanted. He was painfully particular in arranging objects as he sought the right balance of elements. Each shot was exactingly planned and followed by extensive handwork.

Every American artist worked under the spell of Whistler, at century’s end the English-speaking world’s most famous painter and print maker. White never drains subject matter or narrative entirely from his work. He wasn’t that radical. Unlike Whistler, he doesn’t entirely annihilate sentiment or moral instruction. He clearly extolled country life’s slower sense of time in Newark, its predictable rhythms, its simplicity and kindness. He’s ultimately after a look and a feel that’s more intellectual than emotional. That’s consistent with Whistler’s art-for-art’s-sake movement and what makes White modern.

At the Portland museum, the show was installed with a wonderful sense of storytelling. This might have come from Princeton — it’s an engaging approach for students — but I know that at the Portland show it indeed unfolds like a novel, moving from White’s small-town beginnings to his astonishing spirit of experimentation, his collaborations with other photography pioneers, his disputes and disappointments, and his years as an inspirational teacher.

Among the many strong storylines in the show is the presentation of colleagues including Alfred Stieglitz, Alvin Colburn, Holland Day, and Arthur Wesley Dow, whose irascible, eccentric genius can savored through portraits of them and in a rewarding selection of their own work. Portraits of Stieglitz by White and of White by Steichen suggest the web of conflicting ambitions, personalities, and visions as photography got its footing as art in its own right. The two men were colleagues, competitors, and finally antagonists. It’s clear how their work descended from their characters, with Stieglitz the edgy, dyspeptic seeker of everyday life, the grittier the better, and White the otherworldly idealist and by far the gentler soul.

Photo-Secession was a roiling group led by Stieglitz and included White and other artists dedicated to promoting photography as a medium as valid as painting. Stieglitz ruled with a heavy hand, dominating the selection of works for group shows and offering unwanted advice on style and technique. Around 1911, White chafed, rebelled, and left the group, shattering his friendship with Stieglitz. For all his stubbornness and self-involvement, Stieglitz had a remarkably clear view of White. He felt that White should never have left Ohio, that he had become overwhelmed and confused by city life. Some critics in the early teens called him old-fashioned, his work meant to evoke reverence and not the energy of modern life. Stieglitz found him static as an artist and moody, too.

Certainly, by the middle of the decade, White was spending less time making art and more time teaching and running his school. In the early 1920s, he started to take fashion-photography commissions. They’re not bad. White hesitated to do commercial photography, finding that it took the seriousness and experimentation from the medium. It was no longer art. Still, he took risks, as he always did. He was one of the first fashion photographers to shoot in everyday locations and not in hermetically sealed studios. He used the sharper focus and greater contrast the commercial genre demanded, so his photographs were less mysterious, less ethereal. The handful he did have presence.

White died suddenly in 1925. At the time, his core practices were indeed thought outmoded. His fuzzy contours and delicate tones, his hand-applied process and retouching, his rejection of whatever the final exposure produced seemed hesitant and weak, effeminate, and, worst of all, Victorian. He certainly wasn’t simpatico with the Roaring Twenties, an age when spontaneity, greed, gyration, and abandon seemed more the mood.

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