Workshops with Minor White
Notes on Minor White's 1964-65 Portland Oregon workshops.
Larry Bullis, 2008
I was fortunate to attend two series of workshops with Minor White in Portland, Oregon, with his "home" group. Minor had gone to Portland in the 1930's, been employed there by the Works Progress Administration to photograph the historic steel fronted buildings on Portland's waterfront, and had been involved in the camera club there. Subsequently, after his stint in the army in WWII, he went to San Francisco to work with Ansel Adams at the California School of Fine Arts and then to Rochester to teach at RIT.
Many of the original members of his original group were still active. Every summer, Minor would come back to Portland and give workshops, which members of the old group attended. During the year between summers, the group or as much of it as could or wished to, would meet at Dr. Rustin's for the "Interim Workshop". This group is still going in a different location and with a different group of people, and unfortunately, without Minor. Participants would show their prints. Tapes were made of the proceedings. Minor would receive the tapes with the photographs that were discussed. The next month, the photographs were returned with his reply. During these interim meetings, the protocols were followed as they were with him present, but, of course, without his voice, except on tape in the comments concerning last month's presentations.
Here, in response to a thread on APUG about developing one's ability to see, I will describe the methods he used in his workshops as best I can. I believe the descriptions to be about as accurate as any could be. I thought it best to post it as an article, because of its length and its potential interest for other viewers.
Photographs were viewed in a state of meditation. Every exercise was preceded by an induction to help the students attain the appropriate state. The student was prepared for the session through a guided progressive relaxation discipline. This induction would take approximately, I believe, about five minutes. The instructions were given slowly and deliberately, allowing time at each instruction for the student to accomplish the release of that body part or region before proceeding to the next. The intent of this was to bring the student's attention home to the body, rather than the usual flitting around between now and next weekend, love life, and tomorrow's dinner menu. Present in the body (this is quite an unusual state for most people, I think; we tend to live in our heads a lot) permits an unusual kind of simple awareness which does not include interpretation of any kind.
After the induction, the student would be asked to open his/her eyes, and would find a music stand positioned directly in front with a matted photograph on it. Note; music STAND. There is no music in the environment. Each student had a stand with a print on it. The photograph would be one that MW had brought with him; not one of his, but one he had for the purpose. It would be superb, but not a "masterpiece" and I think that was deliberate. I think it would be a mistake to use a photograph that is too powerful until the process is mastered.
Minor must have traveled with 20 or more of these prints. Imagine traveling through the most primitive, hot, and dusty parts of the US, like the Henry Mountains in Utah, with 20 or more immaculate prints, to say nothing of lots of 4x5 film, view cameras, music stands, etc. in his red 1960's VW bus. He travelled with an assistant, and the bus would be made dark at night for loading and unloading holders by being covered with a large tarp (it was carried too) by the person not enclosed in the bus. Somebody needed to be there to install and remove the tarp. Film was carried in a cooler, with ice. Well, I guess he had it easier than Carleton Watkins did.
It is impossible to write in Minor's voice, but here goes. Also, I've experienced similar inductions in other contexts, so while the spirit of the process is accurate, it is not verbatim Minor. I'm sure he would, however, approve.
Sit in a chair, your feet flat on the floor. Lap is a good place for the hands. Close your eyes.
Become aware of the sole of your left foot, where it contacts the floor. Place all of your attention there. (pause)
Retaining the awareness of the sole of the left foot, also become aware of the sole of the right foot. (pause) Allow that awareness to include all of both feeet. (pause) And the ankles. (pause).
Allow the awareness to expand into your calves. (pause) Then your knees. (pause) And your thighs.
Allow the awareness to include your genitals, your hips and pelvic area. (pause).
Allow the awareness to expand into your stomach region and into your chest. (pause). Take three deep breaths and release, allowing the tensions in your body to expel in the exhalations.
Continue the expansion of awareness into your shoulders. Release the shoulders. Into the neck, and head. (pause)
Become aware of the muscles in your face. Allow them to relax. (pause)
When you are ready, open your eyes.
In theory, totally relaxed, perfectly present in the body, aware and open without anything in the mind (yeah, really!) the student would then look at the print for about 15 or 20 minutes. The room would be totally silent during this time. The long time may seem excessive, but it isn't. If one knows that there is that much time involved, very soon one "gives up" and allows one's self to really get into the photograph and drop any worries about being able to see it all. With experience, the student will simply look at the photograph, allowing the eyes to pass over every millimeter, every line, every bit of glorious silver, every texture and every beautiful gray. (Would it work with an ugly photograph? I think so. It can work with anything. I assign my students to look at burnt toast. The important thing is to avoid judgment. Hey, burnt toast can be beautiful. Try it.).
At the end of the viewing time, the signal to gradually allow one's concentration to return to the room would be given, and after a few minutes (when MW could see that everyone was back) discussion would begin. These discussions could take any number of directions, some of which were not just talk, but could include body movements, postures and gestures. Each person would recount the experience with the work which often included difficulties, such as 1) judgment - good or bad, 2) technical criticisms, 3) distractions, 4) discomforts, 5) associational chains, 6) design criticisms, 7) likes and dislikes, and 8) anything else. I only number these to be sure that they separate one from the other in the reader's mind. I want the reader to note that these things are difficulties, despite what often is regarded as how you look at a photograph; i.e. to determine if it is good or bad. Value judgments like that, or any other valuation or analysis of any kind are considered intrusions on the experience; distractions. Flights of imagination, such as "it reminded me of..., it looks like a..., it made me think of... etc. were NOT encouraged, but would be grudgingly tolerated if they didn't take very long. Intellectual analysis was considered a difficulty. Everything Gets in the Way. Opinions are definitely not honored. "I like it" is entirely irrelevant.
Not only difficulties would be discussed. The discussion could turn to appreciation, emotion (there were incidents of tears, etc.) and intangibles. It is not easy to discuss feelings, because there are no words that come from that part of the human makeup. An attitude of respect for the work and for the individuals present was always maintained.
One must be open, relaxed, and loose to concentrate this way, but incredibly vigilant and very aware of oneself, at the same time as being aware of the image and the self in the process of observation. Got that? This means to be present to oneself as one observes the work. It is a conscious dialog with the work. If this is hard to grasp, that is not surprising. It's not at all easy to explain. It is a sort of dual consciousness; it is not just "I look at print" but, almost from a position that is superior to my ordinary self, I am aware of myself observing the print. I am, ideally, fully present and aware of my presence as my eyes scan and send the data to the brain; my awareness includes that process going on as well. I am observing myself observing the image; it is all there.
What do you do about the fact that these difficulties, these distractions, are inevitable? Remember, MW was a meditator. He knew how to let thoughts happen, let them go, and come back. Always come back.
The tenor of the atmosphere? Somewhat painfully self conscious. Here again, it might help to know that Minor was a Gurdjieff student. G's method requires constant self observation which is frequently uncomfortable and just might make one seem a bit weird to other people because of the intense self-focus - and knowing that it might make one seem weird could make one more self-conscious. He brought that into his teaching. His workshops could be fun, sometimes, but more often were rewarding in other ways, and not necessarily very comfortable to be in. He had a great sense of humor which he used very sparingly. A great premium was placed upon a rather serious self awareness.
The problem with using Minor White as a source of models for exercises is that you would almost need to be Minor White to use them. Minor was very charismatic, very commanding in workshop situations, and adept at creating what some would call an environment for learning, but others might call hypnotism. I think it would be very hard for an individual to apply his methods solo without training, but not impossible. I am able to do it, but it does take a peculiar effort, and I've had the training. Also, there are times that I simply can't do it. That effort isn't like "work", exactly; it is an effort to remember to do it. You know, remember to remember.
A workshop might last several days, and after the first introductory one where the zone system and viewing protocols would be explained and demonstrated, would be held at some remote site such as Cape Kiwanda or Cape Arago on the Oregon Coast. The day would start early in the morning; can't remember how early, but it was early. The importation of Eastern spiritual materials had not yet quite begun in 1964-65, although it was starting, so there was no "yoga" as we have today. Minor had us doing calisthenics; you know, jumping jacks, pushups, sit-ups, etc. to start the day. Early! Then coffee. Then talk. Then breakfast, then more talk, then shoot at some location that had been determined, then if there was a darkroom arrangement, process, then meet with prints, view and discuss, more talk, dinner, more talk, maybe see one of Minor's <B>INCREDIBLE</B> dual projector slide shows (he was a master of fade and dissolve, which he did with hand dimmers, and used the superimposition of images to create spectacular dynamic interactions). Then socialize with liberal drink. The night would end late and the next day would start Early - really early. I think about 5 o'clock. With jumping jacks, pushups....
Out "shooting" (which term I can't recall in use, but there is a famous story about MW saying to students going out with their cameras: "Happy Snapping!") the model was similar. Ideally, I would not "look for pictures" but would stay in a meditative state, remain open, not be critical and allow the image to find me. I never felt it worked for me then, but it does now quite often. My wife tells me that Freeman Patterson called this "relaxed attentiveness" or something close to that. Another of my most honored and revered mentors, Lloyd J. Reynolds at Reed College, called it "serene open awareness". I submit it to you with my recommendation.
The pace was rather severe and within a few days, several students would be gone, never to be seen again. I asked him what the reason for the severity was. He told me that fatigue would break down the students' resistance and he could just "pour it in". Minor believed that getting more than four or five hours of sleep was to indulge in sheer luxury. He would nap in the afternoon, perhaps curled up in the back of somebody's station wagon, for ten minutes, no more. He would count to ten, and be asleep. That was all he seemed to need. He was very strong; us young folks could keep up with him as he flapped his way up the streambed at Oneonta Gorge in his rubber thongs, his tripod with the Sinar over his shoulder, but older students fell back, not even trying to keep up.
Minor's methods were and remain controversial. His models were more traditional Eastern methods where the student surrenders control to the teacher and does as s/he's told, but these methods were adapted more or less successfully to the more permissive American environment. He was not a tyrant. There were, and maybe still are, some who think that he may have done more harm to students than good. Critics point out his mystification, the tendency of his students to become second rate clones, etc.
I myself elected to pursue a different road, but I honor my teachers, of whom Minor White is one. My intent here is to present as best I can an accurate picture of specific workshops, not to laud or criticize. I have used daily what I learned with him for the past 44 years. In that regard, he is not alone, but a member of a select and honored group. He was and remains very important to me, as a teacher and as a person, but - not as a "god". Like all of us, he had his strengths and weaknesses. Those who seem larger than life also have passions that are larger than life. The whole person is magnified.
Interesting description. Thanks for writing it up.
One of the first workshops I attended was with someone who I think taught at Cleveland State University in the early 1980s who introduced us all to the practice of viewing photographs with "heightened awareness," very much as you describe here. It doesn't surprise me that Minor White would have followed such a practice, but it is interesting to see the connection.
Do you remember who taught the workshop?
Those ideas were accepted and practiced for awhile, but rapidly began to disappear after about 1980. Have to wonder where all those people went. I suppose it is a fashion. Unfortunately, fashions appear and disappear it seems without a lot of connection to the value of the ideas themselves. So it seems.
Thanks for the response.
Sounds like an enlightening experience. I've used this relaxation technique many times before. I would have loved to have met and learned from such masters as Minor White, the Westons, AA, and others of that caliber. There is overload in this day and age; workshops of this nature are no longer cutting edge. But perhaps I just have to got to more workshops...... Is a meditative state even cutting edge? Who knows, but it seems insightful, where as most formal training I've done has been "straight down to business".
Last edited by timbo10ca; 07-19-2008 at 11:58 PM. Click to view previous post history.
"Ideally, I would not "look for pictures" but would stay in a meditative state, remain open, not be critical and allow the image to find me. I never felt it worked for me then, but it does now quite often."
My best images are usually created in this way. It is why I prefer to photograph alone and with no external time restraints to distract me. Nor am I troubled by occasionally not getting an image. It is the "seeing" that is important -- otherwise there would be never be an image to capture with the camera.
Thank you for the notes, Larry. Good information. I assisted at many Friends of Photography down in Carmel/Pebble Beach in the 80s and early 90's...discussions until 2am or later, and then 6am field trips to photograph were common. Four hours of sleep was plenty...but then I was a young buck in my 30's back then!LOL! Usually it was just us assistants and some of the participants that kept such hours. Lots of energy and good times.
PS...I think the most demanding teacher I ever came across in a workshop was Morley Baer.
At least with LF landscape, a bad day of photography can still be a good day of exercise.
Sponsored Ad. (Subscribers to APUG have the option to remove this ad.)
Thanks for posting Larry. It's great to have such a strong ongoing presence in your photographic life. It can be lonely and disheartening at times attempting to create your own objects of beauty and truth (or dare I say "equivalence") and it helps to have a guiding force to steer the way occasionally.
The Ohio workshops may have been taught by Arnold Gasson who did study with Minor back in the day.
I was a member of a group in the early 80's run by Ron Rosenstock which drew on Minor's guided viewing techniques (Ron studied with Minor). This was a group of photographers who gathered to share work, and Ron told me a couple years ago he is still running the group, with some of the same members!
Minor and students also worked on a book, an unpublished manuscript, of his image making and viewing meditative 'techniques'. Two volumes, probably 3-400 pages! Probably sitting in the White archives, I believe at Princeton. V. unlikely it'll ever see publication, but a very interesting read.
It's been so long, and it was just a half-day workshop, so I don't recall the instructor, but she definitely wasn't Arnold Gassan.
Last edited by David A. Goldfarb; 07-20-2008 at 10:53 AM. Click to view previous post history.
I communicated with Arnold Gassan at some time in the last few years of the 1990's. He sent me a very interesting story about his meeting up with Minor and Walter Chappelle. The material in the story (entitled "The Dialogue That Failed") was quite illuminating for myself, personally, because it filled in a lot of blanks and explained to a certain extent the origins of my own historical pathways. There were references in it to people I knew or knew of, and it shed a good deal of light on Minor's introduction to Gurdjieff's teachings (which occurred through Chappelle's agency). The story reflected Gassan's disillusionment with Minor, his spirituality, his legacy, and especially of Walter. Gassan and I knew some of the same people and had very different experiences with them. I could certainly understand his point of view, however. At the time, he had retired from his professorship at Ohio U, moved to Arizona, and had changed profession, becoming a psychologist.
At the time I was first involved in the workshops, Minor was either on his way (via Capitol Reef) to Colorado to do a workshop that Gassan had organized or had just come from there, I can't remember which. Gassan refers to that workshop in the story. I believe that it figured into the rift that eventually developed between the two men.
We've moved since I last saw the copy of that story, so unfortunately, I don't have it at hand. One day, I'm sure it will turn up.
My first job in photography (with the exception of processing film for the Reed College Public Information Office) was as Minor's assistant in the 1965 Portland Workshops. He wrote me a check for $50.
The prior year, he had driven out with Brad Hindson as his assistant, but that was the last year that he drove. In 1965, he flew to Portland alone. I was with him in the lobby of the Portland Art Museum when he got the call on the public phone confirming his appointment at MIT. That year, also, his heart condition was diagnosed, again in Portland.
My new wife of the time (life goes on) and I met up with him in San Francisco and stayed with him in a flat over a liquor store in the Filmore that was occupied by a very interesting trio, including the Reverend Katagiri (of whom Natalie Goldberg subsequently wrote). The other two were students at the SF Zen Center, where Katagiri was the second priest. My wife answered the phone once when we were alone in the flat. She said "It was Ansel. He asked to speak with the Great White Father."
There are copies around. I don't think any of them are complete. I've seen about 50 pages of it. I'm sure you are right; it'll never see the light of day except, perhaps, in interpreted form through further work of those who were involved or who have had access to it. What I saw was pretty rough. Minor mentioned working on this book in his last letter to me which was posted in April, 1976, two months prior to his passing. I was unaware that his students were involved in the writing, but, consistent with his methods, they certainly were involved in the research. As I recall, it was based on experiments with viewing images by a group of subjects. I was also unaware that it was so massive; I thought the small amount I saw was what there was.
Originally Posted by lloyd