Minor White-Philip Hyde Letters 1

August 2nd, 2011 by David Leland Hyde Leave a reply »

Art Is One of the Faiths of the World…!?

Do you agree or disagree?

Art Is One of the Faiths of the World: Minor White lectured to his third year class of photography students at the California School of Fine Arts, now the San Francisco Art Institute in May 1950. Minor White also wrote Beaumont and Nancy Newhall on how the lecture came about, as well as writing a reply to a letter from third year student Philip Hyde, who through a question in his letter to Minor White instigated the lecture topic. The original letter from Philip Hyde to Minor White has yet to be located. Philip Hyde’s correspondence file with Minor White did not contain a copy. The original letter may be in the Minor White archive at Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey.¬†For more related background on Minor White, Alfred Stieglitz, Philip Hyde, Ansel Adams and other points in the history of photography see the blog post, “Minor White–Philip Hyde Letters.”

Minor White’s Reply To Philip Hyde

(From Philip Hyde’s correspondence file with Minor White.)

25 May 1950

Dear Phil:

Thank you for your letter. It means much to me, just what or how is so mixed with my own life that it is hardly worth explaining – or too long an explaining, let us say. The little lecture on Monday said most of it. Art should be a faith in the world – that becomes my own aim with photography – however often I may fail.

As for yourself, you have something to give the world, now you are ready to start giving it, go ahead.

That takes the production of photographs and it takes the placing of them before people. It usually seems like a waste of time to spend the hours presenting your work, especially to one who can produce; be we will have to accept the hard, bitter fact that getting the product before people has to be done.

The best of work and the best of luck,

Minor White (signature)

Minor White’s Letter To Beaumont And Nancy Newhall

(Reproduced from Minor White: The Eye That Shapes by Peter Bunnell, The Art Museum, Princeton, New Jersey, copyright 1989 by the Trustees of Princeton University.)

May 25, 1950
San Francisco

Dear Beau and Nancy:

Enclosed is the usual Spring dither on what we are teaching. It always amazes me to discover how much we expect to lay before the kids. Fortunately much of it is not presented directly, but forms the basis of criticism and discussion over prints and over hootch.

One of the values of teaching, to me, is now and then having to be what I am expected to be. The other day I had a letter from a third year man (Phil Hyde–and he really has something to give to the world), [which] put me on the spot. Is art to be a reflection of the hopelessness of the present day man or is it to be one of the solid things which he can hang on to. Whew! It came up over my Disaster Series which he felt was a powerful ride straight to destruction and that it was devastating because it did not offer even the faintest possibility of salvation. Soooo, at lecture Monday I had to go on record saying that for me, art was one of the faiths of the world. That jarred a few of the boys, but it vindicated this one man–not that he really needed it–it’s his conviction anyway–but perhaps it would cement for him his belief and thus save him years of proving to himself that he was right. It is not often that I have to take a stand, trying to be four teachers at once, I can usually state that facts 1, 2, 3, 4, etc., are fact objectively. If I had other teachers who stood for one view or another I could afford to take one myself. But it is worth it. I grow up in that class because in order to answer their questions I am forced to. It was a wonderful lift to make that positive statement, art is a communication of ecstasy, it is one of the faiths of man. For all my photographing the lonely, the frustrated, the despair, it is my belief that my aim with art is the solution of these things within the work of art. Came home that evening about 8:00, tired and feeling free more than usual. A shot and Bach fugues and I was off on a binge of sheer lyricism….




Do you agree or disagree with Minor White? Is art one of the faiths of the world? Is art’s role to show the dismal state of the world, or to give us hope and why?

(Continued in the blog post, “Minor White-Philip Hyde Letters 2.”)

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  1. pj says:

    Powerful questions David, and certainly no simple, definitive answers.

    I’ll disagree with White slightly. I don’t think art is one of the faiths of the world. Art goes beyond faith. Like wildness or nature or whatever you want to call it, art is one of the pillars that faith is built on. It’s an expression of life itself.

    Art’s role isn’t to show either hope or tragedy. Life holds both, and art expresses both. It’s too big to be confined to one or the other. The decision is up to the artist alone.

    An ambiguous answer? Of course, but like I said — no simple or definitive answers. Very thought-provoking post my friend.

  2. Thank you, PJ. I like your take on art and faith: “Art goes beyond faith…art is one of the pillars that faith is built on.” I am not entirely in agreement with Minor White either. My father was looking for a message from Minor White about art uplifting humanity, just as Ansel Adams said that he intended his art to be “life-affirming.” I too feel that art can be a great uplift, but there is also a place for art that shows us failure, disappointment, destruction, death, waste and misfortune. I don’t believe in looking at the dark side of life just to look at the dark side, but I believe it is at times necessary to expose what has been spoiled to heal it. I have no problem photographing despair, ugliness, misfortune, and such if I can also offer hope; or if by showing hopelessness, I can instigate change. I also believe art has changed significantly since the late 1940s and early 1950s. In those days our country had just “won” the only “good” war, we were optimistic and full of hope for the future. Since then we’ve observed the motives for war becoming increasingly questionable, the reality of people starving in the streets here and abroad becoming less and less excusable, the rich getting richer and the poor starving, man’s inhumanity to man becoming both more common and more objectionable. Our world is much less naive, much darker and more gritty, and so is our art.

  3. pj says:

    I see by the title that this is number 1 of Minor White’s letters. I this going to be a series? That would make for some powerful reading.

  4. Hi PJ, thanks again. Yes, this will be a series. My father had a significant correspondence with Minor White and other mentors. He had a less extensive correspondence with Edward Weston, limited by Edward Weston’s failing health. He had a much longer and more prolific correspondence with Ansel Adams, David Brower, and many other conservation leaders and photography greats over the years. I will put some of these letters on this blog, while some of the more important correspondence will probably go into a book instead or in addition.

  5. Greg Boyer says:

    Dorothea Lange’s image of the migrant mother and her children was one of compassion and beauty even though it was of a situation of despair. This image moved many people to action, to help others less fortunate than themselves.

    Art transcends faith. Art is the physical expression of the soul or spirit driven not only by the ethos of the individual but also influenced by the surrounding culture. Art defines humanity.

    I hope this is going to be an ongoing series. Great stuff.

  6. Hi Greg, I appreciate your addition. “Migrant Worker” is an excellent example of how art can uplift or bring about change by showing us the unfortunate side of life.

    To clarify about the ongoing series that this starts. There will be a series of Minor White letters and other series based on the correspondence between Dad and other photography and conservation leaders.

  7. Sharon says:

    I wouldn’t agree with Mr. White on this although I do believe that art can express faith, shape faith, even change faith. But I am not one who believes in the over-elevation of art. I have a simpler definition of art.


  8. Hi Sharon, interesting what you say about how art can effect faith. Also, I agree that many people over-emphasize or over-elevate art, but how can we measure how much is too much elevation of art? Also, please share your simpler definition. The idea sounds interesting.

  9. Derrick says:

    You know how my historian roots love these kind of posts, David. So much to learn and no need to try and re-invent the wheel of those who have gone before us.

    I’d disagree with White.

    To me, “faith” is something that you cannot see or even touch. It’s just there. You believe in “X”… whatever that is. God, mother nature, creation etc etc etc. You can’t *prove* any of it. You just believe; your faith carries you.

    As for photography, particularly the type of art that your father practiced, is *real*. You can see it, touch it. If you go where the image was taken, you can smell it and that place enters into your very being if you’re paying attention….. And faith has nothing to do with it.

    Faith is me hoping that I remembered to pack all my gear and not knowing it until I get on site and open my bag….

  10. Hi Derrick, thank you for stopping in. Be careful, which definition of faith are you using. I realize they overlap and several comments here have gotten over into the overlapping area, as perhaps I did as well. However, which are you, or are we, talking about? There is faith as in “having faith,” that is, faith as an action; or there is faith as a noun, as in “Catholicism is an old faith.”

    I have faith that whenever I am preparing for a trip and in a hurry, I will have to search for hours through all sorts of unimagined places for something I don’t really even need, but that irritates me that I just can’t quite find and don’t remember where I put it. I used to have faith that the item would turn up later in an obvious place. However, as time goes on, there seem to be more and more of these objects that I don’t need but that are nice to have that I never seem to find when I need them. There are so many of them now, or memories of them once existing, that I can’t remember which ones I was looking for or if I was looking for them at all when they do finally turn up in an obvious place… perhaps another argument for simple definitions… or at least a simpler life… does this comment give anyone hope? Well, that is probably not even relevant as it is doubtful that it can be called art.

  11. Sharon says:

    To answer your question to me, David, my simpler definition of art in my life is work that changes or causes movement in what one thinks or feels. If it stirs my mind and heart, to me that is art. It doesn’t have to make me sing an aria, it can just make me hum a little.


  12. Thanks for returning Sharon. Even though humor, good or bad, is needed, whether it’s art or not, thank you for helping me get back on track. I like your definition of art.

  13. Dear David, when Minor White chose the word “faith”, I am sure, he did not think in the religious meaning of this word. The word faith is terribly complicated. The scope goes from fidelity, from faithfulness as far as religious belief.
    When Minor White made a photographic picture, he felt this process as being a part of himself. He identified himself with his art. He experienced it as a form of creative meditation. Hence he decided to choose the word “faith” (I presume) in the meaning of “truth”. Art is a vital necessity. Whether we are not aware of it or not.
    The way, Minor White reacted upon your fathers words, dear David, gives me the idea that the meaning of these words gave him a certain kick as to his own philosophy as an artist. He was truly enthusiastic.
    Your second question cannot be answered better than Greg Boyer did before.
    Receive my best wishes!

  14. Peter, Thank you for your interesting perspective. In my first reading I felt that he used the word “faith” in a way that could be interchangeable with religion. I had that feeling also because he studied religions and had an interest in esoteric spirituality. However, your comment has caused me to think about it more. I’m sure I have more to learn.

  15. Sharon says:

    I found his use of the word “faith” confusing. I didn’t think he meant it in a religious way. It did seem to be used in a way that it is not used now. I appreciate your clarification, Mr. Richter.

    David, I was also struck by the comments in Mr. White’s letter to the Newhall’s about your father’s comments on his Disaster Series and how it seemed to say that things were hopeless. I have the same feeling when looking at much of today’s current portrait photography. It seems like the photographer is expressing a feeling of hopelessness and despair. And that has been that way for several years. I wonder if more hopeful portraiture would even be accepted as art today. (Forgive my digressions)


  16. Sharon, Thanks for responding again. It is confusing. Much photography and visual art of many kinds I feel encourages feelings of hopelessness and despair. But is that always where all of it leaves you?

  17. Dear David,
    I just found a short text, Minor White eventually would have liked in relation to his “faith”.
    Leo Steinberg, the late art-critic, said 1962 in his essay “Contemporary Art and the Plight of its Public”:
    “It is in the nature of contemporary art to present itself as a bad risk. And we, the public, artists included, should be proud of being in this predicament, because nothing else would seem to us quite true to life; and art, after all, is supposed to be a mirror of life.”
    Best regards to you all,

  18. Hi Peter, great quote, thank you for your contributions here. Art is the mirror through which we see beauty in the common.

  19. Guy Tal says:

    Very interesting topic and responses. I guess my view may be in opposition to Sharon’s. I think it’s the over-elevation of faith that serves to the detriment of mankind and that the role of art, to borrow from Picasso, is to wash away from our souls the dust of everyday life.
    Faith is what lies between the known and the unknown and, as such, its role must shrink and adapt with the gaining of actual knowledge. That which is left once we know all that we are capable of knowing (which is, objectively, not much) is what some may call divinity.
    Art, on the other hand, continues to grow, evolve, and expand with the gaining of knowledge and experiences. It takes what we know, sense and believe and helps us form contexts for it that are not always expressible in words.

  20. Thank you, Guy, for your interesting perspective.

    Minor White did not mention religion, but he did say that art was one of the faiths of the world. Was he putting art above religion, or even saying that art can replace religion?

    Perhaps the over-elevation of art is in the pompous trappings, not in the art itself. While at times art can be pompous too, when it is unadorned and free from affectation, art can save souls, as can any other aspect of the Holy Ghost.

  21. Guy, you seem to be assuming that Mr White was talking about religious faith. I don’t think that is what he meant but I could be


  22. Hi Sharon, thank you for continuing this discussion. I feel Minor White’s statement is intriguing in part because it is open to a number of interpretations. Maybe Guy or others can comment further on alternative interpretations…

  23. Dan Baumbach says:

    Great post. I’m not sure how I would interpret “Faith of the World”, but I would say that in my definition of art, it should be uplifting.

    When I was about 20 and a street shooter in NYC I found I had a choice about what I photographed and how I portrayed it. There’s plenty of unrelenting despair to capture in NYC.

    I saw that even the act of my trying to create art showed that I had a purpose and something to live for. I decided that my art should reflect that faith in life.

  24. Hi Dan, well said. I would enjoy hearing more about your street photography in New York City or anywhere else. I find it intriguing that after street photography, somewhere along the way you gravitated toward landscape photography. Minor White certainly succeeded at both street photography and landscape photography. Do you still do street photography or anything like it? What did you learn from street photography that you still apply?

  25. Dan Baumbach says:


    I would love to tell you about my street photography past some evening over a beer in Boulder.

    In short, I don’t live in a city so I don’t think of photographing in one. I also find the colors of US cities dull. I would love to try street shooting one day in Mumbai or another Third World city.

  26. Dan, yes, thank you: a beer in Boulder sounds good. Boulder is a good place to have a beer, or for street photography for that matter, maybe you’ve noticed. Nonetheless, a third world city would also be my dream for street photography, or even a beer.

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