Photography’s Golden Era 9

November 11th, 2010 by David Leland Hyde Leave a reply »

Ansel Adams And The First Days Of Minor White At The California School Of Fine Arts In The Summer Session

Have you ever been in love?
Only then can you photograph.
–Alfred Stieglitz
(Said to Minor White when he first visited Alfred Stieglitz at Gallery 291 in New York.)

(Continued from the blog post, “Photography’s Golden Era 8“)

Weathered White Bark Pine, Matterhorn Canyon, Yosemite National Park, Sierra Nevada, California, 1950 by Philip hyde. Made the summer after Philip Hyde earned his certificate from the California School of Fine Arts now the San Francisco Art Institute.

(See the photograph full screen Click Here.)

Minor White wrote a letter to Alfred Stieglitz on July 7, 1946 about his first few days in class with Ansel Adams in Summer Session at the California School of Fine Arts, now the San Francisco Art Institute. “My first class the other night was a delicious experience,” Minor White said. Philip Hyde was also in class for the first time with Ansel Adams that same summer.

“It was interesting to watch and listen to the questions of the ex-servicemen,” Minor White wrote to Alfred Stieglitz. Minor White right away in class began to address students’ questions about Alfred Stieglitz and his methods. “I am pretty darned happy to be able to give them first-hand knowledge of your kind of photography,” he wrote.

Ansel Adams Quickly Approves Minor White’s Teaching

“Within the first week, Minor White was busy teaching Alfred Stieglitz’ ‘equivalents’ as well as the Zone System,” wrote Jeff Gunderson in his essay in The Moment of Seeing: Minor White at the California School of Fine Arts. Beaumont and Nancy Newhall, who had originally recommended Minor White for the teaching job received a letter from Ansel Adams that said “Minor is a perfectly swell egg.” “By the third Thursday in the six-week course, Adams took a long weekend in Yosemite,” Jeff Gunderson noted. Ansel Adams “obviously felt comfortable enough to leave the class in White’s hands for a few days after knowing him for less than a week.”

Philip Hyde in a 2004 interview said, “I remember at first I said, ‘Who is this Minor White? He is an interloper. I am interested in what Ansel has to say and do.’ I got over that when I realized that Minor had a lot of things to say too and would be very helpful and interesting.” For more on how Minor White and Philip Hyde influenced each other see the blog post, “Minor White Letters 1.”

Ansel Adams And Minor White Disagree Agreeably

“Minor was a very different person and teacher from me,” Ansel Adams said in his Autobiography. Ansel Adams said that Minor White’s teaching “involved intense ‘verbalization,’ – the talking out of creative intentions, concepts, and directions.”

Minor required maximum quality and conviction of a photographer’s images, all implying superior craft. However, it was the inner message of the photograph that most concerned him; he always wanted to know the thoughts, feelings, and reactions of the artist to his subject and his image. Many were the vigorous yet friendly arguments we endured on this subject over the ensuing years. I remain convinced that the medium must explain itself in its own terms. I agreed with Edward Weston’s frequently spoken Louis Armstrong quote, “Man, if you has to ask, ‘What is it?’ you ain’t never goin’ to know.”… For the viewer, the meaning of the print is his meaning. If I try to impose mine by intruding descriptive titles, I insult the viewer, the print, and myself. I hope to enhance, not destroy, that delicate imaginative quality that should be expected from any form of art…. In retrospect, I feel that Minor was just the right foil for the slightly Calvinistic philosophy of the Group f64 school that my friends and I professed. We stressed the basic craft as it has seldom been accented before or since. Minor taught a high order of craft as well as the introspective attitudes of personal psychology and, later, such Oriental philosophies as Zen. In a sense he added another dimension to the art of photography: perhaps controversial, but convincingly creative.

Philip Hyde Explains Some Ways That Ansel Adams and Minor White Differed

Philip Hyde observed Ansel Adams and Minor White together in the same class from Minor White’s first day at CSFA. Philip Hyde said that Ansel Adams taught much of what he wrote in his books in his Basic Photography Series: The Camera (Book 1), The Negative (Book 2), The Print (Book 3), Natural Light Photography (Book 4) and Artificial Light Photography (Book 5). “Ansel and Minor both devoted time in class to talking broadly about photography,” Philip Hyde said. “They both wanted us to understand the context. They gave us reasons for making photographs too.” Philip Hyde said that seeing was also very important:

Seeing is a process that involves much more than just looking at something. It involves analyzing what you are looking at and thinking about what you are going to do and why you are doing it. When you look at something casually, you are not really seeing it. Meaning is all part of it, but looking hard and letting your eyes go over the subject to see what its nature is and what you want to do with that, how you want to show it. That was part of what Ansel and Minor taught us. We looked at photographs, talked about them and were absorbed in photography. Whatever came across the desk we would look at and analyze.

Minor applied spirituality to his work much more than I was interested in at first anyway. I have always shied away from the word spiritual because it means so many different things to so many different people. I like to find other ways of expressing the idea. Minor and Ansel’s teaching styles were different because Minor was a much more outgoing and outspoken person. He was always surrounded by people and interested in a lot of people. By contrast I don’t think of Ansel as being like that, although Ansel was certainly outgoing and friendly, but he was more formal and Minor was more open. Form in photography was subtle to Ansel. It was not as prominent as with Minor. Minor went to considerable length to emphasize form, whereas Ansel was more interested in conveying his experience through photographs. Minor would see form in things that other people wouldn’t see. Ansel is portrayed as very social with parties at his house, the piano and heads of state visiting, but in his photographs Minor was more outward and social.

Continued in the blog post, “Photography’s Golden Era 10.”



  1. pj says:

    Interesting to read your dad’s thoughts on the differences between White and Adams.

    I’m certainly no expert on Minor White, but he always struck me as more of a philosopher/photographer than many of the others. He would mull over spiritual and philosophical questions and express that visually. Those questions seemed to underlie much of his work.

  2. Thank you PJ, that’s right, Minor White explored the connection between the photographer’s inner life and what he chose to photograph.

  3. I am a major fan of Minor White. 🙂 His work gives me such a thrill. These are a couple of my favorites:


  4. Hi Sharon, I appreciate you sharing those two great photographs.

  5. Derrick says:

    What wonderful insight into the minds of the masters….

  6. Hi Derrick, I appreciate your input here and your appreciation of the writing about the masterminds.

  7. Richard Wong says:

    Great photo David. It has an abstract sort of look.

  8. It does, I agree Richard, thank you.

  9. Dear David,
    I cannot imagine a better way to lead into the art of photography. Ansel Adams declared the world, Minor White declared the spirit. Both together formed an ideal precondition to develop the technical knowledge and the feeling of their students.
    In his later years, Ansel Adams must have approached himself a little to the way of Minor White, when he told in an interview, that always, when he is directing his camera at a motive, he is feeling that there is something, he cannot see, – but it has to be touched with the photograph (these words are not his words. The tape with the interview is in my Freiburg home, 500 km away).
    As a student of far eastern sciences, terribly long ago, I was given a short text, written by one of the first chinese painters of pure landscape. His name was Tsung Ping (375-443). He wrote:
    “Mountains and water are material matter,
    to which a spiritual force gives life.
    The spiritual as such has no real outward manifestation, but it takes on shape in the things of nature.
    The artist must recognize this inner law of things and give expression to it in his work.”
    These words never left me. And later became a solid part of my way in photography.
    The art of photography is no duplicating machine, no lifeless technique. It needs the feeling of something special; call it love, or life, or spirit. Just as it goes with you.
    So the cooperation of these two ideal teachers, Adams and White, became a wonderful gift for their students (and for us).
    Best wishes to you all!

  10. Hi Peter, thank you. You have a good point about Ansel Adams. He was not into the metaphysics, psychology and analysis like Minor White, but he did speak of spiritual matters in relation to photography, perhaps more so in his later years. Some critics have even said he was like a photography mystic. That may be taking it a little far, though he did talk about capturing and conveying the quality of the unseen through his photography. He was also aware that speaking too much about such matters can compromise credibility. Ansel Adams may have been more of a mystic than we read about for all we know. However, he was also practical and interested more in advancing photography than anything else. All other endeavors served that purpose. whereas Minor White did not care what anybody thought one way or the other. He spoke openly about his esoteric and other unusual pursuits.