Minor White: 1857 Project brings together images by the American Modernist photographer Minor White (1908-1976) held in the collections of the Portland Art Museum and the Oregon Historical Society. Minor White began his career in Oregon between 1937 and 1942 and his employment with the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The WPA was the largest agency and public works project of the New Deal—a federally funded response to the Great Depression. While mainly self-taught, White was hired as a photographer for the Federal Art Project in Oregon—a program created to preserve and document the “unique and often vanishing features of each state.”

When Minor White arrives in Portland in 1937 from Minneapolis, he lives at the YMCA and has a job as a night clerk at the Beverly Hotel. He joins the Oregon Camera Club, a group with traditional views on photography, mainly to access their facilities and learn the technicalities of the medium. In 1939, he is selected by the WPA to document more than two hundred of Portland’s cast iron buildings in an effort to preserve an urbanism that was fast disappearing at the hand of the many modernization projects that were occurring in the city at the time.

Many of the cast iron buildings that White was assigned to photograph were on Front Street and slated for demolition in order to widen the street, which exists today as SW Naito Parkway. In 1939, White photographs the Hallock & McMillan building (1857), then the second oldest brick building, and now Portland’s oldest commercial structure predating Oregon’s statehood in 1859. In addition to architectural subjects, the majority of the photographs that White submitted to the WPA were of activities along the Willamette River and Portland’s working waterfront—bridges, cranes, docks and piers; railroad yards, lumber mills and grain elevators; ships docked and boats towing log booms abut the growing city, side by side.

In 1940, the WPA assigned White to La Grande, Oregon, a remote country town with population 8,000, located near the Idaho border and surrounded by wheat fields and wilderness. In La Grande, White taught photography at the Art Center, documented art classes and cultural events, and wrote art criticism. White produced most of his independent work in eastern Oregon, focusing on the landscape and its wilderness—country where no one had set foot. For Minor White, it was here that he first came to see photography as much an artistic as a social medium.

These photographic explorations led to White’s first solo show at the Portland Art Museum in 1941 where 72 of his eastern Oregon photographs were shown. Though White received his draft letter a month after the exhibition opened, his Oregon photographs brought him national attention and four of the photographs from the Portland Art Museum were shown at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in 1942.

White continued to return to Oregon where he taught many classes and workshops, and photographed over the next decades. White is quoted as saying that his time in Oregon is when he discovered everything he wanted to do with photography; the rest of his career was spent refining and exploring those discoveries.

In 2014, The J. P. Getty Museum recognized the significance of Minor White’s contribution to photography with a major survey show and catalogue of his work, “Manifestations of the Spirit.” The last time Minor White was shown in Portland was in 1989 in “Minor White: The Eye That Shapes” organized by Princeton University Art Museum which traveled to the Portland Art Museum. More than twenty-five years have now passed since Minor White’s work has been celebrated in Portland.

Zena’s “Minor White: 1857 Project” brings into public view Minor White’s early works in Oregon, most of which have never been seen, and some, not since 1941.