Minor White: 1857 Project

The second 1857 Project brings together photographs 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 the years of 1937 and 1942. In 1939, he began his employment with the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in Oregon, which was the largest agency and public works project of the New Deal-- a federally funded, programmatic response to the Great Depression. White was hired as a photographer with the Federal Art Project (FAP) in Oregon, which was a government-funded WPA program created with the intention to preserve by documentation the “unique and often vanishing features of each state.” The FAP predominantly employed painters and sculptors-- photography positions were rare. In 1952, a box of over 2,500 photographic negatives from the WPA was sent from Washington D.C. to Oregon’s Forestry Department and ended up in the basement of the Portland Art Museum’s library. Zena’s Minor White: 1857 Project presents for the first time ever a selection of images from the repositories of both institutions.

When White first arrives in Portland from Minneapolis in 1937, 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, White is selected by the WPA to document some of Portland’s more than two hundred cast iron buildings in an effort to preserve the last signs of an urbanism that was 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 located along Front Avenue and were slated for demolition in order to widen the street, which exists today as SW Naito Parkway. In addition to these architectural subjects, the majority of the photographs that White submits to the WPA pictures the activity along Portland’s waterfront. White photographs ships, grain elevators, logging activities, and transport by train and boat in a body of work that comprises his first completely autonomous photographic activity.

In 1940, White is sent by the WPA to the country town of La Grande, Oregon, population 8,000, located near the Idaho border and surrounded by wheat fields and wilderness. It is here that White is assigned to set up a community art center and teach photography. He also writes art criticism and is later promoted to director of the Grande Ronde Art Center. He continues to teach, document cultural events, write for the local paper and host a radio show during his 16 months in La Grande. White’s time here proved extremely important to his later career, as it was here that he first came to understand photography as much an artistic as a social medium.

White produces much of his independent photographic work in La Grande and surrounding locations in eastern Oregon, focusing mainly on the landscape and natural subjects. During the spring of 1941, and knowing next to nothing about the wilderness, he spends a week camping in the Wallowa Mountains where he rides horses and photographs the lake, mountain flowers and driftwood that had been there for centuries. Much of the territory that White visits at this time was country where no one had set foot. When the FAP funding to the art center stops in 1941, it is forced to shut down. Finding himself unemployed in remote country, White returns to Portland and gets a job in a department store playing Santa Claus.

The photographic explorations of the natural environment that White made in La Grande led to his first solo show at the Portland Art Museum in 1941, where 72 of his eastern Oregon photographs were shown. These Oregon photographs brought him national attention, and four of the photographs from the Portland Art Museum show went on to be shown at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City.

White later went to San Francisco in 1946 to teach with Ansel Adams at the California School of Fine Arts (later known as the San Francisco Art Institute). In 1952, he went on to found Aperture magazine. White, a life-long educator, continued to return to Oregon over the next several decades where he continued to photograph and teach many classes and workshops. For the last ten years of his life, White taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and in 1970 was given a Guggenheim fellowship. Princeton University Art Museum holds the Minor White archives, and much more of his work is held in the collections of prominent museums around the country.

Prior to the Getty’s 2014 survey show of Minor White’s work, “Manifestations of the Spirit,” the last major solo show of his work was “Minor White: The Eye That Shapes” in 1989. The 1989 show, organized by the Princeton University Art Museum, opened at MoMA in New York and included a stop at the Portland Art Museum. Twenty five years have now passed since Minor White’s work has been celebrated in Portland, and most of the work included in the Minor White: 1857 Project from his time in eastern Oregon have not been seen since 1942. 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.