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Clarence H. White and His World: The Art and Craft of Photography, 1895–1925 boldly rethinks the established histories of fine art photography’s development in America, a topic foundational to the history of photography’s origins as a discipline. Clarence H. White (1871–1925) was one of the leading photographers of the American Pictorialist movement, which advocated the practice of photography as a fine art medium. His life and work were conducted in surroundings as varied as the parlors and backyards of Newark, Ohio, a gracious urban townhouse in Harlem, shore cabins in Maine, and the modest farm buildings and open vistas of the low Litchfield hills in Connecticut—all of which appear in his photographs and sometimes in those of his students. White’s soft-focus, allegorical images of figures in flowing costumes or accessorized with crystal spheres were exhibited widely and won acclaim from critics and juries. An earnest midwestern transplant to New York City, he supported himself by opening a school of photography, which became central to the dissemination of the Pictorialist style among practitioners of artistic, documentary, portrait, journalistic, and advertising photography.
White’s pictorial world was one of refulgent luminosity and flattened space, which conveyed his positive relation to the world and understated recognition of the divine in the quotidian. The images he created in his early years present their subjects distinct from either spatial or social context: raindrops on a window pane, a woman reaching for a spring blossom or bending to pluck fallen fruit in an orchard, a pajamaed child pausing in a doorway, clutching an issue of the Photo-Secession’s magisterial journal Camera Work—nothing too close to the camera’s plane nor far distant, nothing too explicit in symbolism nor too insistently literal.
White’s social and professional world was animated by pragmatic idealism and dedication to encouraging others to thrive as photographers by discovering their own paths. In White’s practice and instructional precepts alike, a presumption that photography is a tool suited to many different applications is apparent. In particular, he recognized that embracing the commercial in no way sullied practice of the aesthetic. His students might flatten space and soften contours as he did—often in the service of marketing commodities in magazine advertisements—but they also ventured into experimental film, made crisply analytical documentary and journalistic images of social conditions, illustrated children’s books, and practiced the fine and applied arts of portraiture. Some followed his style or built their compositions around the design principles the Clarence H. White School of Photography faculty promoted. Others emulated his social values, and yet others simply received encouragement to pursue their own directions with the camera.
White was an inspirer of others at the expense of his work, an effective collaborator, a pedagogical pioneer, a family man among bohemians, socially progressive, down to earth, yet ineffectual as an entrepreneur. His accomplishment has been acknowledged from the very beginning of the art history of photography, but typically he is characterized as a supporting cast member in a story of modernist aesthetics whose leading roles were filled by Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen. White’s primary role as a teacher, his open-mindness regarding acceptable uses of the photography, his fundamentally collaborative approach to the medium, and his perseverance with soft-focus work after the tide of modernism turned toward sharper images, all differentiate him from the more prominent photographic modernists. Those differences, as well as the complex tensions between amateurism and professionalism in the movement, are addressed by the exhibition so that for the first time, his vision, production, and influence are presented together, as central rather than peripheral to the larger narratives of American photography.
This exhibition accomplishes this gracefully by means of the dual emphases its title proclaims. The “art and craft of photography” refers both to White’s debts to the American Arts and Crafts movement and to his attention to photographic images as prints, indeed as objects. The exhibition is an ideal opportunity to explore the materiality of photography, given the range of photographic processes and presentation choices on view. White’s world is presented as an aesthetic and intellectual community centered around his school, a community in which many of its members shared a political vision. Curator Anne McCauley’s emphasis on White’s socialism not merely as background to his life and work, but as expression of his values, is one of the most original contributions of her presentation of his work.
In addition to the prints in varied processes, the exhibition includes work from the full range of White’s fine art, illustration, and commercial photography; work by students and faculty members at the school; images and documents representing the school’s operations and curriculum; and strategically selected nonphotographic works, which illuminate the relationships between Pictorialist aesthetics in photography and ukiyo-e, tonalism and Impressionism. Its genesis was in the Princeton University Art Museum’s Clarence H. White Archive, which provided the majority of the works on view; in a sense, the exhibition could be described as that archive made visible. Acquired from the White family in the 1970s and 1980s, the White Archive has not been fully accessible until recently, making this is a celebration of both the richness of the archive and the breadth of the White’s accomplishments.
Many previous accounts of Pictorialism have emphasized its connection to the arrival of modernism from Europe, but recent scholarship emphasizes the more local context of the American Arts and Crafts movement. The platinum, palladium, and gum processes employed by White and his students emphasized photography’s alliance with handicraft rather than machine imaging. Tellingly, a group of unmatted early photographs by White mounted directly onto wooden supports evokes the slightly homespun look of American Arts and Crafts movement works on paper. The opportunity to see these works as they were originally exhibited is extremely rare, as is the chance to see photographs in intimate juxtaposition with paintings and prints by Thomas Wilmer Dewing, Leon Dabo, Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Max Weber, and others. The placement of the artworks with the support of the exhibition texts bring the culture of the White School to life through the materiality of images as objects.
This exhibition benefitted from an extensive collaboration between the museum in Princeton and the Yale Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage, which performed technical analysis of many of the prints in the show to determine what photographic processes, or combinations of processes, had been used to produce them. The experimental approaches and technical virtuosity of the Pictorialists as printmakers have long confounded cataloguers seeking to identify the techniques employed in individual prints. Only by means of such laboratory connoisseurship is it possible to establish the details of print processes. As Adrienne Lundgren argues in the exhibition catalogue, White’s style relied on siderotype printing processes, “which enabled him to realize the vision that he carried within him, rather than merely what was in front of the lens” (350).
The critical/historiographical fortunes of Clarence White since the history of photography first became codified in the 1930s have been volatile. The successive stages could be summarized like this: fine art photography is what matters, White was a Photo-Secessionist and therefore part of the fine art movement, but Stieglitz broke with him, so White is but a minor figure; White advocated commercial photography, so he fell from fine art grace; White’s own work never shifted to sharp-edge modernism, so he remains a minor figure; White was linked to almost everyone of interest in the American fine art movement, so he is interesting in light of those relationships; White’s school is important as an institutional history of photography, but more than White is considered an artist in his own right. Now, however, it’s possible to tell the stories of American Pictorialism from multiple perspectives, in the service of more than one conclusion. McCauley’s research (and that of the collaborators in the exhibition’s massive catalogue) clarifies the extraordinary breadth of White and the White School’s contributions and builds upon the foundational White scholarship of Peter C. Bunnell, McCauley’s predecessor as David Hunter McAlpin Professor of Photography and Modern Art at Princeton, Bonnie Yochelson’s subsequent incisive work on White, and Kathleen Erwin’s Pictorialism into Modernism exhibition of the work of White School members in 1996.1
This landmark exhibition demonstrates not just the continued vitality of traditional art historical scholarship but also its ability to introduce new critical perspectives. Indefatigably researched and well balanced between its multiple themes and directions, it clearly presents a complicated story about a photographic modernism of synthesis, inclusiveness, and the shared purpose of a wide range of practitioners. The catalogue of the exhibition effectively develops ideas and research trajectories that could not be hung upon the museum walls. I have only one minor complaint: the gallery space assigned to this very large exhibition in Princeton was relatively cramped, which made it difficult to stand back from some of the works or to consider them one at a time. It is to be hoped that at the venues to which the show travels, more expansive spaces will be available.
1. Peter C. Bunnell, Clarence H. White: The Reverence for Beauty (Athens: Ohio University Gallery of Fine Art, 1986); Bonnie Yochelson, “Clarence H. White Reconsidered: An Alternative to the Modernist Aesthetic of Straight Photography,” Studies in Visual Communication 9 (Fall 1983): 24–44; Kathleen Erwin, “Photography of the Better Type: The Teaching of Clarence H. White,” in Marianne Fulton, ed., Pictorialism into Modernism: The Clarence H. White School of Photography (New York: Rizzoli, 1996).
Associate Professor, Art Department, City College of New York, City University of New York