In Association with

Masters of Photography
Minor White

Text from Beaumont Newhall, Photography: Essays & Images: Illustrated Readings in the History of Photography

Found Photographs

MINOR WHITE, 1957 (From an unpublished manuscript, Minor White archives)

"0nly a small crash in the kitchen, but enough to shatter my calm and a bowl. One careless glance caught the pieces-white porcelain still quivering on the floora rice bowl, pleasant in subtle curve, from Japan, delicate to balance, was no more. He who dropped it fingered the pieces. He was silent and I suppose, sad. I turned back to preceding thoughts. Then he was jubilant. One fragment, he exclaimed "has a form!" And truly he pointed to one that was haunting to see.

"The swift drop to the floor signalled eager forces into play: gravity was the trigger, clay and shape the material, the loving hand that shaped the bowl-had unconsciously stored an unguessed form in it. With the crash transmutation worked, metamorphosis took a deep breath and an object found itself. The death of the bowl was the birth of an object.

"We might wish that birth and death were always as close. Actually they are, birth always explodes from death as fast as the splinter from the bowl-only those of us who feel the need of sleep close our eyes too long.

"The splinter of china was more loving than the bowl had been, as if in this form all the love of the craftsman had crystalized. Furthermore metamorphosis did not stop when an object had found itself. From a radiation of a man's love for his work the splinter turned into the symbol of the female principle, and then into the thumb print of a goddess. And since I make photographs it seemed natural to transmute yet again and make a photograph of it; to train my camera on the splinter seemed obviously the next step. But a thought stopped me. What is the status of a photograph of an object that has just found its own form? A copy? Or a photograph that in turn would find a form peculiar to itself?

"There wasn't time to think through such questions in the chain reaction of thoughts that followed the explosion. In the "fallout" however, I found a name for some of my own photographs. I always photograph found objects; excepting portraits, all of my photographs are of found objects. And now, thinking of the best of them, I hear little crashes tinkling back twenty years, for the best of them have always been photographs that found themselves.

"By photographs that found themselves do I mean the "lucky or happy accident"? That is one name for it. "Happy accident" is a name that I ought not to mention because many an extraordinary snapshot is passed off lightly with this appellation instead of being explained. I do mention it because it is a term of helplessness in the face of a photograph that is a freak, a sport in a man's work-unexplai n able, so unsought for, so unaccountable that it is almost embarrassing. I have heard Edward Weston say that he strove to eliminate all accidents from his work and I copied his striving. I submitted to that discipline by which one earns the elimination of all accidents. I have made enough pictures so that now I see like a lens focused on a piece of film, act like a negative projected on a piece of sensitized paper, talk like a picture on a wall. I have even been so presumptuous as to try to tell others how to see, act, and talk likewise. I know fairly well how to eliminate accidents from my photographing, and, paradoxically, in so doing I have also learned that the happy accident can be cultivated!

"I must admit to many accidents in my own work before I undertook the practice of learning to avoid them-and to many more since. Such accidents when they happen now, however, are not isolated incidents, unexplainable events, as infrequent as stumbling on mountain peaks in a fog. After learning to eliminate accidents I can now sometimes trace the hawser marks between cause and effect-between chance and photograph. Why? Or how? In acquiring a discipline of seeing, and a technique of communication, I put myself into the position of the reckless driver of whom it is said, there goes a maniac in search of an accident.

"And while I put myself in the path of accidents, the term "accident" is a misnomer here. Hence I am pleased at the crash in the kitchen because it was not a crash but an explosion. As one porcelain bowl died a thousand thoughts were born; a score of unexplained photographs were seen to be, not accident, but photographs that found themselves. By my discipline of seeing I put myself where photographs can find themselves.

"The German publication Photomagazin printed a brief and sprightly piece by Roman Frietag in 1955. He said that each camera had a subconscious. He further made the astounding observation that this subconscious is responsible for the extraordinary snapshot-and that it does so while the photographer thinks he is looking. Frietag may have been sprightly instead of serious, because, if serious, no one would have listened to him. So with tongue in cheek (apparently) he traced down the cause of these unexplained photographs to a machine's subconscious. And what a powerful subconscious it is. This personality inadvertantly built into cameras at the drafting board can on occasion steer the unsuspecting and probably quite innocent owner. He is not alone in allocating minds to machines; long before our highly touted electronic brains took over, people in many places observed the phenomena. Ships are "she" for instance.

"I can remember a mechanical pencil sharpener that plagued my youth: and all my cameras, whenever their will opposes mine, I consider devices of mechanical tyranny or pitchforks of the devil. Upon reflection, however, the devilishness appears to be mine; for against the hours of anguish or truce with cameras, there have been moments of rapport between myself and machine.

"And so Mr. Frietag's identification of the liveliness of tools is as good as any other to explain the one photograph in thousands that seems to have character. In fact his term, for our time, is better than most because "subconscious" is as popular today as it is misunderstood. Call this liveliness of tools by some other name, the "still, small voice" for instance, and we can readily understand that it really makes no difference how one hears it, so long as one does. Hence no matter whether we call them " photographs that found themselves," "happy accidents," or the "subconscious of the camera" so long as such photographs are cultivated. How are they cultivated? Toss flowers in a pool and follow them as they trace the slow undercurrents of the water and the twisting breath of the wind. Then, as they move at seemingly random, photograph precisely.

"I would like to carry some of this story of the broken bowl a little further. Photography is peculiar in that when a photograph is born, the found object does not necessarily die. Photographing does not change the object-though no one has measured how much a photograph of a tree shortens that tree's life; or what it has taken away from a dried lentil found on a doorpost. Death does happen, of course; the layer of light-sensitive silver is broken. Ever so slightly broken at exposure, and broken with a crash that, while simultaneous with the roar of a shutter, is not to he confined with that. In the conventional processes the breaking itself is broken into exposure and subsequent development. In the newer Polaroid Land process the immediate image is back in photography (after a lapse of about three-quarters of a century) and exposure explodes into picture so fast the crack is practically audible. So while I can see nothing to indicate that the found object dies when a picture is born, and the idea of the silver emulsion dying at exposure may be a conceit or playful image, something does die in me when a picture is born. When I look at pictures I have made, I have forgotten what I saw in front of the camera and respond only to what I am seeing in the photographs. With the Polaroid system, it is true that I can compare photograph with scene; but this only serves to make me realize with lightning clarity what a tremendous transformation has taken place. A forceful change is present with any ordinary photograph: when the result is a photograph that has found itself, the transformation is truly remarkable.

""For what I am seeing is not what I saw" is the context of every photograph I make. This forgetfulness is not carelessness because I have worked to reach essences of place with photographs, and struggled to get character of persons somehow on film, This reaction is forced on me by the facts with every photograph I make. I can remember looking into a space between two buildings and saying to myself that there is a picture here, and then digging it out. Having to dig I remember many details, down to the texture of a piece of wood and just where the fly rested. On the contrary I have looked down a small gully that storms had cut into a rock beach and seen something in the light concentrated there that literally beckoned to me. The child who says "Take my picher Mr." is not more demanding. Here again the lapse occurs. The photograph is neither crevice nor child, neither essence of tree or character of person-it is only photograph. Or to say this another way: when the illusion of the reality of appearances is high, the photograph, for me, fails-when it is a splinter of the broken bowl, it succeeds.

"If by chance someone is looking at some picture that seems to be a "found photograph," it makes no difference that he understand what I was trying to do, because I was not trying to do anything.

"As was said, I have a technique that is well developed for my purposes. It is sturdy enough that I can photograph without thought, and without communicating. But why develop a technique of craftsmanship, or one of communication, if not to communicate? Again as was said, in order to put myself in the path of accidents. But more than that, to put my act of photographing at the service of an outside power. So that when I photograph an outside (or inside) power may leave its thumbprint.

"And I need only enough technique to remember to use my camera without bungling when I am transfixed by light."


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