Clarence H. White and His World, ed. Anne McCauley

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2017 by Yale University Press (here), for the exhibition of the same name, organized by Anne McCauley, which opened at the Princeton University Art Museum (October 7, 2017-January 7, 2018), and will travel to the Davis Museum, Wellesley College (February 7, 2018-June 3, 2018), the Portland Museum of Art in Maine (June 22, 2018-September 16, 2018), and the Cleveland Museum of Art (October 21, 2018-January 21, 2019). Hardcover, 408 pages, with 346 black-and-white and color photographic reproductions, 10×11 ½ inches, $65. With essays by McCauley, Peter C. Bunnell, Verna Posever Curtis, Perrin M. Lathrop, Adrienne Lundgren, Barbara L. Michaels, Ying Sze Pek, and Caitlin Ryan. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Can historical research inspire profound respect and unexpected sympathies for an artist without changing strongly held opinions about the pertinence of his art?

That’s the question I kept asking myself as I read Clarence H. White and His World. Much of the information in this massive and engrossing catalog was either new to me or corrected faulty impressions I had harbored for years. Almost every page deepened my understanding of the period.

Long praised as perhaps the most formally sophisticated of the turn-of-the century Pictorialists—while also dismissed as one who never learned to speak the bolder language of Modernism—he has been relegated to the status of gifted American provincial. This patronizing view was advanced by his one-time champion and collaborator Alfred Stieglitz, who claimed that when White moved from Ohio to New York City in 1906 “his photography went to the devil.” As the mystical impresario was skilled at attracting followers who parroted his pronouncements, this one soon took hold.

McCauley aims to correct this perceived injustice by writing what is in essence a biography in separate essays. White (1871-1925) is presented here as a hard-working artist as well as a husband/father/teacher of exceptional integrity and self-effacement. Devoted to the communal ideals of William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement, White was a Socialist and a Georgist, whose beliefs in the abolishment of private property exposed him to ridicule from conservatives in his native Ohio. His constricted economic options in New York—photographers not employed by the government could earn a living then only as portraitists or illustrators—certainly governed his decision to become a part-time teacher in 1907.

But so did egalitarian politics or what McCauley calls “photographing together.” Self-taught, he did more than anyone of his time to help others absorb the principles and techniques of making and developing pictures with a camera. The “problem-based” curriculum of the Clarence White School of Modern Photography, founded in 1914 and closed in 1942, was not doctrinaire; students learned how to use pinhole cameras, for instance. That photography is now internationally taught as an artistic discipline on the model of painting, sculpture, and architecture is due primarily to White and the fame of his students—Dorothea Lange, Paul Outerbridge, Margaret Bourke-White, Ralph Steiner, and Karl Struss, among others.

Restoring White’s good name is not McCauley’s only crusade. As she writes in the first chapter: “By placing White’s photographs in the context of the visual culture (both high and low) that constituted the changing world in which he lived, this exhibition also hopes to complicate the one-sided story of pictorial photography and painting.” She emphasizes the fluidity and factionalism within the art world during the first decades of the 20th century, downplaying the role of Whistler in shaping White’s compositions in favor of other figures, such as the painter John White Alexander. Pictorialism was not just soft focus or a rigid set of motifs at the time. As she points out, it was labeled a movement “only when the original practitioners and their processes (cameras, papers, lenses) were dead and obsolete.”

The spread of amateur camera clubs around the country in the late 19th century, and the desire of some members to elevate photography into an art, was a product of both Victorian and Modernist aspirations. This catalog charts the spread of enthusiasm for this new artistic technology across one state in the Midwest, and the role of White in leading the way. By drawing his connections to Cincinnati artists, such as the European-trained Otto Walter Beck, McCauley almost convinces me that Ohio was not the backwater that Stieglitz and other New Yorkers believed. But even White was often discouraged by local reactions: “We shot over the heads of our public and a great many out-of-town people whom we thought cared for photography from the art standpoint did not come,” he confessed in a letter to Stieglitz after a disappointing turn-out for a grandly ambitious show of 283 photographs mounted at the YMCA of Newark, Ohio in 1899.

Although many authors contributed to the book, it is very much McCauley’s baby. She wrote 7 of the 15 essays and, perhaps more remarkably, has not allowed her immersion in the material to impair her judgments: she doesn’t plead for the value of pictures that don’t deserve coddling. As impressive as her scholarship is the light tone with which she imparts it. Her prose is assured but not domineering and is often leavened by touches of ironic humor. She writes that when White tried to sell Stieglitz on the importance of Cincinnati, he played on his contemporary’s ethnic chauvinism by noting it was “the western art center, with a staunch German population.”

Trying to please the mercurial Stieglitz was never easy for any photographer in his orbit, and the stress must have been nearly unbearable for White after he quit his secure job as an accountant in 1904 and soon found himself the father of three children. McCauley writes: “Trying to be all things to all factions, including his wife and family, White ended by stretching himself to the breaking point to establish himself as an artist, teacher, studio manager, and spokesperson for art photography.”

One way he earned money between 1901 and 1903 was as an illustrator for fiction writers and poets. Barbara L. Michaels’ essay analyzes photographs he did for a best-selling novel,  Eben Holden: A Tale of the North Country (1902) by Irving Bachellerand. Stieglitz had vouched for the relative unknown to the New York publisher and White went about the job of staging the scenes and costuming local Ohioans with his usual meticulous sense of craft. The story was sentimental claptrap, about an elderly, kind-hearted hired man who rescues a boy from a “dissolute uncle.” White’s exquisite platinum prints were far too good for such a routine project. But as Michaels argues, the commercial requirement that he imagine a set of pictures freed him to think of himself as an artist and a professional, not just another amateur.

White went on to stage dozens of other scenes in the next two decades that drew on small-town middle-class life. He also, in the most surprising chapter in the catalog, ventured beyond rural American into the urban whirl of fashion photography during the 1920s. In some of these commissions, he portrayed Hollywood stars, such as the D.W. Griffith star Mae Murray. Highlighting their clothes and lifestyles, these views pretended to offer rare “at home” access for readers, and he sometimes used actual locations, such as train stations. A 1925 platinum print for “Woman’s Home Companion,” is shockingly modern, with intimations of paparazzi culture. A tall high-heeled woman, in fur-trimmed dress and cloche hat, has “paused” to look at the intrusive camera before disappearing into her carriage. She holds an overnight bag. An African-American porter stands to the side with her larger suitcase, ready to follow.

Why then, after learning so much from the catalog, did I not think any more highly of White as an artist than before? Probably because I’m not sure what today’s art photographers could glean much from his style or view of the world. His range was severely limited. He excelled at portraits of thin, long, small-breasted women who wore either long skirts or nothing at all. He was also good with polite, beautiful children and serious men, such as Stieglitz, Eugene Debs, and Alvin Langdon Coburn. He made at least a dozen masterpieces (Miss Grace, 1898; Ring Toss, 1899; Drops of Rain, 1902; Stephen Reynolds, 1905, for starters) that testify to his mastery of asymmetry and reflections, to a love of Japanese prints as well as Hill & Adamson chiaroscuro, and to the long tonal gray range of platinum. The nudes he did by himself and with Stieglitz are among the best done by any photographers in the first decade of the 20th century. Nothing he did was slipshod or insincere.

But beyond a narrow circle of domestic themes, as when attempting to convey movement or the spirit of modern dance, he too often found himself at sea. His 1911 portrait of the Isadora Duncan in a long, fluted gown is seldom reproduced and one can understand why. Instead of suggesting how her philosophy and innovative techniques had freed the body, the photograph turns her into column that only makes more apparent her short, stocky body. She is portrayed as matronly, more Margaret Dumont than Ariel. His photographs of Maud Allan are no better.

As early as 1900, critics had complained about White’s effete subject matter and wan tonality. By 1910, when his prints had their own room at Stieglitz’s Exhibition of Pictorial Photography in the Albright Art Gallery in Buffalo (later the Albright-Knox Art Gallery), he was a target of snark from one F. Austin Lidbury who wrote that to enter the space it was advised to “take off your shoes, walk softly with bowed head, cultivate with reverence an appreciation of the beauty of anaemia.”

White remains a footnote in the annals of art photography as it is popularly disseminated. (If you Google “Clarence White,” the first name to pop up is that of the 1960s bluegrass guitarist and singer.) McCauley at times tries perhaps too hard to make Clarence H. White into a Progressive attractive to our present concerns. Although she argues that he had an antiquarian’s interest in the legacy of slavery, she concedes that almost the only African-Americans who appeared in his photographs were posed in subservient roles. (For example, in his 1902 portraits of F. Holland Day, White relegated Day’s nude model, J.R. Carter, to a mist-shrouded background.) After the outbreak of what became World War I, White also fueled pernicious rumors that Karl Struss was a German sympathizer, gossip that got his former student locked up in a prison camp. In some ways, Stieglitz was right: White was always an Ohio boy.

The exhibition (which I have yet to see) opened last fall at the Princeton University Art Museum. It was a fitting venue as research on White has centered there since 1977 when it began to receive portions of the White archive from his son, Clarence H. White, Jr., an acquisition completed in 1983. Two professors of photography there, first Peter Bunnell and now McCauley, have kept White’s name alive.

Collectors of his work —and of Pictorialism in general—will need to own this book. McCauley’s essays, and the one by Adrienne Lundgren on cyanotype, platinum and palladium printing, should be consulted for many years. If this splendid example of bookmaking and photographic reproduction by Yale does not receive awards for design and scholarship, the system is rigged.

Collector’s POV: The market for Clarence White’s work has been relatively uneven during the past decade. At the low end, his Camera Work photogravures come to auction from time to time, usually finding buyers at or near $1000. At the high end, vintage prints have fetched as much as roughly $55000 of late, but many of the most valuable lots that have come to market (with even richer estimate ranges) have failed to sell. Collaborative works with Alfred Stieglitz and Gertrude Käsebier also become available intermittently.

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