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Gay Syllabus: Minor White at the Getty

Gay Syllabus: Minor White at the Getty


The photographer believed the camera was a tool for self-discovery, but his photographs illuminate the viewer as well.

One of the great photographers of the 20th century, Minor White, was aware of a camera's power.

"Self-discovery through a camera? I am scared to look for fear of discovering how shallow my Self is!" he once said. "I will persist however ... because the camera has its eye on the exterior world. Camera will lead my constant introspection back into the world. So camerawork will save my life."

White struggled with his sexuality. He is variously described as gay or bisexual, and his sexual interest in men managed to manifest in his photography despite the need for cover.

An exhibit at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles and the accompanying must-have book, Minor White: Manifestation of the Spirit by Paul Martineau (available at Amazon for less than $30), reveal White's visionary relationship to photography. Of special interest in the book, published in its entirety for the first time, is White's stunning series "The Temptation of Anthony Is Mirrors," consisting of 32 photographs of White's student and model Tom Murphy made in 1947 and 1948 in San Francisco.

White's photographs of Murphy's hands and feet are interspersed within a larger group of portraits and nude figure studies. White kept the series secret for years, as at the time he made the photographs it was illegal to publish or show images with male frontal nudity. Anyone making such images would be assumed homosexual and outed at a time when that invariably meant losing gainful employment.

As Martineau explains in the introduction to the book:

"White produced three sequences expressing his love and sexual feelings for men. Intent on using the camera as a tool for self-discovery, White believed that all of his pictures were mirrors of himself: hence the unusual title of the first sequence, "The Temptation of St. Anthony Is Mirrors." The sequence comprises thirty-two photographs of White's student Tom Murphy. Photographs of Murphy's hands and feet are interspersed within the larger group of portraits and nude figure studies, which draw on the history of art, both religious and secular, from the dead body of Christ to ancient Greek sculpture....

White mounted and bound the photographs of Murphy in a small artist's book. To page through it, with its alternating rhythms of stillness and movement, is to take a pilgrimage of sorts through White's various mental and emotional states, from anguish to ecstasy. Until now, "The Temptation of St. Anthony Is Mirrors" has never been exhibited or published in full; White kept it private, giving the only other copy to Murphy. In the late 1940s it was illegal to exhibt or publish full-frontal male nudes, and any man who did so would effectively have outed himself as a homosexual. The consequences for White would certainly have included losing his job as a teacher, his main source of income."

Click here for more information about the book and the exhibit at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, ongoing through October 19.

Tom Murphy, San Francisco, 1948
Gelatin silver print
(c) Trustees of Princeton University
Courtesy: The Minor White Archive, Princeton University Art Museum, bequest of Minor White
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