White earned a degree in Botany with a minor in English from the University of Minnesota in 1933. His first creative efforts were in poetry, as he took five years thereafter to complete a sequence of 100 sonnets while working as a waiter and bartender at the University Club. In 1938, White moved to Portland, Oregon. There he began his career in photography, first joining the Oregon Camera Club, then taking on assignments from the Works Progress Administration and exhibiting at the Portland Art Museum.
After serving in military intelligence during World War II, White moved to New York City in 1945. He spent two years studying aesthetics and art history at Columbia University under Meyer Schapiro and developing his own distinctive style. He became involved with a circle of influential photographers including Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Weston, and Ansel Adams; hearing Stieglitz's idea of "equivalents" from the master himself was crucial to the direction of White's mature post-war work.
The "equivalents" of White were often photographs of barns, doorways, water, the sky, or simple paint peeling on a wall: things usually considered mundane, but often made special by the quality of the light in which they were photographed. One of his more popular photographs is titled Frost on Window, a close-up of frost crystals on glass. However, in regard to an equivalent, the specific objects themselves are of secondary importance either to the photographer or the viewer. Instead, such a photograph captures a sentiment or emotionally symbolic idea using formal and structural elements that carry a feeling or sense of "recognition": a mirroring of something inside the viewer. In an essay titled "Equivalence: The Perennial Trend", White described a photographer who took such pictures as one who "...recognized an object or series of forms that, when photographed, would yield an image with specific suggestive powers that can direct the viewer into a specific and known feeling, state, or place within himself." (Gantz) Because of the way in which he wanted his photographs to be experienced, White was very particular with regard to the both technical aspects of his art and the quality of the images he produced (Lemangy, 192). To transmit his messages—to ‘direct the viewer’—White employs a variety of methods; he creates symbols to represent emotions, he accompanies his images with text or places them in sequence.
At Ansel Adams' invitation, White moved back to the West Coast to join the faculty of the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco, where he served from 1946 to 1953. Under White, this became the first fine art photography department in the USA. This period of his life was covered in the 2006 book: The Moment of Seeing: Minor White at the California School of Fine Arts. White's first major exhibition was in 1948 at the San Francisco Museum of Art.
White co-founded the influential magazine Aperture in 1952 with fellow photographers Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange, and Barbara Morgan; writer/curator Nancy Newhall; and Newhall's husband, historian Beaumont Newhall. White edited the magazine until 1975.
In 1953 he moved to Rochester, New York and for four years worked as a curator at George Eastman House, and also edited their magazine Image. He taught at the Rochester Institute of Technology from 1956 to 1964. Prominent students from this period include Paul Caponigro and Jerry Uelsmann.
White spent the last ten years of his life teaching at MIT where, among others, he taught Raymond Moore. His class on Zone System photography was very popular. It was restricted to seniors and often oversubscribed. In 1970 he was given a Guggenheim Fellowship.
White was a closeted bisexual man and felt tormented through much of his life by his then socially-unacceptable feelings for young men. Much of this erotic turmoil expressed itself in his post-war subject matter and style, and in his spiritual search for peace and simplicity. Several of his photographs of male nudes are considered to be the masterworks of the genre, but were only published in 1989.
On his death White was hailed as one of America's greatest photographers. He is remembered largely for his ideas about the spiritual in photography. His influence can be seen in the work of students of his such as John Daido Loori, a photographer and Zen master. At the current time, 2007, there are several signs of a renewed wider interest in his work and life.
- When you approach something to photograph it, first be still with yourself until the object of your attention affirms your presence. Then don't leave until you have captured its essence.
- Often while traveling with a camera we arrive just as the sun slips over the horizon of a moment, too late to expose film, only time enough to expose our hearts.
- No matter how slow the film, Spirit always stands still long enough for the photographer It has chosen.
- Gantz, Ryan. "The Transmissions of Minor White"
- White, Minor. Equivalence: The Perennial Trend, originally in PSA Journal, Vol. 29, No. 7, pp. 17–21, 1963
- Bunnell, Peter C., Minor White: The Eye That Shapes'(1989) (295 photos & biography. Many of his male nudes are made public for the first time.)
- Mirrors, Messages, Manifestations: Photographs and Writings 1938-1968 (Aperture monograph, 1969)
- Rites & Passages (Aperture monograph, 1978)
- Minor White: The Eye That Shapes (1989) (295 photos & biography)
- Green, Jonathan., American Photography: A Critical History (Abrams, 1984). ISBN 0-8109-1814-5 Chapter 3, "The Search for a New Vision"
- The Moment of Seeing: Minor White at the California School of Fine Arts (2006)de:Minor White