The Clarence H White School of Photography – Pictorialism Into Modernism is a 207-page illustrated book, 30 x 24 cm, written and edited by 3 women. It was published by Rizzoli, NY in 1996. 137 still photographs, many sepia toned, and 3 in color (2 of women, 1 of fruit) adorn the semi-matt pages. Almost half the photographs are of people – portraits or landscapes with small replicas of people within the rectangular frame. Annoyingly, some of the captions are placed too close to the spine and all have a very small type size, which makes them difficult to read, especially with the titles in italics. I really don’t understand why people let book designers get away with such poor layouts.
CH White was a still photographer and teacher of still photography. In the early 1900s, he taught in NYC, even though he only had a high school education. He died in 1925 after living 54 years.
The CH White School of Photography opened in the fall of 1914, and closed in 1942, it survived between the two World Wars. From 1920 on, a half-year’s tuition was about $150 and after a few years, enrollment topped 100. Half of the 30 hour week was devoted to the Art of Photography. White’s students were assigned problems such as learning several techniques of printing in the darkroom. Another assignment was to produce a print of an angular versus a curved still life. Exhibitions of students’ works were held at the school. White had connections in Europe. His friend Alvin Langdon Coburn was on the selection committee for the annual exhibition in 1914 of the Royal Photographic Society in London, England. He included a dozen stills by White and his best students. Courses on Art in [still] Photography at the school included street, newspaper and commercial photography. In the 1920s, photography was being used more and more in advertising, as magazines and newspapers began printing images of products including soap, toothpaste, top hats, and chocolate bars. Emelie Danielson was a staff photographer for House Beautiful.
Photographs in the book start from 1899 with Ema Spencer’s Kitten’s Party (Child Study) and end 40 years later in 1939 with an ascending view by Estelle Wolf titled, Polish Pavilion, New York’s World Fair, showing 3 inner walls highly decorated with a small repeating pattern leading up to a cloudy sky at the top of the image. Dictatorial Alfred Stieglitz was prominent at the time, operating a gallery and publishing the journal Camera Work. Early into the 1900s, soft-focus Pictorialism and platinum printing paper were common. The photographs were manipulated in the darkroom by hand, long before Photoshop, to give an artistic appearance to an image. Back then still photography, made with a machine, was not considered a fine art. By altering the surface appearance, photographers hoped to be labelled an artist. Usually the manipulation of a print didn’t greatly elevate the photographer since the initial image remained a still photograph made with a camera and reflected light. Most people today still don’t consider still photography to have a high level of creativity attached to it, since billions of snapshots are taken and added to the tangled pile each month. Few people on the street know who Jeff Wall or Cindy Sherman are, or how much their images are worth.
Images in the book fill the usual cliches, still lifes, naked women, landscapes, waterscapes and cityscapes, genres painters had been doing for centuries. CH White stressed composition and design in photography. In several of the pictorialists’ images, the best in my opinion, splashes of sunshine add to the complexity of a picture, causing the eye to dance around the image from highlight to shadow and back to highlight. It was a unhurried time in North America when most people walked about in the countryside and cities. Today we climb aboard a jeep and drive, with the help of 300 horses, into what is left of the wilderness after 7 billion people have had their way with it. Historically, Pictorialism was an important movement for the medium. The culture at the time favored its creation. The photographs reveal how people dressed, what they did, what buildings looked like and how still lifes were depicted.
The usual rifts, arguments and boycotts filled the days and journals as Pictorialism wilted and sharp, clear Modernistic photographs of machinery and architecture documented changes to the world as industrialism took over. Machines began their rule of the Earth, and still photographers were there to record the changes, as they are today. Students at the school were encouraged to attend lectures on art at the nearby Metropolitan Museum of Art, which probably had yet to begin a photographic collection.
Abstractions by painters and sculptors began to appear. Photography, the most democratic and global art form ever, had to keep up. So abstract photography was born. Still photographs remained the norm, only the subjects changed. Close-ups of pipes, machinery (Typewriter Keys by Ralph Steiner 1921), heavy shadows, odd angles and elevations gave us a sense of abstraction, not the genuine thing, and certainly not pure abstraction. For example, the cover photograph, which some would consider abstract, is of metallic organ pipes at an angle with the black round ends ranging from small to large. Margaret Bourke-White took this picture in 1931. Another sense of abstraction by Wynn Richards from 1922 is explained by the title, Abstraction, Sugar Cubes and Shadows. As long as a still photographer can tell you what the subject in a picture is, it qualifies as a sense of abstraction and not pure abstraction.
Even as late as 1939, during the New York World’s Fair, a show of photographs was held at the American Museum of Natural History. Soft-focus landscapes greatly outnumbered a small selection of sharply focused modern-looking prints. Clarence H White was a member and President (1917–1921) of the Pictorial Photographers of America (PPA), a national group that promoted that style of still photography.
The so-called modern style of photography, consists of about a dozen photographs towards the back of this book. Margaret Bourke-White took a clear sharp photograph, Coiled Aluminum Rods in 1930 which consists of 2 close, partly overlapping silvery coils of wire. The only photogram was by Kenneth Linn in 1929 titled Flower Abstract, with no flower evident to me. The final still photograph in the book is a modern night scene in winter of several skyscrapers with a snowy Central Park in the foreground taken from a distant high elevation. In the fairly long exposure, each street light in the park illuminate a wide halo of snow. No streaks of car headlights are visible. It was taken by Paul J Woolf in the early 1930s.
CH White had a lasting influence on many of his students. As a teacher he was uncritical. Dorothea Lange “He always saw the print in relation to the person.” Another of White’s students, Stella Simon “Anyone who came under his influence never got over it.” The school closed for good in 1942 as World War II dragged on and Alan Turing and others were building the first computer to crack the German’s Enigma code and shorten the war.