Minor White and Intuition

October 29, 2013

How much of intuition is actually trained?  I found the following quotes by Minor White on a forum I frequent, and they got me thinking.

“It must be realized that while I operate the camera, process negatives and prints, even set the flowers and objects in places around my rooms, I feel no responsibility for the occurrences of light. From me and by me, of me and thru me, I only supply the action, the content comes from elsewhere. Whether from within or without I cannot tell the difference.”

White goes on to explain exactly how he does this…

" ... My working fast without much thought is a form of permitting the intuition to work unhindered. ... As I have written, and often say that for me "recognition triggers exposure." When working thus, consciousness of the subject is little more than an awareness of importance; i.e. there is a measurement or register of the degree of importance, but not the content. ... "

So I have to wonder…what if White had never cultivated his vision?  What if he had stayed with poetry as a young man instead of moving to Portland to begin his career as a photographer, becoming a writer who sometime made pictures for a hobby?  I’m sure he would have still become the deeply sensitive and complex individual that he became.  But certainly without the commitment to picture making; the hard work, the repetition, the classes taught at RIT, the countless hours of sore feet from chasing down images and standing in the darkroom… photography would have surely lost Minor White. 

It seems to me that intuition is ultimately built, not discovered or given.  I believe that inspiration comes from a spiritual place, but to know what to do with that inspiration and to do it by “feel” is a skill more than a gift.  For me, intuition resides directly across the street from logic, or in the case of photography it stands in opposition to the carefully planned and executed image.  Granted there is a place and time for logically-made images.  Advertising for example, or Hollywood filmmaking.  But when the art photographer hangs work in a gallery, if the work was indeed logically and painstakingly executed, we want it to at least not feel that way when viewed.  We’re looking for some sort of spark of inspiration there.  Although White’s body of work appears meticulously composed and planned, his writing reveals that in fact he too was waiting for “the moment,” working by feel for the exact point in time when the light would be right, or the tree limb bends just so… and not thinking so much at the time the image was made. 

One lesson I take away from my reading of White is that there is time later to bring our minds to bear on what we have shot, but as photographers it is better to shoot now, trusting out gut and then carefully edit later.  This isn’t to say one should “spray and pray” (crank out frames and hope you’re getting it), but to consciously bring all your skill, talent and humility to bear on making an image, trying to be open to what is about to happen.  Above all, don’t hesitate when that quiet voice surfaces in your mind that says “Now.”  This is the “recognition” White is referring to.

The road to being able to differentiate that voice from the many other competing thoughts in our minds is a long one though, and so we continue to work at it.  Despite all the tools we have in our modern age which speed the image making process, in the final evaluation it is the timeless “self” that differentiates our work from the next person’s.  Development as a photographer runs parallel to development as a person and is a continual process of cutting away the trite and contrived in favor of the inspired and intuitive, guided by craft and practiced skill.   

 


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