Long before co-founding Aperture magazine or establishing the groundbreaking photography program at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, renowned modernist photographer Minor White (American, 1908-1976) moved to Portland, where he sowed the seeds of what would become a forceful artistic vision. This exhibition of White’s rarely exhibited early works celebrates the artist’s influence on the region, and honors the Museum’s dedication to acquiring and exhibiting photography as the institution enters its 125th year.
In 1937, after traveling to Portland from Minnesota and taking up residence at the downtown YMCA, White joined the Oregon Camera Club, using its darkroom and library to hone his photography skills. He instituted a darkroom, education, and exhibition program at the YMCA, and in 1938 was hired as a “creative photographer” for the Oregon Art Project, a division of the federal government’s Works Progress Administration. Charged with documenting the Front Avenue buildings slated for demolition as well as the waterfront factories, he captured the beauty of iron-front facades, the distinct forms of industrial architecture, and the cultural undercurrents of a city under transition. These photographs, much more than straightforward government documents, mark a critical period in Portland’s history and hold clues to White’s mature modernist approach.
In 1942, after touring the nation, White’s WPA images returned to Portland and became the first photographs to be accessioned into the Museum’s permanent collection. That same year, the Museum gave White his first solo exhibition and commissioned him to photograph two historic Portland homes. White was drafted into the Army later that spring, and although he never returned to live in the city, his bonds to the community remained strong, resulting in multiple Oregon-based workshops in the 1950s and 1960s. To this day he remains a significant influence on photographic practice in the Northwest and beyond.
The first phase of In the Beginning (on view December 9, 2017, through May 6, 2018) presents approximately 60 photographs of waterfront industrial buildings, Portland Civic Theatre portraits, night scenes, and images of Minor White teaching workshops in Oregon during the late 1950s and early 1960s. The second phase of the exhibition (on view May 12 through October 21, 2018) will feature downtown and Front Street scenes, photographs of Eastern Oregon, and images of two historic houses that White photographed for the Museum in 1942.