Into the Floating World of Clarence H. White

There’s something quiet about Clarence H. White’s photos that captivates the calm within all of us. The simple, almost unscripted scenes of everyday life are so masterfully done that almost everyone can relate to them in one way or the other.

cri_000000008274White is probably one of the greatest influencers in photography of the early twentieth century, not just because of his works, but also because he was considered as one of the most important photography teacher of the time. A lot of his students became notable in the field as well, names you might even find more familiar than their master’s: Dorothea Lange, Ralph Steiner, and Margaret Bourke-White just to name a few.Caption from LIFE. "At 76, the Mahatma is in good physical condition. He weighs 110 pounds, but he is not so frail as he looks."

White was attuned with his contemporaries as well, and was one of the founding members of the art movement Photo-Secession, a movement which daringly pushed the limits of photography and turn them into almost painting-like works of art during a time when photographic images were taken as direct and factual representations of real life.

He was one of the forefathers of photo manipulation—not as the same way as how we perform photo manipulation today with the help of various digital photo editors—but much more organic, done within the confines of a dark room, manipulating light as if it were liquid on film.

Clarence H. White, The Mirror, 1912. Varnished palladium print. George Eastman Museum
Those who want to view White’s work first hand may visit an on-going exhibition of his works, “Clarence H. White and His World” which will run from June 22 to September 16, 2018 at the Portland Museum of Art. It will not only contain his photographs but also a lot of memorabilia and curious ephemera—including an interesting condolence letter from another Photo-Secession founding member, Alfred Stieglitz addressed to White’s widow. The two had an unfortunate falling out in 1912 on the account of Stieglitz’s overbearing ego.x1983-496Fast forward to today, we now see their names side by side again, under the collective label of pictorialists. Photographers whose works transcends the representational. White’s most notable works himself, echoed Japonisme and ukiyo-e prints, in particular. Ukiyo-e, which is defined as “pictures of the floating world”, can also directly translate to “pictures of a sad and troublesome world”…and don’t they capture the very essence of White’s work in entirety? Photos that look as if trapped in time, in a world of floating existence, while also pouring out emotions of quiet melancholy. His works, truly, are dream-like, and definitely something worth seeing.