MIDDLEBURY/BRANDON — Neal White’s black and white photography is featured in prestigious venues around the world, including New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Washington’s Smithsonian Institution, Paris’s National Library of France, and now, Middlebury’s Ilsley Public Library.
Through March 1, 10 of White’s most famous pictures — hand picked by his wife, Elisabeth — will be on display in the community meeting room at the Ilsley. Part of a larger project to rekindle White’s greatest works, the exhibit takes viewers through the earlier part of the artist’s illustrious career.
When White — a professor emeritus from San Francisco State University — grew tired of the pollution, traffic and high cost of California living, he decided to move to Vermont in 1999. But leaving California also meant leaving behind many of the unique elements of city life that make many of his photos pop. Living in a serene landscape, he was no longer surrounded by bustling streets, in-your-face conflicts and the vibrant diversity of a Californian city.
White makes leap from film to digital
“It’s probably the best thing that’s ever happened to me in one respect,” said White about moving to Vermont. “It means I’m actually able to make scans of thousands of pictures that have never seen the light of day — pictures I haven’t even seen myself.”
Since 2003, White has been taking a voyage through his life’s work, meticulously flipping through a quarter-million negatives that date back to the ’60s. So far, his eight-year exploration has only taken him to 1985, and it was from this culling that the Ilsley photos were selected.
“The show is just a selection from this huge retrospection, which is now about 1,500 pictures selected from more than 200,000,” he said.
THE EARLY YEARS
Sitting in the former church on the campus of the former Brandon Training School — which White converted into his home and studio in 2010 — the 64-year-old artist last week explained how his California roots grew into a life of photography.
White’s unique style, he said, began to take form in college and continued to blossom out of journalism. Born and raised in California, White’s introduction to still photography came when he was studying filmmaking at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).
“I got into still photography thinking that it would improve my work as a filmmaker,” he said.
While at UCLA, he was awarded a journalism scholarship for his work as an editorial cartoonist at the school’s daily newspaper. He then interned at The New Republic in Washington, D.C., and was hired as a staff writer and later a correspondent in California.
At a certain point, he made the decision to move away from writing and go back to UCLA to get a master’s degree in filmmaking. During this period, White worked on documentary films and studied photography under the famous Robert Heinecken, known best for post-production and collage work.
White worked on a number of documentary projects, most notably a film called “Chicago,” which followed ’60s labor rights activist Cesar Chavez and the 1968 Democratic convention. This undertaking led him to cover Robert Kennedy’s assassination in Los Angeles in 1968.
“I didn’t shoot the famous photo — one of our other cameramen did,” White said about the assassination coverage. “That bigger film, which was called ‘Chicago,’ began following a Bobby Kennedy delegate, Cesar Chavez, of the United Farm Workers … I was involved not as a political activist, but as a cameraman.”
These early endeavors into journalism had a profound impact on White’s way of viewing photography.
“I learned my trade as a cinematographer doing documentary films,” he said. “My whole approach to taking pictures is the approach of a photojournalist.”
He usually doesn’t cover big news events; rather he finds those bright spots in everyday life.
“The world is just full of things,” he exclaimed. “If you’ve got the time to stop and look at them and try to turn them into a two-dimensional work of art, then this artwork is everywhere.
“My personal work is photographing … in the spirit of a photojournalist, but without any assignments. I just go out into places that seem like they’d have a high probability of having the kind of subjects I (want). And then I start photographing and covering them like they’re events, even if they’re total non-events.”
The other factor that influenced White’s photography was the expressive freedom he was given as a professor at San Francisco State, where he was hired in 1970 at the age of 22 to teach photography and filmmaking. Although his films would go on to win two grand prizes at the Monterey Film Festival and awards at Cannes and Sorrento film festivals, he strayed away from Hollywood.
“I’m kind of a delicate person, actually. The idea of working in the atmosphere of Hollywood filmmaking, it scared the hell out of me. I just couldn’t see myself surviving very long. And, in fact, most of the people I went to film school with are dead right now — you know, heart attacks, drug overdoses, it’s nerve wracking,” he said. “And the opportunities for artistic expression are very, very low because the market dictates what kind of films are made, not artistic impulses … That life didn’t suit me.”
BLACK AND WHITE
White is best known for his black and white photographs that play off people’s imaginations. He likes black and white, he says, because the medium can transform an image into the surreal and take people with it.
“Monochromatic pictures, to me, sort of immediately make the picture slightly unreal. And within that slightly unreal veneer you can exploit things that people look at and make them think they are really there,” he said. “That’s the experience of looking at a picture versus a painting. Nobody looks at a Picasso painting and thinks, ‘Gee, I wonder how many people Picasso knows with both eyes on the same side of the nose.’”
The other advantage of monochromatic photos, said White, is that they help focus the image.
“In painting it’s not a problem. The painter can select the palette and reduce the number of colors being used … but the photographer is stuck,” he said. Unless the photographer has a big budget to produce a set, White observed, “you just are stuck accepting all of these colors, and they may be very, very distracting. Well, black and white eliminates that issue. It frees artists who prefer black and white to focus more on the content.”
The combination of cryptic content displayed through the surreal veil of black and white distinguishes White’s work from other photographers of his era. Take one of White’s most famous photos: a stair set adjacent to a wall.
“I really like this scene,” he said. “This stairway doesn’t go anywhere at all, which to me is kind of like a metaphor for life — running up the stairs and then smashing into the wall. In any case, I ran across this thing and photographed it.”
A STAIRCASE TO nowhere caught Neal White's eyes in the early '80s. © Neal White.
At the time he found this scene, he had a 35mm camera in hand. He took the photo, but he wasn’t satisfied with the result.
“So I kept going back to the place with bigger and bigger cameras,” he said.
Finally, he got the shot he wanted: a photo that’s been showcased in museums around the world.
But a couple of weeks later, he thought he could improve on this image. So he hauled more than 100 pounds of camera equipment to the scene to take another shot.
“And it was gone,” he said. “The stairway was gone and there was nothing but the wall. So this sort of paradoxical, inexplicable scene was paradoxical and inexplicable to the owners of the building. And it no longer exists. It no longer existed. To me this is representative of the importance of observing things and — if you’re an artist in photography — making the image, because the thing’s not going to be there forever. Nothing is, and for none of us either.”
Neal White will give a talk at Middlebury’s Ilsley Library on Tuesday. Jan. 17, at 10:30 a.m., and his photography can be viewed at nealwhiteportfolio.com. He will also be teaching classes this winter; more information is online at middleburystudioschool.org.
Reporter Andrew Stein is at email@example.com.