Stephen White(Collector)



The Stephen White Collection

Colin Westerbeck

(Curator Emeritus of Photogrphy Art Institute of Chicago)


         Historians and critics of photography have always been troubled by questions about what sort of photographs are art and what sort are something else – commerce or scientific documentation, or just kitsch. The question, however, is irresolvable, for on the most elemental level the nature of art is to retain ambiguity. The mission of science is to resolve ambiguity by treating experience as phenomena, in order to eliminate and thereby transcend the confusion of everyday life, whereas that of art is to retain the confusion, to reflect life as human beings actually live it. At least in the modern Western tradition of Europe and America, art’s goal has been to hold in suspension maddening contradictions central to human experience – the ability of irreconcilable possibilities, emotions or even facts to be equally true and valid.

         By trusting his human instincts rather than specializing in a narrow area of photographic history that could be mastered by scholarship alone, Stephen White put together a collection that ranges over the whole of photographic history and illustrates the medium’s ability to handle Western art’s largest themes, including the ambiguity inherent in human experience. Thus is the conflict between romanticism and disillusionment that has been writ large in the history of photography generously illustrated by White’s collection. The ability of enthusiasm and skepticism to co-exist in a single image is characteristic of some of the strongest material in the collection.

         Consider, for instance, Jessie Bertram’s 1916 re-strike as a carbon print of David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson’s 1843 paper negative depicting the woods at the edge of a lake. On the one hand, with its still waters and motionless canopy of leaves above, it is a placid, bucolic landscape typical of the lingering taste for such pictures in the era when it was made. On the other hand, though, the rocky shore and the density of the woods beneath the canopy make the scene look unapproachable, perhaps even a bit treacherous were we to paddle over and try to land there.

         This slight frisson emanating from the scene is what compels our attention to an otherwise formulaic image – especially the coolness that wafts out of the trees. For all its inviting beauty, the photograph might remind us of how a similar darkness gave pause to the American poet Robert Frost about plunging too deeply into nature in his poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” The poem ends with the stanza:

The woods are lovely, dark and deep

But I have promises too keep,

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.

The frisson in the poem lies in that repetition of the last line. The mix of temptation with reluctance that we might feel when we look into Hill and Adamson’s woods – a certain ambivalence about nature – is what Frost gave voice to in his poem.


         When the invention of photography was announced in 1839, it took two forms so utterly different that there was very little overlap in the way they were used. The daguerreotype, created by the Frenchman Louis-Jacques Mandé Daguerre, was a unique image, like the Polaroid later, that was very highly detailed. This acuity made it enormously popular with the emerging bourgeoisie as a medium for portraiture and, for that very reason, made the poet Charles Baudelaire denounce it as vulgar. The preferred photographic process for art was William Henry Fox Talbot’s version called the calotype, which permitted multiple prints on paper to be made from a translucent paper negative. This was the process that Hill and Adamson used and that, despite having been invented by an Englishman, was preferred over the daguerreotype by French photographers working in landscape. The fiber in the paper used for both negative and print gave the latter a tooth that appealed to Romantic tastes in art then morphing into Impressionism. Landscape was the primary genre of art for which the hazy effects of the calotype seemed perfectly suited. The fact that a negative was turned into a positive also appealed to artists because it suggested this photographic process entailed a paradox, a contained contradiction of the sort intrinsic to art.

Talbot recognized this appeal himself, as can be seen in the studies he did of his ancestral home, Lacock Abby, and in similar studies he made, like that in White’s collection, of Abbotsford, the estate of the Romantic novelist Sir Walter Scott. Landscapes containing ancient piles like these as well as outright ruins were also part of the Romantic taste of the age, most of all in France, as we can see in the careers of various photographers who worked for the organization Missions Héliographiques documenting primarily medieval sites for Prosper Mérimée’s semi-official Monument Historique. White’s print by Edouard Baldus, “Maison Carrée at Nimes, France,” of a temple dating back to Roman times, exemplifies  the type of work done for Missions Héliographiques. There was also an imperial aspect to such photography, which ranged far afield of France to ruins like those photographed in Jerusalem by Auguste Salzman or in Egypt by Felix Teynard, both among White’s holdings.

In the history of photography, this Romantic aesthetic had “legs”, as they say in the theater when a play has an exceptionally long run. Later variations on this theme in White’s collection include Lucienne Marcelles’ “Les Laveuses” (The Washerwomen), George Seeley’s “House and Tree,” two photographs of Greece by Arnold Genthe and two in Prague by Joseph Sudek, as well as William Gordon Shield’s  “Hour of Twilight,” D. J. Ruzicka’s “A Bridge in Venice,” Francois Kollar’s “Le Charron” (The Blacksmith) or pictures of Mexican peasants by Paul Strand and Mariana Yampolsky. 

The deeper one moves into the 20th century, however, the more conflicted such imagery becomes and the harder it is to maintain the Romantic myth. The darkness encroaching in the shadow that falls across Ruzicka’s Venetian bridge had all but engulfed Shields’ study of “The Hour of Twilight” 18 years earlier. In these works, as in all forms of nostalgia, the celebration of the past the photographer wants to keep alive in the present is being sullied by mixed emotions. The equanimity needed to keep the conflict of feelings in balance becomes harder to maintain. Regret seeps in because the past you want to preserve is slipping away even as you record it. The mistiness of such images becomes an acknowledgment of the evanescence of the subject.


The conflict undermining Romanticism is perhaps most poignant in the depiction of human subjects. Talbot had photographed workers on his estate performing classic peasant hand labor—another Romantic motif – from which the images by Kollar, Strand, Yampolsky and even Sabastião Salgado followed. And yet, does the Kollar photograph depict labor as something noble, or show it to be ceaseless struggle? Certainly by the time Herbert List made his picture of a man silhouetted against the sparks belching from a blast furnace in “Steel Factory, Germany” and Gene Smith did the photograph inside a mill in his late-1950s series “Pittsburgh,” both also in White’s collection, this leitmotif had turned into a vision of hell. In such photographs the age of mechanization has destroyed Romantic illusions about the dignity of labor.

A picture from White’s collection we might also take into account here is George Barnard’s from the 1860s. At first glance it might seem yet another inviting landscape, until we notice that it’s littered with trees blown to smithereens in, as the title informs us, the American “Civil War Battle of Mount Kennesaw” where 200 Union cannons bombarded entrenched Confederate troops. The mechanization of warfare is commented upon, obliquely, in yet another photograph of Stephen White’s, the late-in-life portrait of Edward Steichen by Yousuf Karsh. A devoted follower of Alfred Stieglitz, Steichen had been an ardent Pictorialist, until he pioneered  aerial reconnaissance photography during World War I. The bird’s eye views of blasted landscapes he created then induced in him a cynicism that led him to a more mercenary career in commercial photography after the war, when he declared, “When I first became interested in photography . . . my idea was to have it recognized as one of the fine arts.  Today I don’t give a hoot in hell about that. . . . Art for art’s sake is dead – if it ever lived.”

The sharpness necessary to the reconnaissance photographs had seemed to refute the soft focus of Steichen’s earlier Pictorialist work as fuzzy-minded. This is not to say, however, that photography in the 20th century was without a new kind of romanticism (albeit one with a small “r”). Even when Gene Smith photographed victims of industrialization, as he did in Pittsburgh and his Minamata series in Japan, the pictures were as much a testament to the human spirit as a condemnation of the conditions in which people lived or worked. After World War I had horrified people in the West with the destructiveness of which the mechanical age was capable, there were attempts to rehabilitate the machine as an engine of creativity as much as destruction, and in the arts the camera, which is itself a machine of course, played a key role in ways ranging from the curriculum at Germany’s Bauhaus to a simple 1922 photograph Paul Strand made of his Akeley movie camera.

Like Strand’s picture, Albert Renger-Patzsch’s 1928 study in the White collection is of “Gears” photographed in a close-up that isolates and abstracts the subject. In photography, as in Modernist art in general, abstraction is the form that romanticism took in the 20th century. The abstractness of the vision is what often redeems the subject matter from an inherent ugliness that might otherwise make us avert our eyes. An abstract treatment gives to a mundane or even repulsive scene the ambiguity through which art holds our attention. In White’s 1928 Art Deco nude by Frantisek Drtikol, for example, although the subject’s distended body looks as if she’s being tortured on the rack, her form blends with other swirling lines in a graphic design that neutralizes whatever unease we might feel; the elegance of the abstraction holds any troubling literal interpretation in, literally, a state of suspension. The effect is the same as in Barbara Morgan’s picture of Martha Graham, whose jagged, hand-to-head gesture of anguish is countered by the graceful swish her dress makes in this high-speed exposure.

Like Strand’s camera, nature too becomes abstract in tight close-up when  photographed by Brett Weston in “Rocks” and “Leaves, Hawaii,” where the outline of the forms undulates as beautifully as Graham’s skirt or Drtikol’s nude. Even in the alarming picture of industrial pollution by Michael Kenna or Otto Hagel’s overhead of toxic dust,  the disorienting point of view, depriving us of the stabilizing effect of a horizon line, makes the image abstract in a way that detaches it from reality at the same time that, sub-consciously anyway, we recoil from what we’re seeing. The ultimate example of a photographer who took unseemly subject matter like deterioration or graffiti and turned it into Abstract Expressionism is the 1950s work of Aaron Siskind , as exemplified by White’s print.


The one genre in which ambiguity is unavoidable, because inherent in the subject matter, is portraiture. In effect, the subject often seizes control of the image. Nonetheless, the White collection is particularly strong in examples where the subject has met his or her match in a photographer who knows how to take control back. The collection’s most famous portrait – Karsh’s of Churchill scowling at the camera – has a famous legend that Karsh elicited the expression by grabbing the signature cigar Churchill always smoked and yanking it out of his subject’s mouth in order to incur his displeasure. The range of the portraiture extends from a confrontational approach like this to obvious collaborations like Jean Dubuffet’s with Arnold Newman. Dubuffet could hardly have been unaware that, posed against a gritty patch of background throwing his extraordinary profile into relief, he would end up looking like the caricatures with equally outsize profiles in his own painting. Perhaps the most complex personality revealed in the White collection, though, is the one that’s least obvious – Stephen White’s own as a collector.

The two subject areas I have concentrated on here, landscape and industrialization, were also prominent in a touring museum exhibition mounted from White’s collection in 1990. It was rare for a commercial gallerist, which was what White had become in the 1970s,  to have a personal collection whose size and quality permitted a museum exhibition to be drawn from it. The reason he had a collection of such historical significance was that he couldn’t find buyers for many pieces he had originally bought as stock for his Los Angeles gallery. His instinctive taste was too wide-ranging and too advanced for many fledgling collectors then venturing into the nascent photography market. Much of what he acquired then turned out to be at best a very long-term investment, or, as he himself put it (somewhat ruefully) in a 1990 interview, “What was banal 20 years ago has become exquisite today.”

While the exhibition was touring that year, a prominent museum in Tokyo offered to buy his personal collection, and he – not without regret – agreed to sell it. But while he then closed his gallery, he didn’t stop collecting. The continuing fruits of his unabated passion for photography are what you see here at the Fourth Dali International photography exhibition.













相信其直觉,而非专注于仅被学者们所掌握的范围狭窄的学术史。史蒂芬·怀特所呈现的这一收藏展试图囊括整个摄影史,并且描绘摄影媒介在西方艺术几个大命题上的表现能力,包括人类固有的“暧昧不明”体验。因此展览重墨点染了摄影史上由来已久的浪漫主义和幻像破灭之矛盾 。而在一幅影像中并存热忱和怀疑,是展览中一些重要作品的共同特质。







诗所給予的心悸在于最后一句的重复。这种诱惑和迟疑的混合我们也许在看希尔和阿达姆松的树林时也可以感受--自然的某种不确定感 --是弗罗斯特在诗中想要表达的。






1839年摄影术被发明时, 以几乎完全不相交的两种形式出现。达盖尔法,由法国人路易-雅克·曼德·达盖尔所发明,是非常特别的影像,像其后的宝丽来一样,细节极其丰富。其锐利的特点适合拍摄人像,让它在新兴的布尔乔亚阶层中非常流行,因为同样的原因,也让诗人查理·波特莱尔贬为低俗。更被艺术所接受的方法是威廉·亨利·福克斯·塔尔伯特的碘化银纸法,它可以从半透明的纸质底片上多次复制。这也是希尔和阿达姆松使用的方法,尽管是英国人的发明,可是法国的风景摄影师们喜爱这种方法更胜于达盖尔法。塔尔伯特法底片和照片上的纸质纤维让它倍受其时正在向印象派转化的浪漫主义品味的青睐。风景是最早的艺术题材,塔尔伯特法的朦胧效果似乎于此非常切题。从负像到正像的转化也对艺术家有吸引力,因为这种方法似乎包含了一个悖论,对艺术来说这种矛盾几乎是某种本能。


塔尔伯特自己也认出了这种特质,从他拍摄自己的祖屋拉考克院,或者此次展览中展出的阿伯特堡习作中可以一窥端倪(后者是浪漫主义小说家沃尔特·斯科特先生的祖居。)拍摄古老建筑或者遗迹也是当时浪漫主义品味的一种,以法国为主流,我们可以在很多当时为坡劳斯坡 ·莫瑞米半官方古迹普查而拍摄中古时期建筑的摄影师们的职业生涯中看到这一点。展览中巴尔杜斯的“尼姆方形神庙”是一个可以回溯到罗马时代的庙宇,体现了当时为这个被称作“古迹摄影项目”所做的拍摄。这些作品同时还包含了一种帝国气质,在这次展览中,我们可以看到它从法国偏远地带一直延伸到了奥古斯特·扎尔茨曼拍摄的耶路撒冷和费力克斯·狄那德拍摄的埃及古迹。


在摄影史上,这种浪漫主义美学有“很多腿脚”,在戏剧界他们对一出演了很久的戏如此称呼。怀特收藏展中在这个命题上的后期变体包括:西恩 · 斯力的“洗衣妇”,乔治·西利的“树和屋”,阿诺德·根特的两幅希腊风景,约瑟夫·苏德克的两幅布拉格风景,以及威廉·戈登·谢尔德的“暮光时刻”, 德哈米 ·瑟夫 ·卢奇卡的“威尼斯的一座桥”,弗朗索瓦·科拉尔的“铁匠”, 或者还有保罗·斯特兰德和玛丽 · 雅博斯基的墨西哥农夫。


然而,当我们更深入二十世纪,影像变得更有冲突性,更难以维持它们的浪漫主义神话。侵入卢奇卡威尼斯桥下阴影的黑暗曾经占有了一切,同样的黑暗早在18年前,就曾经吞噬高登·谢尔德的“暮光时刻”。在这些作品中, 摄影师们想在现实中继续的关于过去的庆典无可避免的被复杂的情感玷污了,就如同所有的乡愁。保持矛盾情绪平衡所需的淡定越来越难以维持。遗憾不断的渗入,因为即便在你试图记录的时刻,那些想要保存的过往也向远方滑去。笼罩这类影像的雾气成为拍摄主题转瞬即逝的一种确认。






等到赫伯特·李斯特拍摄他的“德国钢铁厂”时,火花四溅高炉前男人的剪影,和尤金·史密斯在他的1950年代后期 “匹兹堡” 系列中拍摄的工厂内部, 让这个主题变成了地狱景象。机器时代已然毁灭了浪漫主义对于劳动尊严的幻影。






像斯特兰德的照片一样,此次展览中阿尔伯特·伦格尔-帕萨克1928年的习作是以特写从物体本身被孤立和抽象的“齿轮”。在摄影和其他一般意义上的当代艺术中,抽象是浪漫主义在20世纪所选取的形式。抽象视觉通常可对不忍目睹的丑陋特质給予救赎。一次抽象治疗可以让平淡无奇甚至让人恶心的场景变得暧昧,通过这种暧昧,艺术捕获我们的注意力。比如 · 特提科勒1928年的装饰裸体,尽管主角向上弯曲的身体让她像是被挂在架上折磨一般,她的形态和其他曲线融合成的设计图案中和了我们所感受到的不适;抽象的优雅包裹着不论怎样困扰的文学解读,真的,有了一个停顿。芭芭拉·摩根的玛莎·格林汉姆也有同样的效果,后者尖锐的手越过头的痛苦姿态,被高速曝光形成的优雅飞扬衣衫給予反冲。