Photographer John Weiss was a struggling 20something when he encountered Minor White—and his life’s calling

Minor White in Connecticut, 1973 / John J. Weiss

Minor White photographed by John Weiss at his Hotchkiss (School) Summer Workshop, 1973. © jjweiss 1973/2014

To some in the 1960s and ‘70s—when I knew him—photographer Minor White was a deity. Every word was an invocation. To others he was a self-promoter, a fraud, talking nonsense.

But the independent thinkers had a different perspective. They came to listen, to learn, to evaluate, and to challenge. I was one of them. I learned to stop feeling tormented about my inadequacies. There came a moment during my early days with Minor when I learned to trust me. Then, I’d earned Minor White as my mentor. And he changed my life.

My First Encounter with Photography

But let’s start at the beginning.

In 1967 I began my life’s work—or so I thought—as an underwriter for Cigna Insurance Co. in Hartford, Connecticut. Six weeks passed before I was invited to leave. I joined the ranks of the unemployed, feeling embarrassed and worthless. The next year, in 1968, the State Street Bank in Boston hired me to work in the real estate trust department. There was little work related to real estate, and “trust” was conspicuously absent. I was failing at my second job, feeling hopeless and irreclaimable.

Still, it was the late 1960s and Cambridge, Massachusetts, was one of the centers of the universe.  It was an intoxicating time. American youth knew we could change the world. There were sit-ins, peace and love, and especially “free” love.

On one painfully cold day in February 1968, I was driving out of Cambridge from Harvard Square toward Boston. The sun was sharp, the shadows impenetrable. And there she was: long, golden hair falling to her waist, black boots, black scarf, black beret, and black cape. Thumb stretched out at shoulder level, looking for a ride. How could I deny her?

The flirting began instantly. She said, “Do you like photography? I’m going to M.I.T. to see a photo exhibition.” “Like it?” I lied. “I love photography.”

When I walked in, and looked at the first art photograph I’d ever seen, I began to sweat. My face flushed. I nearly fainted. I was face to face with a black and white picture that was both absurdly implausible and equally, unquestionably, the truth of the world.

Untitled / Jerry Uelsmann

Untitled, 1960s, Jerry Uelsmann. Courtesy of and © Jerry Uelsmann

It was a Jerry Uelsmann image. A man, wearing glasses and silhouetted against the sky, his hands open, hanging down and away from his body, stood on a mound of stones, well above the earth. Turbulent water seemed to course through the stones advancing toward the man, like a perilous crescendo, implying imminent danger. Above him, frozen in a bleak and merciless sky, was a menacing black bush pulled by its roots from the earth, its maze of tentacles hovering above him. Was this the threat of an oncoming abduction? A portent of doom and annihilation? What did it mean?

“Someone Named Minor White”

The show was titled Light7 and was curated by someone named Minor White. I bought the exhibition catalog for $3.00 and left, and drove directly to a camera store in downtown Boston. I asked to buy everything needed to make photographs. I left with a camera, Tri-X film, an enlarger and amber light, trays, and all the solutions necessary to process negatives and make enlargements. I brought my treasures home, laid them out on my bed, and was horrified. What had I done? I’d never figure out how to put this stuff together, let alone learn to make pictures.

Later that night, though, when I dipped a seemingly blank piece of paper into a tray of developer in my bathtub, I witnessed the magic for the very first time. An image slowly began to appear. I was so excited, I immediately turned on the white light to see my creation—and the picture disappeared. But it didn’t matter; I’d done it. I was elated.

More than a year passed before I looked up the telephone number for this Minor White fella. He was very generous with his time. I told him I wanted to quit the bank and learn photography.  He said it would be better to wait, to practice, and to take a night class each week. He put me together with Donald Erceg, a photographer and former Jesuit priest. Don became my first true guide. I loved Don; he recognized my fear and taught me to trust myself and my intellect. He believed in me.

Weeks flew by. Don called one Saturday afternoon to say Minor was seeking a lab assistant. Having already failed at two jobs, I had zero reason to believe I’d succeed at this one. And, yes, I was afraid. But there was no choice. I had to try.

An Unusual Job Interview

It was a sweltering day in August 1969. I arrived on the third floor of the Armory building at M.I.T. wearing my banking costume: a three-piece suit, four-in-hand tie, wing-tipped shoes. Minor opened his office door and invited me in. He was sitting in front of a window, the sun blinding me as it shone behind him. Tiny flecks of light danced around his head. His voice was nearly inaudible. So there I was, sitting inside the most important moment of my life, and I could neither see nor hear the man interviewing me: Minor White. Can you imagine the dread?

As the interview ended, I thought I heard him invite me to meet at his home at 7 o’clock the next evening. The next day my car broke down. As I waited for the bus, it began to pour. After I got to the stop nearest Minor’s house, I walked straight uphill for 20 minutes, head down and shoulders bent forward in the deluge. When I finally arrived at his home, I saw a light on in the back. Minor welcomed me into his massive kitchen and served tea.

He invited me to come upstairs, where he turned on the lights in a large room. Overhead spotlights were arranged around the ceiling and tables, 10 or 15 of them, were covered with dry-mounted prints. He walked slowly to each photograph, deliberately turning them face down, one by one, until not a single image was visible. He took a large mat, probably 20” x 30”, turned it face up, and push-pinned it to a white Homasote wall. It was a montage of about seven or eight small photos. He turned off all the lights, save for a single spotlight behind us illuminating his photograph. He cleared his throat (the habit of a basically shy man, I was to learn) and asked, “Well, what do you think of it?”

Prolonged seconds passed before I realized he’d left the room. I was alone and painfully uncomfortable. Thanks, Minor, thanks a lot.

The centerpiece of the image was a large, arching structure. I didn’t know until years later that it was the Gateway Arch. I was utterly confused. I knew Minor would soon return, but what in God’s name could I possibly say? My mind was flailing.

“Ahem.” I nearly jumped. How much time had passed? Minor had somehow materialized behind me. He asked me to tell him what I saw. I simply blurted out what I felt. I told him I was terribly confused, uneasy, upset. I said I felt trapped and fearful. But I also told him that the arch in the center of the image calmed me, seemed to protect me from the dread of not understanding anything at all.

There was an interminable pause. Then Minor cleared his throat once more and asked, “When can you start?”

Everything Mattered

Minor White (left) and John Weiss (right) at the opening of a solo exhibition by White in Washington, D.C., in 1975. © jjweiss 1975/2014

Minor White (left) and John Weiss (right) at the opening of a solo exhibition by White in Washington, D.C., in 1975. © jjweiss 1975/2014

I knew Minor well—better than most, not nearly as well as others.  I knew that he only countenanced excellence; nothing less. It consumed him. It drove him. It was his core.

Everything he did mattered. Minor was on a sacred voyage of discovery. He took chances and risked failure for the prize of knowing. He was demanding in the extreme; he could be unkind and hurtful. He was also the most generous being I’d ever met. He enriched me beyond the telling.

I sometimes find myself wishing, 45 years later, that Minor could see the man I’ve become and the images I’ve made. My dearest friend, Susan Devins, who was Minor’s trusted and valued personal assistant in the 1970s, told me recently, “He knows.”