My Time with Minor White
Minor White and Fernando La Rosa, Peru, 1973.
Photograph by Peruvian photographer, Billy Hare.
My Time with Minor White in Peru
(originally written by Fernando La Rosa in 1988 to assist Peter Bunnell in his work with the archives of Minor White)
In the early 1970’s, in Lima, Billy Hare and I would purchase the imported Swiss magazine, “Camera”. Billy and I were in an infancy with conquering the obstacles of forming a career as photographers in Peru. At this time, we were not yet friends but we shared our passion for photography, photographing together, overcoming the difficulty of finding equipment, film, & chemicals in Lima, of accessing a darkroom, and all the while, maintaining a free and generous exchange of what we each were learning. “Camera” magazine proved to be fundamental in our education. It was full of examples of the work of contemporary photographers and most importantly, it was well printed. It was precisely this magazine that connected me to Minor White, a photographer very important in the US, and Director of the program of photography at MIT. “Camera” published a portfolio of Minor’s images (January 1972), and these images generated a driving passion in me, Subsequently I wrote him asking for advice and he answered my letter! He requested that I send him a group of my photographs for his review, and with this, we started a critical dialogue, me sending photographs and he returning them to me with notes of advice on experimentation. We continued this correspondence through the year. I invited him to visit Perú and on August 1, 1973, I picked him up at the airport in Lima. Minor, Billy Hare, and I, plus others travelled to Paracas, and to Huaráz to photograph.
In my initial letter to him, I stated that I was teaching photography to a small group of people and that I was feeling some insecurities about my photography background. I had not had any formal education in photography, as there was not such a program available in Lima at the time. I felt that my work was at a “dead end”. My sensibility to photography had been developed through magazines and as a result I felt incapable of teaching others something so precariously grasped. I wrote the letter to Minor because the article in “Camera” stressed the point that Minor was a teacher and my personal perception of his work reproduced in the magazine was that it was very latin in its sensibility. His images were charged with feelings, with a past, they were heavy. Minor’s photographs, as opposed to many North American photographers did not have as much a sense of space as they had a sense of the object. He treated objects with great economy and grand intensity. Not since Stieglitz have I found another photographer so capable of pouring such emotions into his images. There was a powerful sense of the self in Minor. Contrary to the concept of the Buddhist monk, Minor was a lonely man, not a loner, but lonely. He was always very conscious of the space between himself and the others. Those emotions he reverted to the physical world, the objects that Minor photographed never describe them, but rather they become a dramatic blend, an emergent feeling. I always felt that the photograph of the Golden Gate was a self-portrait; a structure standing alone, the bridge that we don’t see….
Aug. 11, ’73 (This date is based on a postcard Minor sent to Lucinda Bunnen – a mutual friend and photographer from Atlanta, Georgia; dated August 10, 1973, in which Minor said he was leaving for Lima the next day.) I had invited Minor to come to Lima. He accepted my invitation and arrived about this time in August. He had arranged his housing with the people of the Gurdieff group. When I met him at the airport I was surprised to find that he was a much older person than I had assumed. We got right to “business” that day. He wanted to look at my new photographs. My English was very bad and we had some problems communicating. Minor suggested that we go to a liquor store. He bought a bottle of Dubonnet and I bought a bottle of Bourbon. Why I got a bottle of bourbon I don’t know, but it almost killed me. The result was an intense conversation.
8-12-73 I drove Minor through the city, both with our cameras. He pointed out things he felt were interesting. At the time I could not understand his attraction to these things. Some of the areas of Lima through which we drove and he took photographs were La Punta, La Perla, Chorrillos, Barrios Altos, Rimac, and Barranco. He was not particularly interested in areas of these sorts. This was “my” Lima and not what he was looking for. There was something awkward in our relationship, something almost chemical. I became confused and smaller while Minor became bigger and more imposing. Nevertheless we carried-on these short trips throughout the next few days. Minor obtained a map of the city and would arbitrarily select an area of Lima and I would drive him there. I gained a new perspective of my city and at the same time my “old” city became unfamiliar, new meanings were formed in strange places. Years later I returned to these places to recover my lost soul.
8-14-73 Lima is a city between the Pacific Ocean and the Andes. It is possible to go from zero altitude to 12,000 feet in 2 hours. Minor wanted to go to Ticlio (4,000 meters high) the highest point possible in a short trip from Lima. I knew that Minor had had a heart attack and I warned him about the altitude but he insisted and we went. It was cold and wet and Minor at 12,000 feet was running like a young boy with his 4x5 camera shooting Polaroids. I was lying on the ground trying to breathe.
8-15-73 Minor wanted to go to a cemetery. I took him first to El Angel in Barrios Altos in Lima. It was a wealthy, well maintained place full of beautiful marble statues of women crying, angels rising above the ground, fresh flowers all around. Death was a pompous event and Minor walked around never saying a word and took no pictures. The next cemetery was located on the outskirts of Mala. It was a very poor, small, and desperate place. It had been destroyed by earthquakes. There was not a single piece of marble but only adobe and dead flowers. Minor said, “this one looks more real”, I guess more “alive”. He was very excited and took many photographs.
8-16-73 The next day back in Lima, my students and I got together with Minor for a critique of their work. Minor was amicable and generous. I realized then how much he enjoyed being with younger people and that he truly loved to teach. Not to teach so much about the technical side of photography as much as to teach about perception, emotions, and symbols.
8-18-73 On the weekend Minor and I went to the highlands in the area of Huaraz (a valley between the two cordilleras of the Andes, the white and the black) which is around 10,000 feet. We stayed at the Hotel Monterrey near Huaraz. A few of the Gurdieff group came along. During the trip the act of photography became a secondary matter. Minor delved the group into the ideas of Gurdieff. This was the first time many of us had heard of the concepts of heightened awareness. It became clear to me that Minor used photography as a medium for his spiritual growth. A photograph was an illusory goal like Herrigel’s “Zen and the Art of Archery”. Minor suggested to each of us that we should find a plant, any plant, and collect as much information as possible not only about the physical aspects of its form, size, and length but also about the sense of its liveliness, energy, symbolism, feelings, and texture. It took us a long time to collect all this. I remember describing my plant. It seemed as though I was seeing the plant for the first time as I described it. It was most exciting and an unusual energy was coming out of me. I remember feeling something peculiar about myself. When I finished Minor asked me “now that you have this knowledge about this specific plant, how are you going to photograph it?’ I felt like I never had before nor have after about the limitations of this medium, my spirit vacillates between the joy of the perception and the tragic truth of not being able to express it. In the mountains, at the foot of Huascaran the highest glacier in Peru there was a lake. At a point when all of us were getting frozen, Minor took off his shoes and socks and walked into the lake. Back in the hotel that late afternoon Minor suggested that we all go to the thermal baths. These small private pools were large enough for four people at the most. We were eight and complained that we could not fit there. Minor insisted and we all went naked into the pools. Human contact was unavoidable and we were uncomfortable. Minor was enjoying himself immensely.
8-20-73 During the night Minor called me to his room. I knew that something “heavy” was coming up, it was floating in the air (at the time I was caught between three different forces pulling in different directions – the Gurdieff group, Minor, and my particular interest in photography). I went to Minor’s room and there was an American fellow there who had come for Minor (I don’t recall his name but he was from Boston and was not a photographer). This man was sitting quietly in a corner. Minor had earlier invited me to go to Boston and live at his house and participate in his M.I.T. workshop, but this night he came down on me, telling me that I was not ready to work with him, that I was lazy and had ego problems, that my English was terrible, etc. He said that despite the fact that he had invited me to the workshop, he felt that it was probably not a good idea. I felt devastated. I took my time to answer and in my answer I spoke the best English of my life. I told him that being with him was like being in front of a jury, that every action of my life was criticized, evaluated, weighted, and rejected. I told him that the reason that I argued so much with him was not because of an ego problem but was because of my difficulty in understanding his teachings. My questions were honest and anything honest was worth exploring. So, finally I told him that I disagreed with him on yet another issue and that was that I thought my going to Boston was indeed a very good idea. Next morning he told me to be in Boston no later than the first of September.
During this excursion, I took Minor to the Museo del Padre Soriano in Huaraz where he photographed some of their sculpted stone heads. After Huaraz, through the same valley we went to Chavín de Huantar, a small city where the ruins of the Chavín temple are located.
8-22-73 Our next trip was toward the coast south of Lima, an area called Marcona. We were about 50 miles south of a mining town. We arrived at a beach which was part of the property of the mining company. After a long, arduous trip through the desert we arrived at a location where there were two large cabins in which we spent the night. These accommodations were made available to us by a friend of a friend of the mining company & the Gurdieff group, and Minor referred to it as “Ben’s Beach”. The next morning after breakfast Minor gave assignments related to pre-visualization. Minor was in one of those moods that forced me to shrink. We walked around the beach and around noon Minor told me to wait for him. He walked toward a hill that overlooked the coast. He set up his 4x5 and for the next 45 minutes he was staring toward a huge rock in the center of the beach, his hands holding the cable release. He did not move a finger. I never knew if he took a photograph - I did, mentally. Later I asked him why and what he had done for those forty-five minutes. He said something related to the fact that he could alter a negative (film) with his emotions. I never grasped the meaning of that.
8-27-73 We left the beach and travelled toward Lima for about 80 miles, and drove across the Nazca desert. We stopped in Paracas, a beautiful desert of soft dunes and dream-like beaches that die in the Pacific Ocean. It was around five in the afternoon when we arrived there. We collected wood for a fire, cooked, ate and after dinner we all shared impressions and perceptions about the assignments that Minor had given us. Everything was analyzed under the heavy light of the Gurdieff teachings. That night we slept on the beach.
8-28-73 We spent the morning again exploring the desert and in the afternoon we returned to Lima. Two days later Minor left Peru.
9-’73 In September of 1973, at Minor’s invitation, I traveled to Boston, Massachusetts to live and study with him. During my studies in Boston, I was one of a group of young male students living in his home, assisting with household chores, helping with his art production, and attending his classes at the university. It was an extraordinary experience, of all levels, very conceptual but also a very technical study of photography, especially for someone who came from Lima where there was no public or private institution where one could study photography. Minor White’s generosity impacted me, forming a driving mission to return to Lima and to teach photography.
1974 – Minor’s 2nd trip to Peru: This trip, for Minor, was mostly a Gurdieff trip. I saw him a couple of times, he saw my photographs and we talked a little. My relations with the Gurdieff group were strained at that time. Some of the people who were my students became part of the Gurdieff group and the directors conducted Minor’s trip in a confidential way, in other words, they did not want anybody outside the group to see him. As far as I am aware, there was nothing particularly different or special about the Lima Gurdieff group, but certainly, Dorothea Dooling, who had been in charge of the group for many years, had been the soul and the spine of the group, not only in an intellectual level, but also financially.
At the time, in Lima there was a great deal of interest in photography, and no schools for study. Independent photographers, like myself, engaged in teaching. Certainly bringing Minor to Lima served a double purpose, attracting new people, and supporting the group of young photographers already there. So when Minor came back to Lima in 1974, Ms. Dooling came along. At one point, she had a home in La Molina, Lima, which I had the opportunity to visit for some of the Gurdieff sessions. Later, in 1975, in Lima, I began organizing the cultural association, “Secuencia”, a school for photography with a photography gallery. We organized the first exhibition of the Andean photographer, Martin Chambi, and exhibited the work of Aaron Siskind, and Harry Callahan. It has always saddened me that Minor’s death preceded my chance to host an exhibition of his work at Secuencia Foto-galeria in Lima.
Fernando La Rosa
1988 & 2016