Minor White - Photographs New York Wednesday, October 12, 2022 | Phillips

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  • This example of Sequence 16: Steely the Barb of Infinity is part of a remarkable trove of photographs given by Minor White to Herbert Hamilton, a student of White’s at the Rochester Institute of Technology in the 1950s and early 1960s. Hamilton was part of the tight-knit circle of students around White who studied photography with him, both inside and outside the classroom, and became involved with White’s curricular and extracurricular endeavors. He was recruited by White to work on Aperture magazine, for which White served as editor, and was put in charge of subscriptions and distribution and listed on the masthead from 1959 to 1961. Hamilton assisted White with the photographic workshops he conducted outside of his prescribed coursework, and Hamilton lived for a time at White’s apartment at 72 North Union Street.


    Early in his career, White began combining individual photographs into suites which he called Sequences. In these ordered groups, each photograph was contingent upon the others to create a unifying and non-linear narrative. For White, a carefully ordered sequence of photographs could create a more complex, evocative, and even spiritual experience for the viewer than could be achieved with a single photograph. Peter C. Bunnell, the dean of White scholarship, wrote:


    ‘Grouping photographs was Minor White’s preferred mode of presentation, and the sequence, of all his arrangements, was his most sophisticated form of pictorial expression. . . [Sequences] need to be studied in a state of concentration, or heightened awareness, and involve recognition of both the content and feeling, the intellectual and emotional aspects, of each image in relation to its adjacent images. However, one must read the images as an ensemble, in their cumulative assertion of a complex and interconnected idea, to sense the import of the artist’s statement’ (Bunnell, Minor White: The Eye That Shapes, p. 231).


    Bunnell and other scholars of White’s work have noted that he undertook Sequence 16 after the collapse of a relationship with a male student. White subsumed the emotional turmoil created by this romantic break into the creation of Sequence 16. Photographing in the Rochester area, and in Stony Brook State Park near Dansville, the images in this sequence balance documentation with abstraction. The sequence is anchored by two overtly figurative images – the snow-shrouded waterfall as the first plate, and the brilliant Haags Alley as the tenth – while the other images can be read, to varying degrees, as abstractions, although they are in fact photographically accurate documents of objects in front of White’s lens. The overall motif in Sequence 16 is one of winter, and White exploits the pictorial potential of snow, ice, and water to expressive perfection. The full title of this group, Sequence 16: Steely the Barb of Infinity, borrows from Charles Baudelaire, ‘There is no more steely a barb than that of the infinite.’ Photography, in sequence, provided White with a vocabulary to express the ineffable.


    White completed Sequence 16 in 1960, the same year he sent these prints to Herbert Hamilton.  While White would continue to work on Sequence 16 in the coming years, making image substitutions and additions, Hamilton’s example is surely one of the earliest complete versions extant. It is accompanied by two folio sheets signed and copiously inscribed in White’s flowing script. On one sheet, White writes, ‘You cannot take from me anything I will not give you,’ underscoring White’s highly personalized conception of photography, as well as his generosity. On the other sheet, he refers to Hamilton as ‘Hound of Heaven,’ likely a reference to Francis Thompson’s late-nineteenth-century poem of that title, whose religious themes dovetail with White’s own esoteric spirituality.


    Despite the fact the sequence was central to Minor White’s practice of photography, full and intact sequences such as this appear on the market infrequently. As of this writing, it is believed that no other example of Sequence 16: Steely the Barb of Infinity has appeared at auction.


    Minor White, Herbert Hamilton, Rochester, 1959 Reproduced with permission by The Minor White Archive, Princeton University Art Museum, bequest of Minor White © Trustees of Princeton University
    Minor White, Herbert Hamilton, Rochester, 1959
    Reproduced with permission by The Minor White Archive, Princeton University Art Museum, bequest of Minor White © Trustees of Princeton University

    White and Hamilton maintained close contact into the 1960s. Correspondence between the two men, in the possession of Hamilton’s descendants, reveals a close and intimate relationship. The letters address the nature of their respective photographic work, cover quotidian matters pertaining to Aperture, and – on White’s side – offer the occasional poem. In 1960, Hamilton married Margaret ‘Peggy’ Clousten, and remained in Rochester to complete his studies with White at RIT before leaving for Boston in 1962 for graduate study at Boston University and to initiate his career as a professional photographer.


    Hamilton was an accomplished photographer whose work was frequently exhibited, most notably in the 1960 Museum of Modern Art exhibition The Sense of Abstraction where his photographs hung alongside those of White, Edward Weston, Harry Callahan, Edmund Teske, Aaron Siskind, Ray Metzker, and others pushing the boundaries of photographic expression. A one-man exhibition of Hamilton’s work was mounted at Boston University in 1963.  Several of his images were published in Aperture, from 1960 to 1970. Hamilton maintained an active career as a freelance photographer and teacher, conducting courses at Boston University and the Art Institute of Boston. The 1973 course catalogue for the latter notes that Hamilton was currently Museum Photographer for the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.


    Over the years, White periodically sent his protégé photographs, including the sequence offered here, as well as those in Lots 188 through 192.



    Herbert Hamilton, Portrait of Minor White, 1961
    Herbert Hamilton, Portrait of Minor White, 1961
    • Provenance

      Gift of the photographer to Herbert Hamilton, 1960
      By descent to the present owner

    • Literature

      White, Mirrors, Messages, Manifestations: Photographs and Writings,1939-1968, pls. 132, 133, 135, 136, 137, 138, 140, 141
      Bunnell, Minor White: The Eye That Shapes, pls. 53 and 116, p. 261, fig. 60, and p. 262, fig. 61
      Martineau, Minor White: Manifestations of the Spirit, pls.106, 108, 110, 111, 112, 113
      Hall, Minor White: Rites & Passages, p. 9
      Hershberger and Klochko, The Time Between: The Sequences of Minor White, cf. nos. 9.1 through 9.8

    • Catalogue Essay

      The images, in sequence order, are as follows:

      1. Stony Brook State Park, New York (waterfall), November 25, 1959

      2. Stony Brook State Park, New York (frozen water and shore), January 1960

      3. Stony Brook State Park, New York (ice and rocks), January 1960

      4. 72 N. Union Street, Rochester (icicle against black background), March 1960

      5. 72 N. Union Street, Rochester (encrusted ice and icicles), April 1960

      6. 72 N. Union Street, Rochester (icicles and crusted snow), February 1960

      7. Rochester (white paint streaks on wall), June 1959

      8. 72 N. Union Street, Rochester (double icicle), March 1960

      9. 72 N. Union Street, Rochester (snow and mechanical object), April 1960

      10. Garage Door (Haags Alley, Rochester), February 1960

      11. Stony Brook State Park (snow and running water), January 1960

      12. 72 N. Union Street, Rochester (ice wave), 1960


Sequence 16: Steely the Barb of Infinity

A sequence of 12 gelatin silver prints.
Various sizes to 11 1/2 x 9 in. (29.2 x 22.9 cm)
Each numbered sequentially in pencil on the reverse of the mount. Accompanied by two folio sheets, the first signed, dated, titled 'Steely this Barb,’ and inscribed 'You cannot take from me anything that I will not give you,’ and the second signed, dated, titled 'Steely the Barb,’ and inscribed 'For Herb, Hound of Heaven, in evidence’ in pencil.

Full Cataloguing

$25,000 - 35,000 

Sold for $44,100

Contact Specialist

Sarah Krueger
Head of Department, Photographs, New York

Vanessa Hallett
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New York Auction 12 October 2022