Under the unorthodox tutelage of legendary photographer Minor White, John Daido Loori makes an unexpected discovery: between photographer and subject, there is no separation.
In meeting a man along the way, greet him neither with words nor with silence. Now tell me, how will you greet him?
— An old Zen koan
In the late 1960s, Minor White was fondly known as the Eastern guru of photography because of his unusual teaching methods, which included techniques borrowed from Eastern spiritual traditions. Over six feet tall, with a wild mane of silver hair, Minor was a magnetic and fascinating presence in the world of the arts.
When I first heard of him, Minor was teaching photography in the Architecture Department of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The Russians had just launched the Sputnik, and there was much criticism of America’s schools and universities because they seemed to be producing technicians rather than innovators. Minor’s job at MIT was to open up the students’ “creative side.” I began to follow his work through Aperture magazine and learned that he taught photography as a sacred art. The first time I saw one of his photography exhibits, I understood why.
The exhibit, called “The Sound of One Hand Clapping,” was being shown in a small gallery in Massachusetts. Curious to see Minor’s work in person, I drove up from New York. What I saw moved me in a way I was totally unprepared for. Minor was a “straight photographer,” which meant he didn’t manipulate his images during the developing process. Yet Minor’s way of using natural light and shadows to produce a wide range of tonality in his prints was incredible. Looking at his photographs, I felt myself being thrust into another realm of consciousness. I realized then that there was a lot more to photography than I had previously imagined.
I started photographing when I was ten, and by the time I reached my mid-thirties, photography had become an integral part of my life. I had worked as a physical chemist for seventeen years, but had also started to teach college photography part time, and was seriously thinking of turning it into my profession. For a while my work as a research scientist was fulfilling, but at a certain point the questions that had led me to science to begin with became larger than their container, and I saw that they were fundamentally religious questions.
I began to systematically study the great spiritual traditions, trying to make sense of my life and the world around me. Unfortunately, by then I had become highly cynical, and much of what religion had to say seemed to me inconsistent with the realities of life in the twentieth century. I became opposed to organized religion, and turned into an avowed atheist. Yet many of my friends laughed and referred to me as “Pope John.” It was obvious to everyone that the passion that drove me was deeply spiritual, but I just couldn’t admit that to myself at the time.
One day in 1971, I received a letter from Aperture announcing a workshop that Minor White was giving in Lakeville, Connecticut. At first I was hesitant to apply because I didn’t think my photographs were good enough. But after some encouragement from friends, I sent in my portfolio—along with my date and place of birth so an astrologer could draw my chart. Although I was a resistant and hardened scientist, I wanted so much to study with Minor that I was willing to play along. He wanted to read my stars? Fine. He wanted me to read Carlos Castaneda’s A Separate Reality, Eugene Herrigel’s Zen and the Art of Archery, and Richard Boleslavsky’s Acting: The First Six Lessons? Fine.
I was accepted into the workshop, and a few months later I was on my way to the Hotchkiss School, where I and sixty other participants would spend a week studying photography with Minor White.