Clarence H. White
American, 1871-1925
The Kiss,(The Reynolds Sisters), 1904
Platinum print
Warren and Margot Coville Collection

Pictorialism into Modernism: The Clarence H. White School of Photography
January 19 - May 23, 1999

"Yes, but is it Art?" People have been asking this question about photography since the medium's discovery one hundred and sixty years ago. Pictorialism into Modernism: The Clarence H. White School of Photography,gives us a historical glance at the debate at a particularly critical time in the medium's history. Challenged by the ubiquity of the new Kodak camera and industrial film processing, turn-of-the-century artists struggled to elevate photography to the realm of fine art. As we approach the new millennium and face the increasingly dominant digital age, it is good to be reminded of these early artistic debates about craft, mechanical reproduction, and what it means to be "avant garde."

Although Clarence White is acknowledged as a master of fine art photography, his most significant contribution to the history of photography—his teaching—is less well known. This exhibition of photographs from the Warren and Margot Coville collection provides new information about the importance of White as a teacher, and presents outstanding examples of photographs by White and his students.

White was one of the founding members of the "Photo-Secession," a group begun in 1902 by Alfred Stieglitz. They considered themselves an avant-garde group of experimental photographers who attempted to raise photography to the realm of high art by imitating traditional fine arts models. Their compositions were based on the study of paintings and prints. Labeled "pictorialists" they used a wide variety of photographic printing techniques that imitate the look of etchings and are characterized by a soft focus that masks the mechanical rendering of the camera. The atmospheric quality of pictorialist photographs reminds the viewer of nineteenth-century Barbizon landscape paintings rather than the photographic prints that might be more familiar to us.

In 1910, Stieglitz renounced pictorialism in favor of a more modernist aesthetic of sharply focused, "straight" photographs that made a virtue of the optical clarity and precision of the camera. After Stieglitz's bitter separation, Clarence White emerged as the leader of pictorialist photography. White founded a national organization—The Pictorial Photographers of America—that circulated exhibitions and published an annual journal. He began teaching at Columbia University in 1907. In 1914, he opened the Clarence White School of Photography in New York City, an institution that continued to instruct students until 1942.

White was a kind and gentle teacher. His school stressed the importance of composition and design and encouraged students to make their own pictorial decisions. Consequently, the Clarence White School of Photography embraced a variety of approaches and techniques. While White remained rooted in pictorialism, his emphasis on design and his inspirational teaching encouraged many students to embrace the new modernist vision of the 1920s and the 1930s.

Although only recently recognized for the seminal role it played, the Clarence White School was responsible for the early training of several of photographic history's most well-known artists including Margaret Bourke-White, Anton Bruehl, Dorothea Lange, Paul Outerbridge, Jr., Karl Struss, and Doris Ulmann. With the addition of exquisite photographs by these artists, the exhibition provides a glimpse at the outstanding photographs by White and his students.

This exhibition was organized by the Founders Society Detroit Institute of Arts in collaboration with George Eastman House, with funding from the Coville Photographic Art Foundation, the city of Detroit, the state of Michigan, and the Founders Society Detroit Institute of Arts.

Some examples of works in the exhibition:


Laura Gilpin
American, 1890-1979
White Iris,1926
Platinum print
Coville Photographic Art Foundation © 1979, Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas, Bequest of Laura Gilpin.


Paul Outerbridge
American, 1896-1958
Kitchen Table,1922
Gelatin silver print
Warren and Margot Coville Collection


Antoinette B. Hervey
American, 1857-1945
Base of a Great Column (In the Nave of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, New York),1929
Platinum print
Coville Photographic Art Foundation

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