Los Angeles, USA
No matter how slow the film, Spirit always stands still long enough for the photographer It has chosen. – Minor White
The Space Between
In the late 1940’s, Minor White and Edward Weston developed a close relationship as they worked together building the photography program at the San Francisco Art Institute (in those days known as the California School of Fine Arts). Theirs was a mutually respectful but odd pairing; odd because they held some diametrically opposite views on photography.
Weston did not believe that his images functioned as any kind of personal revelation and expressed complete disinterest in those sorts of interpretations. He saw his images as objective and transparent documents of external form – be it a bell pepper, a porcelain toilet, or a female nude. He prefered to describe his own work in technical, literal, almost journalistic terms.
The camera is first a means of self-discovery and a means of self-growth. The artist has one thing to say – herself.
– Minor White
White, on the other hand, gave deep spiritual significance to his own photographs, those of his students, and indeed to every human impulse to generate visual artifacts. His vocabulary for describing photographs and the creative process was deeply embedded in psychology, spirituality, and mysticism. His visual interpretations were typically charged with emotion, symbolism, and sexuality.
Weston saw himself as an inquisitive, investigative visual reporter. White played the part of priest, shaman, and healer.
I was reminded of this polarity in the history of photography, embodied by the relationship between these two icons of the 20th Century, when I encountered the seductive pull of Catherine Just’s work.
While the aesthetic legacies of Weston and White have each continued to thrive and coexist up to the present, Just’s work comes down clearly in the realm of Minor White’s lexicon of intuition and metaphor.
Comprised heavily of self-portraits supported and informed by a chorus of objects seemingly imbued with talismanic magic, these images collectively weave an intimate narrative about bodies and desire, memory and longing, visibility and erasure, abundance and loss, tension and catharis. This is not a story told in direct or literal terms, but rather through indirection, suggestion, and interpretation.
The poet and writer Mary Ruefle has talked about her belief in prose as a public language and poetry as a private language. She wrote in The Paris Review that, “the standards for public discourse are very different from poetry“.
A very receptive state of mind… not unlike a sheet of film itself – seemingly inert, yet so sensitive that a fraction of a second’s exposure conceives a life in it. – Minor White
If Catherine Just’s medium of choice were words, she would doubtless call herself a poet. Her images document a personal landscape and speak through a private vocabulary. This is not to say, however, that the work is not clear or accessible – it is. Here is another duality, that such intimate references could also be infused with a universality in its set of symbols and gestures.
I am reminded of my own mentor – Larry Sultan – and how he once made an analogy between his own creative process and how a diver swims toward the depths, telling me that “over all the years I’ve been doing this, all I’ve really gotten better at is holding my breath”. (For more about that story, read my essay, Breath|Holding).
The diving metaphor also feels apt for Catherine Just’s process. The transcendance of her images resides in her ability to penetrate beneath the surface of appearances – they are more than what is pictured, they point beyond what is seen. She is diving further down, descending to a greater depth, discovering and uncovering other meanings. This is the space between words, a place beyond language. We may not be able to speak about or give voice to what is revealed here, but there is a clarity to what we see and what we feel. It is akin to what Minor White called “the mirror with a memory”. We discover something timeless and universal. We see ourselves.
images: © copyright 2016 Catherine Just. No use without permission.
words: © copyright 2016 Joseph Squier. No use without permission.