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The Clarence H. White School of Photography
Library Acquires Warren and Margot Coville Collection
Verna Posever Curtis
What do acclaimed photographers Margaret Bourke-White, Dorothea Lange and Ralph Steiner; world-renowned typeset designer Frederic Goudy; and avant-garde painter Max Weber have in common?
They were students or teachers at the landmark Clarence H. White School of Photography. The White School was responsible for training some of the world‘s most celebrated photographers of the 20th century. The Library recently acquired the Warren and Margot Coville Collection of the Clarence H. White School of Photography through a three-year gift-purchase agreement with the collectors and the Coville Photographic Art Foundation. The acquisition was part of the Library‘s Bicentennial Gifts to the Nation initiative
The White School, the first in America to teach photography as an art form and to integrate design into its curriculum, flourished in New York City from 1914 to 1942. Photographer Clarence H. White‘s endeavor predated architect Walter Gropius‘s famous Bauhaus (1919-1933) in Weimar, Germany, where artists and craftsmen directed classes and production toward the goal of combining all the arts in an ideal unity and removing any distinction between the fine and applied arts. The Bauhaus sought to enhance the value of handcraft and use it for training artists, architects and designers. In a similar manner, the White School was dedicated to imbuing the craft of photography with the values and principles of art. The curriculum emphasized pictorial construction based on pattern and brought abstract design into photography.
When White first began teaching, the medium of photography was coming into its own as a means of artistic expression, and its advantages for communication had been acknowledged. Photographs were preferred over wood engravings and often over drawings for illustration in newspapers and magazines. The use of photographs in advertisements was on the rise. But no place existed for people to learn how to use the camera in the art of seeing.
Charismatic amateur photographer and teacher Clarence H. White was inspired to found a school that would advocate applying art principles to professional and commercial as well as art photography. It would pioneer in these fields and train the earliest practitioners. The hallmark of White‘s method was respect for the individuality of his students. To quote Margaret Watkins, White‘s student, staff member at the school and lifelong loyalist who wrote the introduction to the checklist for White‘s memorial exhibition, "He used himself to serve his art, and not his art to serve himself."
From the beginning, the innovative school fostered aesthetic photography in advertising, pictorial illustration for articles and books and documentary work. It attracted students from Canada and Japan and spawned a generation of the most celebrated photojournalists, humanists and early cinematographers in America. In addition to the photographers already mentioned, the list included Paul Outerbridge Jr., Anton Bruehl, Karl Struss and many women, such as Doris Ulmann, Laura Gilpin, Anne W. Brigman, Margaret Watkins and Clara E. Sipprell. Washington‘s own journalist and photographer Marvin Breckenridge (Mrs. Jefferson Patterson), who was featured in a Library of Congress exhibition, "Women Come to the Front," studied there in the 1930s (see www.loc.gov/exhibits/wcf).
On Oct. 11, the Prints and Photographs Division celebrated the acquisition of the Coville Collection with a program in the Mary Pickford Theater in the James Madison Building. This was the first in a new series of lectures about photography being coordinated by Carol Johnson, a curator of photography in the division. Library staff members, photography curators from several other national institutions as well as other invited guests attended the program. (A cybercast of the program will be available from the Library‘s Web site at www.loc.gov/today/cyberlc/index.php.)
Photography entrepreneur and collector Warren Coville recounted how he first became interested in the White School. Kathy Erwin, the collection‘s curator since 1992, shared fascinating anecdotes from her four years of intensive research to uncover this previously little known, but highly influential, circle. Her database now contains information about 1,300 White students. Formerly a curator at the Detroit Institute of Arts, Ms. Erwin grew to feel not only like "the latter-day registrar of the White School, but as if White‘s students are part of my extended family."
The Covilles began collecting photography in 1974. One of their first purchases was a portrait of cellist Pablo Casals by the Canadian Yousuf Karsh, a gift from Margot to Warren, a lifelong photographer and owner of a successful film processing company. Approximately five years later, the couple‘s direction for continuing to collect started coming into clearer focus. Warren became "intrigued by one-liners about important photographers who studied at the White School." However, the Covilles‘ unique collection of White School material began in earnest in 1980 with the purchase at auction of a portfolio, formerly in the collection of student Antoinette B. Hervey, with nine photographs by Clarence H. White, the master photographer whom they were discovering to be at the forefront of the art photography movement in the United States. As he delved further, Warren learned more about the differences between the extroverted Alfred Stieglitz, who was acknowledged as the dominant leader of the American art photographers, and the more subdued, but equally influential, White. Appealing to Coville‘s business sense was the fact that, unlike Stieglitz, White did not eschew the commercial use of the medium.
The quest to find photographs from White‘s students led the Covilles on a 20-year odyssey. An especially intriguing discovery was the whereabouts of White‘s devoted assistant, Margaret Watkins, who was born in Canada, but after White‘s death, went to Scotland, eventually giving her photographs to a solicitor neighbor. After purchasing some 420 works by 80 photographers from auction houses as well as dealers, heirs or executors for the creators, the couple and their curator could take pride in knowing that their determined pursuit had uncovered vital information about 60 formerly forgotten contributors to the history of photography and would soon bring to light a little-known era in its development.
Pictorialism into Modernism: The Clarence H. White School of Photography, an exhibition and book of the same name, celebrated their collecting and scholarly efforts. The exhibition traveled widely from 1996 to 1999 and was seen at the Detroit Institute of Arts, the George Eastman House (Rochester); the International Center of Photography (New York City); the Spencer Museum of Art, the University of Kansas; the University of Kentucky Art Museum; the Museum of Photographic Arts (San Diego); the Carleton University Art Gallery (Ottawa); the Addison Gallery of American Art at Phillips Academy (Andover); and the Palmer Museum of Art at Pennsylvania State University.
Pictorialist Photographer Par Excellence: Clarence H. White
Even before he formally founded his school, Clarence Hudson White (1871-1925) was an acclaimed member of the international Pictorialist movement of amateur photographers who promoted photography as an art form. That movement had begun in 1891 with the first exhibition of photography as art in Vienna and the subsequent formation in Europe of photographic societies to exchange ideas and organize juried exhibitions. Pictorialism quickly spread to the United States, where photography clubs first sprang up on the East Coast but soon were established in cities across the country. Alfred Stieglitz from New York City is credited as the first American to inspire his countrymen to pursue aesthetic goals and the earliest to act as their liaison to Europe; he is known today as the founder in 1902 of the Photo-Secession, the group of Pictorialists whom he invited to represent the best in American art photography. However, it is less well known that F. Holland Day from Boston, Frances Benjamin Johnston from Washington, D.C., and Clarence H. White also acted as early influential American leaders.
Born in Ohio, White was the son of a wholesale grocery salesman. After his early interest in an art career met with his parents‘ disapproval, he followed his father as bookkeeper in the same grocery business. In 1893, the year he married Jane Felix, White took up photography as a substitute for painting and pursued it as an avocation. He was a founding member of the Newark Camera Club, which was established in his hometown in 1898 to infuse photography with the ideals of art. O. Walter Beck, a Cincinnati art professor, was its inspiration, while White was its leader. The club, in fact, became known informally as the "White School." By the early 20th century, the completely self-taught photographer had won an international reputation for his artfully composed, softly focused platinum prints, having exhibited them in Boston, New York, London, Paris, Dresden, Vienna and Turin, Italy.
Not only was White‘s work represented regularly in Pictorialist exhibitions, but in 1899, he also served on the prestigious jury of the Second Philadelphia Photographic Salon held at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Emerging as a steadfast promoter of the Pictorialist cause, White hoped to make his living through photography, and in 1906-1907 moved his family to New York City. The move strengthened his associations with Stieglitz, Day and the other Pictorialist leaders. The following year, he was named a lecturer in photography at Teachers College, Columbia University. It was the first faculty position for photography in an American university.
After Stieglitz‘s Photo-Secession group disbanded in the mid-1910s, Clarence H. White emerged as the foremost leader of the American art photographers. For two decades, he continued his distinguished career as a teacher—founding the Clarence H. White School of Photography in 1910 as a summer program in Maine to augment his teaching at Columbia (1907-1925) and the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences (1908-1922) and after 1914, running the White School in Manhattan as an independent venture.
In addition to teaching, White served as president from 1917 to 1921 of the Pictorial Photographers of America (PPA), a national group with open membership, which he founded to exhibit and promote pictorial photography. Between 1920 and 1929, PPA published five Pictorial Photography in America annuals, featuring full-page photographic reproductions. The organization also helped to establish the Art Center at 65-67 E. 56th St. in New York City, in 1921, providing meeting and exhibition space for the PPA as well as six affiliated groups. Many White School alumni were honored with one-person exhibitions there.
The American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) was one of the groups affiliated with the Art Center. White‘s photogravure portrait of Frederic W. Goudy, the famous American typographic designer, was originally produced as a memento for its members. Responsible for the design of 124 different type patterns, many of which remain in use today, Goudy served as president of the AIGA from 1921 to 1923, while he taught at the White School from 1919 to 1923. Goudy‘s course, "Printing and Lettering," fostered the blending of printing and photography, especially in advertising. Goudy wished to publish a book of White‘s portraits of dancers, which never materialized.
In 1925, while on a study trip to Mexico with his students, White, still in the prime of life at age 54, died of a ruptured aortic aneurysm. As a result, Columbia University‘s Teachers College dropped the art photography course he had taught, but the White School fortunately continued under the direction of his wife, Jane, and later, his youngest son, Clarence Jr.
The Library of Congress‘s association with Clarence H. White began in 1926, shortly after his death, with the purchase of a representative group of his photographs from his widow. The 44 prints are extremely high in quality; some are unique. They were featured in White‘s memorial exhibition at the Art Center. With works acquired from other sources, including a 1934 bequest (which included the largest collection anywhere of F. Holland Day‘s work), and the current Coville acquisition of nine photographs, vintage White photographs in the Library now number 68.
The Clarence H. White School of Photography
In 1910, to augment his courses in New York City and bring in extra income, White opened a summer school for photography. Named the Seguinland School of Photography, it was housed in a hotel, which was to be part of the new "Seguinland" resort on the mid-coast of Maine near Georgetown and Seguin Island. Pictorialist photographer F. Holland Day, who summered nearby, had earlier invited White and his family to the area for a respite from the city and the opportunity to explore creative photography outdoors. The fellowship between the two photographers and their families was an important factor in White‘s decision to start the summer school. Students wore sailor suits, a practice begun by Day and his summer guests, and boarded at the Seguinland Hotel. Day regularly conducted critiques for White‘s students, as on occasion did New York photographer Gertrude Käsebier. After 1912, the Pilot House adjacent to the hotel served as the school‘s studio and darkroom. Among the students attracted to the idyllic coastal setting was the Pictorialist Anne W. Brigman from Northern California, who made the pilgrimage to Maine during an eight-month visit to the East Coast. White‘s summer school in Maine lasted until 1915, when White relocated to northwestern Connecticut‘s Berkshire Hills for summers. He reintroduced a summer school there, first in East Canaan, and then in Canaan that lasted until his death.
In the fall of 1914, the Clarence H. White School of Photography opened its doors at 230 E. 11th St. in New York City. This was the first of four locations for the school in the burgeoning art and publishing capital. White‘s first instructor for art appreciation and design between 1914 and 1918 was avant-garde painter Max Weber, who often posed for the students. When Weber left, White hired one of his Columbia students, Charles J. Martin.
In 1917 the school occupied the "Washington Irving House" at 122 E. 17th St. at the corner of Irving Place near Union Square and Gramercy Park. Three years later, when that location was no longer available, the Clarence H. White Realty Corp. was formed in order to purchase a building for the school, and the White School resettled again, at 460 W. 144th St., where it remained until 1940. The uptown location provided a meeting place for White‘s Columbia classes. From the 1920s on, photographer Edward Steichen was among those who served regularly as guest lecturers. White students paid $150 per semester, a fee that held constant until the school‘s closing.
After Clarence White‘s unexpected death in 1925, friends urged his widow to carry on despite the fact that his personality had been crucial to the advancement of the school. Though Jane Felix White was not a photographer herself, she took on the challenge and remained the school‘s director until her retirement in 1940, when her youngest son, Clarence H. White Jr., took over. Jane and Clarence Jr. recruited more students, raising the enrollment to 106 by 1939. With greater numbers came significant changes: twice as many men as women (a reversal of the previous 2-to-1 ratio of women to men) and new classes. Art integrated with technique—the school‘s previous hallmark—was no longer central to the curriculum. Nonetheless, the school continued to prosper, and its reputation surpassed other competitors, such as the New York Institute of Photography, a commercial school established in 1910, and the Studio School of Art Photography, which began in 1920 and continued a strict orientation toward the soft-focus, Pictorialist style. A poorly timed and costly move to larger, more centrally located quarters at 32 West 74th Street in 1940, however, soon helped bring about its closure. The mobilization for World War II dealt the White School its final blow. After surviving for three decades, it closed its doors in 1942.
Coville Collection Highlights
The Coville Collection includes 80 White students and is an extraordinary compilation of stunning art photography by its well- and lesser-known practitioners. These include humanist photographers Dorothea Lange, Laura Gilpin and Doris Ulmann; modernists with a commercial flair such as Paul Outerbridge Jr., Ralph Steiner and Anton Bruehl; soft-focus portraitists and landscape photographers Paul L. Anderson and Clara Sipprell; Margaret Watkins and Wynn Richards, who took practical turns in the fields of documentary work and advertising; Margaret Bourke-White, the unconventional photojournalist; and Karl Struss, a pioneer cinematographer.
Of the many women students White taught, Gilpin and Ulmann, known today for important documentary coverage of the Western landscape and rural Southern types respectively, became stars, and the Library acquired their work after exhibiting it in the 1930s. Laura Gilpin, close friend to Librarian Herbert Putnam‘s daughter Brenda, had urged the Librarian to purchase White‘s photographs after his death. Her Bryce Canyon, Utah (1930), from the Coville Collection, is a significant addition to other Colorado and New Mexico scenes already held in the Prints and Photographs Division. Ulmann‘s Southern Mountaineer (circa 1928), the portrait of a man "proud of having been on the top of every mountain in his section of the country," belonged to a series of Southern Mountaineers, Camera Portraits of Types of Character Reproduced from Photographs Recently Made in the Highlands of the South. It now joins the 155 other photographs by Ulmann in the collections.
The commercially successful Outerbridge, Bruehl and Steiner, who helped to inspire or train others, were among the most prominent former students. Outerbridge studied with White from 1921 to 1922, then worked in Paris in the mid-1920s, forging a link between photography and modernism. Interestingly, the Coville Collection contains five of his works: two of his well-preserved color photographs using the faithful color rendering technique then in use, known as color carbro printing; a black-and-white still-life; and two geometric drawings. This varied group complements the other 39 photographs donated to the Library in 1959 by Outerbridge‘s widow.
Steiner‘s hourlong exposure Typewriter Keys, 1921, a bold statement with the potential to visually proclaim the worth of a commodity, was produced as a White School exercise in design.
Anton Bruehl, whose work was highly admired by students and who later became known for the high-quality color images that he produced for Condé Nast‘s magazines, ran a commercial partnership with his brother Martin in New York from 1927 through the 1930s. Top Hats, circa 1929, produced for the Weber and Heilbroner haberdashery, was one of their successful advertising photographs.
The Coville Collection helped to rediscover the work of Margaret Watkins and Wynn Richards, two lesser-known names in the field of advertising work. Watkins had a reputation for technical expertise, but she also took credit for introducing the kitchen still-life as a school exercise. Her Domestic Symphony (before 1921), was reproduced in an illustrated article about her newsworthy "modernist or Cubist patterns in composition." The Coville Collection contains 18 of her rare photographs.
Mississippi native Wynn Richards, who left her husband and son to study with White in Canaan and later in New York during 1918 and 1919, was inspired to pursue a career in fashion photography. In the early 1940s, she was commissioned by the National Cotton Council (her brother was a founding member) for its first national advertising campaign. Richards photographed state governors‘ wives and children in cotton fashions and clothing designers with their creations, while she also chronicled the story of cotton from field to mill.
Though acclaimed photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White‘s introduction to photography came from her engineer-inventor father, her training in design came from Clarence H. White. With her first camera presented by her mother after her father died, she took White‘s class in the spring of 1922, her second semester at Columbia. This began her long, daring and well-respected career as freelancer for architects, advertisers and magazines. Today she is best known for her industrial photographs and her documentation of the Soviet Union in the early 1930s.
Karl Struss, another early White student, pioneered in the field of cinematography. After a career in portrait, magazine and advertising photography and service in World War I, Struss went to Hollywood, where he shared the first Academy Award in cinematography, for the 1926 film "Sunrise."
Relationships to Other Collections at the Library of Congress
The White School photographs perfectly complement the Prints and Photographs Division‘s holdings of early art photography in America by supporting such strengths as the works acquired earlier by White and other Pictorialists—Day, Käsebier and Steichen—as well as by the school‘s more modernist students—Paul Outerbridge Jr., Laura Gilpin, Doris Ulmann, Margaret Bourke-White and Antoinette B. Hervey.
Additionally, the Coville Collection builds a bridge between the significant holdings of 19th century Pictorialist photography and the Farm Security Administration-Office of War Information (FSA-OWI) archives (see memory.loc.gov/ammem/fsowhome.html) for which the Prints and Photographs Division is best known. The FSA was a part of the Franklin Roosevelt-era Federal Resettlement Administration; the FSA-OWI archives contained about 160,000 prints, negatives and related materials. Dorothea Lange, an FSA photographer whose Migrant Mother is the most recognized symbol of agrarian poverty during the Great Depression, took White‘s class at Columbia, although she failed to do the regular class assignments. Nevertheless, she recalled later in life that White was "a good teacher, a great teacher. … I occasionally think, ‘I wish he were around, I‘d like to show him this.‘ … I don‘t know people whose work looks like Clarence White‘s, which, of course, is a great recommendation to him as a teacher. … But he touched lives." The single Lange photograph in the Library‘s Coville Collection, Ex-Slave with a Long Memory (1937), is as evocative as any in the FSA collection. Lange‘s empathy for disadvantaged peoples made her one of America‘s greatest humanist photographers.
The pictorial holdings in the Prints and Photographs Division are particularly rich in photographs, drawings, posters and prints made between World Wars I and II, when the White School flourished. Many direct parallels can be made between existing holdings and the newly acquired Coville Collection. Arthur D. Chapman, for instance, originally was a newspaper printer. He first studied with White in summer school in 1910 and later at the White School from 1915 to 1917, becoming co-director of the summer school held in New York City in 1921. After the photography curators at the Library learned that the Warren and Margot Coville Collection was available, Chapman‘s photographic portrait of Ralph Barton, the American caricaturist, cartoonist and critic, was found among the division‘s early-20th century copyright deposits. Having published his first drawing in 1897 at the age of 6, Barton had a prodigious career as an illustrator for newspapers and magazines. Both the division‘s Caroline and Erwin Swann Collection of Caricature and Cartoon Art and its Cartoon Drawings Collection include his works. The Coville Collection also underscores the variety in Chapman‘s own photographic production. As an example, Diagonals (1913), an abstraction created from the tangle of intersecting planes viewed down Christopher Street from the Sixth Avenue "el" in Greenwich Village, is a tour-de-force of urban architectural photography.
The Coville Collection forges links to other permanent collections within the Library of Congress. Aline Meyer Liebman, sister of Eugene Meyer, was a White student and an important patron of Stieglitz‘s revolutionary "291" gallery on Fifth Avenue, where some of the most gifted artists and photographers of the time were shown. The papers of Agnes and Eugene Meyer (who purchased The Washington Post in 1933) are in the Library‘s Manuscript Division. Forty-two photographic prints by Liebman are in the Coville Collection. Clarence H. White‘s photographs of other Meyer relatives now complement photographs by Edward Steichen from the Meyer Collection.
The Library‘s Rare Book and Special Collections Division houses an important archives acquired from type designer Frederic Goudy, White‘s close early associate in New York. This collection was originally purchased by the Library from Goudy in 1944 after a disastrous workshop fire. It includes his typographic designs, personal library on typography, materials relating to his commercial design work and numerous other examples of fine printing. Including manuscripts that were added in 1975, it numbers more than 3,000 pieces.
Two works by Margaret Bourke-White and Wynn Richards from the Coville Collection are currently featured in the "Recent Acquisitions" case in the Thomas Jefferson Building "American Treasures from the Library of Congress" exhibition (www.loc.gov/exhibits), complementing the current rotation of original works by women creators. As researchers study the newly processed collection, connections to more Library treasures will be found. The Covilles and curator Kathy Erwin took satisfaction in the fact that the Library of Congress already had a 75-year history—even before their collection was acquired—of valuing the work of Clarence H. White, his art photography circle and students. The Library is now enriched by valuable research and the acquisition of the Covilles‘ careful selection of objects from the wider White-inspired circle, which carried photography from Pictorialism into Modernism in the 20th century.
Ms. Curtis is a curator of photography in the Prints and Photographs Division (Library of Congress).
This article was originally published entitled "Photos from The Clarence H. White School of Photography Library Acquires Warren and Margot Coville Collection" in: The Library of Congress Information Bulletin (December 2001) and has been included here courtesy of the author