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Looking back at an experiment in looking and learning at MIT

The MIT Museum’s ‘To Look and Learn: The Creative Photography Laboratory at MIT’ documents a varied and vital visual era at the institute

Jonathan Sa'adah, "Minor White with CPL students, South Pomfret, Vermont," 1970© Jonathan Sa’adah

CAMBRIDGE -- It makes sense that a photography program at MIT would have “laboratory” in its name. This is MIT we’re talking about. But the various attributes that that word might imply — clinical, quantitative, methodological, you know, work produced by people who wear white coats — were antithetical to the Creative Photography Laboratory.

Part of that had to do with the era (the CPL began in 1965 and ended in 1983). Part of it had to do with the nature of photography, that loosest and baggiest of media. Part of it had to do with MIT, which institutionally is far looser and baggier than outsiders might think. Most of all it was owing to the character and personality of the CPL’s founder, Minor White.

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“To Look and Learn: The Creative Photography Laboratory at MIT” is at the MIT Museum through the end of May. It’s more history lesson than photo show, but since the history concerns photography that’s not a problem. Among the many books, brochures, posters, letters, and clippings are some 80 photographs either by CPL faculty, CPL students, or exhibited in shows the program sponsored. The curator is MIT’s Gary Van Zante.

Minor White, "Beginnings, Rochester, New York," 1962MIT Museum Collection Reproduced with permission of The Minor White Archive, Princeton University Art Museum © Trustees of Princeton University.

White is little attended to these days, yet you could argue that 60+ years ago he was the most admired art photographer in America. An artist of surpassing seriousness, he had a commitment to the medium that was rare and exacting, if also, perhaps, misapplied. William Carlos Williams famously urged his fellow poets to pursue “no ideas but in things.” That injunction is wonderfully transferable to photography, with its visually muscular relationship to the specific and actual. White turned Williams’s phrase on its head. For him, photography should be predicated on “no things but in ideas.” Visual reality captured by a camera was a means to a higher end, a spiritual ideal.

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That attitude is one of several reasons White’s reputation has diminished so much since his death, in 1976. But it also helped make him an inspiring teacher. What could be more exciting to an undergraduate than such an exalted and unconventional view of photography?

Having a quasi-religious attitude toward the medium meant that White saw himself not just as a practitioner but also an evangelist. That further contributed to making him such an effective teacher. It also fit nicely with his job description. White’s title was curator of photography as well as professor. Under his direction, and then that of his successor, Starr Ockenga, the CPL mounted almost 150 exhibitions, featuring the work of more than 600 photographers.

There were exhibits dedicated to the work of such not-yet-eminent photographers as Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Judy Dater, Emmet Gowin, and Donald Blumberg. The CPL was a venue for Manuel Álvarez Bravo’s first US solo exhibition. Work by the likes of Ansel Adams, Harry Callahan, Bruce Davidson, Barbara Morgan, and Edward Weston was shown by the CPL. (The first purchases White made for the MIT collection were eight Westons.) They all have photographs in “To Look and Learn.”

Milton Rogovin, "Be-ing Without Clothes #1," 1969MIT Museum Collection

Some of the thematic exhibitions White curated give a sense of his conceptual orientation: “Light” (1968), “Octave of Prayer” (1972), “Be-ing Without Clothes” (1974). Milton Rogovin’s contribution to “Be-ing” shares its title with the show. The photograph is notable in relation to the CPL twice over. Rogovin’s social-realist approach to the medium could hardly have differed more from White’s. His inclusion in the show indicates White’s curatorial catholicity. The photograph, which shows a set of clothespins on a line, is easily the wittiest image in “To Look and Learn,” as well as an unstated reminder of the humorlessness that was a glum concomitant of White’s high-mindedness.

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With social concerns, White could take a more effectual approach. “To Look and Learn” dedicates a section to the CPL’s Roxbury Photographers Training Program. Founded in 1968, the program operated out of a satellite facility on Ruggles Street, offering photographers in the community a more practical version of the teaching methods White was using across the river. The show includes work from several RPTP photographers who went on to have notable careers.

Gus Kayafas, "Salton Sea, California, 1979"MIT Museum Collection

The CPL lasted less than two decades, but “To Look and Learn” makes plain the extent of its legacy. Among CPL students and junior faculty were several photographers who would play significant roles on the local photography scene and beyond. The late Melissa Shook taught for many years at the University of Massachusetts Boston. Peter Laytin taught for more than three decades at Fitchburg State University. Gus Kayafas founded the photography program at MassArt and, as proprietor of Palm Press, has an international reputation as a printer and publisher. Judith Black taught for many years at Wellesley College. In addition to teaching at UMass Lowell, Arno Rafael Minkkinen has created one of the most distinctive bodies of work in contemporary photography, combining landscape, self-portraiture, and the nude.

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Arno Rafael Minkkinen, "Mountain Lakes, New Jersey," 1977Courtesy Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York

One other legacy of the CPL is the tradition of rewarding photography shows at the MIT Museum. “To Look and Learn” is the latest example. It would be that much more rewarding if the labels were placed at least a little bit higher. Presumably, the lowness of the wall texts is to keep visual distraction to a minimum. Or perhaps the idea is that museumgoers almost having to kneel to read the captions evokes White’s quasi-religious view of photography. If so, it’s more of an argument for aesthetic agnosticism — and orthopedic intervention.

TO LOOK AND LEARN: The Creative Photography Laboratory at MIT

At MIT Museum, 314 Main St., Cambridge, through May. 617-253-5927, mitmuseum.mit.edu



Mark Feeney can be reached at mark.feeney@globe.com.