About the Photographer
White, Wendel A.
American, b. 1956
In 1990 Wendel White started visiting a number of all-African American communities in southern New Jersey for a long-term photographic project, Small Towns, Black Lives, which would span fifteen years. Within this larger study schools appear occasionally, acting, as White observes, as "social or cultural markers." This idea informs his subsequent photographic series Schools for the Colored (2007), which is represented in the museum's permanent collection. In this series White depicts the buildings and sites of historically segregated schools for African Americans, focusing primarily on locations in the so-called "free states" along the border of the North and the South, which had a larger concentration of African American communities.
In a well-known passage from The Souls of Black Folks (1903), W.E.B. Du Bois describes an experience he had among white classmates as a child and he concludes, "Then it dawned upon me with a certain suddenness that I was different from the others, or like, mayhap, in heart and life and longing, but shut out from their world by a vast veil." In his photographs White visualizes Du Bois's notion of this veil of prejudice, using digital imaging software to mask out the landscape around each of the schools. The effect is to isolate these "schools for the colored" from their surroundings, which then remain only partially accessible to the viewer as well. Although each of White's photographs centers on a school building, providing a means for comparison between different examples, his project is not intended as a historical record or typology of forms, like the well-known photographic studies of industrial architecture by Bernd and Hilla Becher. Rather, White sees his photographs as "a visual journal of discovery, memory, and recognition." Whereas the Bechers are rigidly systematic and almost clinical in their approach, White's engagement with these buildings is more expressive and in a sense openly metaphorical.
White also adopts different vantage points when photographing different buildings, a choice that subtly stresses the fact that there is an implied viewing position in all architectural or landscape photographs. These are not aloof records of anonymous buildings—presented in consistent, disembodied way, like a passport photo—but representations of places that we as viewers need to figure out how to approach. In these photographs White encourages us to think about our position in relation to the building, and thus, possibly, to its history or how it relates to social conditions today.
Wendel White received a BFA from the School of Visual Arts in New York City (1980) and a MFA in Photography from the University of Texas at Austin (1982). Wendel White is currently Professor of Art at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.