Clarence H. White (1871-1925) was born in West Carlisle, Ohio. After finishing high school he took a job as an accountant in his father’s grocery business and married in 1893. He taught himself the art of photography and photographed constantly despite his limited free time and finances; he costumed and posed family members and friends in the early dawn or evening hours, in their homes and produced elegantly posed and subtly lit images. White’s work came to public attention in 1898 at the First Philadelphia Photographic Salon; asked to be a judge the following year, White met important figures in American art photography, among them F. Holland Day, Gertrude Käsebier, Edward Steichen, and Alfred Stieglitz.
In 1902 White helped found the Photo-Secession, a group of photographers that promoted Pictorialism, a fine-arts approach to photography. After a few years of making a living as a traveling portraitist, White moved with his family in 1906 to New York City. A year later he was hired to teach the first photography course to be given at Columbia University, a circumstance that enabled him to renounce commercial work. In 1910 he and several friends—including Day, Käsebier, and the painter Max Weber—began a summer school, held first on Seguin Island in Maine and later in East Canaan, Conn. Encouraged by his friends, White in 1914 opened the Clarence H. White School of Photography in New York City. He also taught at the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences. His influence on the next generation of photographers was notable; many among his students—who included Laura Gilpin, Margaret Bourke-White, Dorothea Lange, Paul Outerbridge, Ralph Steiner, and Doris Ulmann—went on to become successful photographers.
Although White had become a socialist early in his career, he did not consider the camera a tool for social change but regarded the medium as a means of expressing beauty. Until the end of his life, he continued to promote artistic photography through teaching, exhibitions, and associations with advertising art directors. The genteel subject matter and subtle lighting effects visible in his work came to epitomize the Pictorialist approach to photography at the turn of the century.