Before there were photos, there were stories, tales of life in rural North Carolina that would bring the past to life for a young Wendel White during visits with his mother to the family farm.
White, however, wasn’t thinking about telling his own stories through photography — not yet. The city boy born in Newark and raised in the Northeast loved those trips south, sitting around the big family table and following the narrative of his family history.
“There were a lot of ministers and teachers,” he recalled recently, sitting in his small office at Richard Stockton College in Galloway Township, where he is a distinguished professor of photography. “They were a very verbal and expressive group. It was always entertaining.”
It wasn’t until White attended Montclair High School and took a photography class that he started to see its potential to tell stories of his own. Or maybe it was that the teacher, Vernon Maxim, saw the potential in him.
“He saw I was interested, and he arranged for me to do a photographic mural project for the high school,” White said. “I photographed the building from all different angles, and in different light, then made a grid of images, sort of a portrait of a building.”
Thus began a career in which White has collected awards and fellowships, including a Guggenheim Fellowship in Photography. His work is in museums and corporate collections, he has served on the board of the Society for Photographic Education and he is chairman of the New Jersey Council for the Humanities.
Longtime friend and Stockton professor Beverly Vaughn said White himself is a lovely mix of past, present and future. She ran through a litany of adjectives to describe him, settling finally on “a true gentleman.”
“And I mean that in the deepest sense of the word,” she said. “It’s in his spirit.”
His beginnings were humble. His mother, a social worker, let him turn the bathroom into a darkroom, and he began collecting equipment. After a year at Upsala College in East Orange, Essex County, he knew a traditional route was not for him and he transferred to the School of Visual Arts, or SVA, in New York. That led to an invitation to attend a master’s degree program at the University of Texas in Austin, where he saw an entirely different American landscape.
“I went to Texas for an adventure,” he said. He also experimented with photography there, shooting and manipulating landscapes, trying to find the balance between what was sharp and what was in motion in photos.
“I’ve never been able to replicate that with a digital camera,” he said. “I still use film even now.”
Married and needing to make a living, White and his new wife, Carmela Colon-White, moved back to Brooklyn, N.Y., where he worked in a camera shop and did some commercial photography. He taught photography as an adjunct at SVA and as a volunteer at a high school inside Bellevue Hospital, where his class was a privilege students could earn. He also worked at Essence Magazine, helping to create a photo archive.
He began to think about teaching full time and accepted a job with Stockton in 1986. For a while, the couple lived at a sort of midpoint in Freehold, Monmouth County, so Carmela could commute to her job in New York. But after their daughter, Amanda, was born, they moved to Galloway Township and never left. Carmela now works for the AtlantiCare Foundation, and Amanda has a degree in photography from SUNY Purchase and works with youth programs at the Moore College of Art in Philadelphia.
As he settled into South Jersey, a fellow artist and friend, Deborah Willis, suggested he visit the African-American community of Whitesboro in Cape May County, which became the starting point for a series and book, “Small Towns, Black Lives.”
“I really didn’t know what I was doing at first,” White said. “Then I got the idea of creating a narrative of the black experience outside the urban atmosphere. There wasn’t much being done about small towns.”
Those photos led to “Schools for the Colored” when during his travels White began to see how schools were often the essence of a small community.
An introduction to Vicki Gold Levi, whose father, photographer Al Gold, chronicled Atlantic City from the 1920s through the 1950s, led to them co-curating an exhibit of Gold’s work in 1996 at the Atlantic City Historical Museum at Garden Pier in Atlantic City.
“He has been a great inspiration in my life,” Gold Levi said in a phone interview. “He is such a visionary. And he is always so calm and thoughtful. The museum never would be what it has become without him.”
People who know him admire his work, but also his work ethic and love of teaching.
“He really wants to help students,” Gold Levi said. “He’ll tell me their stories. He loves what he does.”
Former student Randee Rosenfeld, 33, a professional photographer with a studio in Galloway Township, said she always worked her schedule around White’s classes. When she wanted to do a photo project on Holocaust survivors, she asked White to assist. Those photos have since been published in a book, “Portraits of Resilience: Holocaust Survivors of South Jersey.”
Rosenfeld said White’s strengths are both his knowledge and his attitude.
“If there were problems with a photo, he would never criticize,” she said. “He would say things that were positive, and that would help you. He was passionate about photography, and he gave me the passion to want to continue doing it.”
Gail Rosenthal, director of the Holocaust Resource Center at Stockton, recalls going to an African-American settlement in Israel with White several years ago.
“He has made me look at things in a way I never saw them before,” she said. “He changes your life. He really has that impact on you. And that’s what makes a good teacher.”
White said his teaching has evolved over the years, especially since digital has replaced film in everyday photography. He still teaches film photography and darkroom skills.
“There is a level of anxiety for (students) about not being able to see the picture right away,” he said of using film. But he wants them to understand the past and how it connects to the present and future. His current project, “Manifesto” is a series of photos of historic items, such as a lock of abolitionist Frederick Douglass’ hair, and how they are preserved.
“It’s the presence of the past in the present,” he said of the items, “and how the past coexists with us in the present.”
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