He worked as a photographer for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in Oregon from 1938 to 1939 and served as an infantryman in the Philippines from 1942 through 1945 during World War II, receiving the Bronze Star.
After the war, White’s photographs began to reflect spiritual issues and the influence of his studies of Roman Catholicism, Zen Buddhism, and mysticism. White believed that taking and viewing a photograph are spiritual, intellectual acts. A photograph is capable of expressing intangibles, and what it creates for the viewer is an important as what the artist had in mind.
White moved to New York City after the war and studied at Columbia University. In 1946 he joined the faculty of the California School of Fine Arts where he worked under Ansel Adams. White founded Aperture magazine with Adams, Dorothea Lange, and Beaumont and Nancy Newhall, among others. He succeeded Adams as Director of the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute) in 1947 and served as professor of photography at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology from 1965 to 1976.