By Mark Feeney
NEW HAVEN - Seeing is believing? Seeing is confusing, or it can be. The whole point of "First Doubt: Optical Confusion in Modern Photography," which runs at the Yale University Art Gallery through Jan. 4, is to demonstrate this basic fact of our visual existence. It does so with nuance, variety, and skill. "First Doubt" is the rare high-concept show that manages to be smart without preening over its smartness.
Photography puts a frame around the world. "First Doubt" aims to remind us how arbitrary that frame can be. Drawn from the collection of Yale graduate Allan Chasanoff, the show consists of images that present, as he puts it, "a dislocation in the usual."
That dislocation can take many forms: cropping, foreshortening, mirroring, extreme close-ups, unusual perspectives, superimposed planes, unfamiliar subjects, incongruous juxtaposition. It does not take the form of darkroom manipulation. The 114 images in the show are all examples of straight photography - which makes for that much more upending of expectations.
Dislocation can mean revelation. "First Doubt" underscores something we generally prefer to ignore: how often what is visually transparent can be conceptually opaque. Each specific element in Raghubir Singh's "Pavement Mirror Shop, Howrah, West Bengal" is clear as glass, yet viewed as a whole it's pure puzzlement. The title explains all.
Stillness is no small part of the artifice of still photography. Many times it's motion that provides resolution in figuring out what's before our eyes. For example, all we'd need is the slightest bit of follicular flapping in Jessica Raimi's "Liz on Piermont Pier" to realize that what the image presents is a long-haired woman's head on a windy day.
There's one famous photograph in the show, William Klein's "Gun 1, New York (103rd St. and Broadway)." You've likely seen it: grimacing kid thrusts toy gun into camera lens while buddy calmly looks on in profile. The rest are relatively unfamiliar, even if many of the photographers aren't (Ansel Adams, Bill Brandt, Imogen Cunningham, Walker Evans, Robert Frank, the list goes on). Such unfamiliarity makes perfect sense. Fame is a concomitant of familiarity, and optical disorder is something the eye tends to avoid.
It's true that part of what makes Lee Friedlander "Lee Friedlander" is how unconventionally he can array subject matter (his shadow on the blonde's back; the reflection of Mount Rushmore, rather than mountain itself, in front of camera-toting tourists). Yet the play of picture planes and tension between continuity and disruption in the Friedlander picture here, "England," are so ambiguous that that surely helps account for it's being one of his lesser-known works.
You'd expect Aaron Siskind to be included ("Acolman 2"), with his fondness for eccentric surfaces seen in minute detail, or even Andre Kertesz ("Steps of Touraine"), with his poet-geometer's taste for the tango of angles and planes. But a photojournalist like Gilles Peress ("Victims of Shah and CIA on a Signboard at the US Embassy, Teheran")? Or Lewis Hine?
The Hine photo is a full-body portrait of man standing in front of the camera. What could be plainer? Nothing, except it's not the plainness that causes confusion. The man is an amputee, but because he seems otherwise healthy and a sleeve covers his stump we keep trying to account for the lack of bilateral symmetry. By the same token, the overhead perspective with which Herbert Bayer took "Xanti Schavinksy in a Handstand Position" makes it look as though the subject's disembodied legs are emerging from a wall. It's a spooky sight, like something out of Cocteau's "Orphee." Instead, it's an acrobat, as the title informs us.
That's assuming the viewer has a title to read. This happens to be a show where there's no peeking at the labels. There aren't any. Rather than a label, each photograph has next to it a number, which can be looked up on a checklist. There's a big stack of them by the entrance. As a result of this very sly move on the part of curator Joshua Chuang viewers revert to the status of children. Again and again, the old sleeve-tugging questions arise: "What is it?" "How did they do that?" Sophisticated museumgoers (who know to peek at the label!) can readily provide answers. Not here. Reference and evaluation must defer to instinct and guesswork. This is not necessarily a bad thing.
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.
FIRST DOUBT: Optical Confusion in Modern Photography
At the Yale University Art Gallery, 1111 Chapel St., New Haven, through Jan. 4.
Call 203-432-0600 or visit www.artgallery.yale.edu
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