‘First Doubt’ Exhibit Highlights Photographic Paradoxes

Many photographers have been intrigued by the distortions that can result when the camera “captures” the real world. This phenomenon is explored in “First Doubt: Optical Confusion in Modern Photography,” an exhibition on view through Jan. 4 at the Yale University Art Gallery.

“First Doubt” challenges the common notion that a photograph is an easily understood representation of what stands before a camera’s lens. By employing unexpected juxtapositions, novel vantage points, and unusual patterns of light, shadow and texture, the photographs on view can cause viewers to question what they are seeing.

The exhibition features approximately 100 photographs taken by a diverse array of 20th-century photographers, including Imogen Cunningham, Lee Friedlander, Florence Henri and Brassaï, drawn from the collection of Allan Chasanoff, B.A. ‘61, as well as from the gallery’s permanent collection.

During the medium’s infancy, many early photographers, expecting their cameras to offer clear and coherent views of the world, were often frustrated by how their images seemed to render the world unfamiliar and ambiguous. In the modern era, a range of image makers began to embrace these ambiguities as unique and valued attributes of camera vision. From the playful experiments of Bauhaus artists to the disorienting images of those working out of a Surrealist tradition, many of the photographs in “First Doubt” were made expressly to disorient or startle the viewer. In other photographs in the exhibition, the artists appear to have stumbled across scenes of confusion quite accidentally.

The exhibition is not one focused on how photographs are made but rather on how they are perceived. “Neither the strategies, intentions and serendipity of the photographers nor how their pictures function to confuse remain as critical as the fact that they do confuse - if only for a moment,” says Joshua Chuang, assistant curator of photographs and the organizer of the exhibition.

In Karin Rosenthal’s “Belly Landscape” (1980), for example, dramatic shadows and the reflection of sunlight on water seem to form a picturesque desert landscape. A closer investigation of the photograph reveals the dunes to be a human body, upending the initial illusion of the picture.

Chuang adds, “The pictures themselves contain a paradox: they confuse because they hold still these particular incidents of confusion, yet it is this stillness that allows viewers the opportunity to resolve the optical problem.”

In the current digital era, ubiquitous image-editing software has made it easy to manipulate photographs so that they appear too good — or strange — to be true, notes Chuang. Well before “Photoshop” became a verb in the modern-day visual vocabulary, he notes, photographs such as those included in “First Doubt” resisted the notion that the world could be satisfactorily seen and known through the lens. Collectively, he suggests, the pictures show that the camera is at best an imperfect surrogate for human vision.

This exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue with essays by Chuang, Chasanoff and Steven W. Zucker.

Several special events have been scheduled in conjunction with the exhibition. These include a master class led by Chuang on Thursdays, Oct. 30, and Nov. 13 and 20, at 5:30 p.m. To register for the series, call (203) 432-9525. For a list of other talks and events, watch the Calendar section of this publication.

Support for the exhibition was made possible by an endowment created with a challenge grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Florence B. Selden Fund, with additional support provided by Chasanoff.

The Yale University Art Gallery, located at the corner of Chapel and York streets, is open to the public free of charge: Tuesday-Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Thursday until 8 p.m.(September-June; and Sunday 1-6 p.m. For additional information, visit http://artgallery.yale.edu, or call (203) 432-0600

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