Works by experimental American photographer Donald Blumberg featured in exhibition

Works by American photographer Donald Blumberg, who first gained national attention with his series of photographs of worshippers in front of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, are featured in a new exhibition opening Aug. 21 at the Yale University Art Gallery.

“Donald Blumberg Photographs: Selections from the Master Sets” includes approximately 200 works by Blumberg (born 1935), who began his career making black-and-white photographs of the streets and people of New York. More than 60 of the works are from Blumberg’s series “In Front of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral,” first published in 1973, which reflect the photographer’s early experimentations with light, scale, motion, time, serial imagery, and darkroom process techniques, and are noted for their formal beauty. The exhibition runs through Nov. 22.

In the series, which he produced 1965 to 1967, Blumberg photographed worshippers exiting the famed Roman Catholic cathedral, fascinated by the drama of the figures emerging from the dark interior into bright sunlight. As he developed the first rolls of film, he noted that the dark bands between negatives frequently dissolved into the background of the photographs, allowing him to merge sequential negatives and create rich panoramas that upend normal perceptions of space and time. Blumberg played with the scale of figures, heightened the light levels, and slowed his shutter speed, transforming the worshippers into spectral blurs, as exemplified in his photograph known as “The Family” (1967) a work featured in the exhibition and also included in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Many of the photographs have a fleeting or ethereal quality; others present figures in stark relief against solid blackness, defining features and apparel in striking detail and obliterating any notion of place.

In the late 1960s, Blumberg began to focus his attention on the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, and other political and cultural issues, such as workers’ rights. His series “Daily Photographs” (1969-1970) features images of newspaper articles about the war and politics of the time. He also began photographing television broadcasts and made multi-image collages of televised events such as speeches by President Richard Nixon, freezing media moments for reflection and reconsideration well before VCRS or DVRS became commonplace.

La Tonya Autry, the Marcia Brady Tucker Fellow in modern and contemporary art and co-curator of the exhibition, explains how Blumberg’s “Daily Photographs” series broadens the public’s understanding of Vietnam War photography, stating, “While most photographers focus on images of combat or scenes of protest, Blumberg’s appropriated images urge us to reconsider standard military portraiture. By rescuing the portraits of fallen servicemen from fleeting news reports, the artist has created enduring image memorials that compel the public to remember individual loss.”

More recently, Blumberg’s exploration of the American media has led him to photograph programs with closed-captioning, combining text with images in a series titled “In Their Own Words.” Over the last several years, he has focused on themes of contemporary culture, including American’s obsessions with wealth, fame, body image, material goods, and violence. These photographs, taken directly from Blumberg’s television screen, capture glimpses of soap operas, reality shows, Ultimate Fighting Championship contests, poker tournaments, home-shopping programs, infomercials, and news coverage of the 2012 school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut.

The exhibition is drawn from the artist’s master sets, now held in their entirety at the Yale University Art Gallery.

“The gallery is honored to be the steward of Donald Blumberg’s master sets and delighted to present this exhibition to the public,” says Jock Reynolds, the Henry J. Heinz II Director and co-curator of the exhibition. “In his quiet way, Blumberg has made significant contributions to both the field of photography and the national discourse. His work on the American media over the last half-century asks viewers to pause and reflect on that which we consume and that which consumes us. The two publications accompanying the exhibition  — a revised an expanded edition of ‘In Front of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral’ and ‘Words and Images from the American Media’ — are important documentations of Blumberg’s place in contemporary photography.”

In addition to photography, Blumberg collaborated with his wife, Grace, on eight experimental films during the 1960s, two of which — “Have you Been to Hamburg Lately” (1964) and “Buffalo to New York: New York to Buffalo” (1968) — are on view in the exhibition galleries.

In conjunction with the exhibition, there will be a gallery talk on Wednesday, Aug. 26, at 12:30 p.m. by Autry on “Capturing the Image World: Donald Blumberg’s Photographic Moments”. Gallery talks will also be offered in October and November (visit the Yale University Art Gallery website for details. On Sept. 17 at 5:30 p.m., Donald and Grace Blumberg will take part in a conversation with Jock Reynolds on the topic “To Show and Tell in Photography and Films.”  The event will feature a screening of some of their experimental films.

The Yale University Art Gallery is located at 1111 Chapel St. and is open Tuesday-Friday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. The gallery is closed on Mondays and major holidays. Admission is free.

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