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In Photography, What Puzzles the Eye May Please the Mind

NEW HAVEN — Photographs are shameless. They’ll do anything to get your attention. They’ll show you celebrities in and out of their clothes, exotic creatures and objects, places and events that you would never otherwise see.

Another, paradoxical strategy for captivating viewers is to show them something they can’t immediately understand. Whether because of its visual complexity, its oblique perspective, its lighting, its degree of abstraction or the unfamiliarity of its subject, it’s the kind of photograph that makes you stop and think, “What the heck is that?” And it keeps you looking until you’ve figured out what it is you’re looking at.

Slide Show

‘First Doubt’

The confounding photograph is the subject of an absorbing and thought-provoking exhibition at the Yale University Art Gallery here called “First Doubt: Optical Confusion in Modern Photography.” Organized by Joshua Chuang, the gallery’s assistant curator of photographs, the exhibition presents more than 100 pieces dating from the mid-19th century to the early 21st century. It was drawn mostly from the collection of Allan Chasanoff, who focused on acquiring confusing pictures, and is supplemented by photographs from the gallery’s collection.

All the photographs are straight. There is no technical trickery involved — no darkroom magic, no multiple exposures and no digital manipulation. Every picture is the result of what the photographer saw through a lens. Nor do any of the pictures belong in the genre of the accidental, anonymous snapshot. Almost all are by professional artists, including many famous ones, like Bill Brandt, Larry Fink, Lee Friedlander and Andre Kertesz.

A big part of the fun is the experience of figuring out what at first seems to make no sense. Find the cow lurking behind the thicket in John Szarkowski’s “Young Steer” (1994). Guess what the bizarre, twisted, bulbous form in a 1961 photograph by Shomei Tomatsu is before you read the wall label, which explains, “ ‘Beer Bottle after the Atomic Bomb Explosion’ from the series ‘Nagasaki 11:02.’ ”

For serious photographers, however, producing optical confusion is not just for the amusement of visual puzzling. In the context of mid-20th-century art history it was a way to substantiate photography as a significant art form at a time when abstraction and formalism were the main vehicles of innovation. Like a sophisticated modern painting, a photograph could be seen first as an arrangement of dark and light shapes on a flat surface and second as a representational picture.

So Clarence John Laughlin’s “Still Life With Calla Lily and Mirror” (May 16, 1937) looks initially like a luminous, Cubist composition of round and pod-shaped forms and flattened, wood-grained shapes before it becomes decipherable as a traditional still life.

Optical confusion in photography was also in sympathy with Surrealism. Seen from the right perspective, the ordinary could turn strange, dreamlike and hauntingly ambiguous. A nocturnal landscape of sand and water turns out to be the body of a nude woman half submerged in water in “Belly Landscape” (1980), by Karin Rosenthal.

A richly grainy picture by William Klein (”Four Heads, New York, 1954”) catches four pedestrians looking in four different directions. There’s a policeman in the upper left corner and a woman in a pillbox hat and sheer veil looking sideways and grinning mightily for no apparent reason in the lower right. A hallucinatory, Boschian quality overrides the social realism; the familiar becomes unnervingly unfamiliar.

But while optical confusion makes photographs more interesting as art, it also reflects something fundamental in human experience. Because we become expert at making sense of visual situations early in life, we may assume that encounters with things we can’t readily assimilate are fairly rare.

But if you think about it, there is almost always a gap in time — however infinitesimal it may seem — between seeing and comprehending. That moment just before we file a perception away into a conventional category, when our senses and minds are fully alert to what lies before us — that is the sweet spot of art.

“First Doubt: Optical Confusion in Modern Photography” continues through Sunday at the Yale University Art Gallery, corner of Chapel and York Streets, New Haven; (203) 432-0600,
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