Two student-curated exhibits on display at the Yale University Art Gallery until Sunday both feature photography, but that’s the extent of their similarities. “Everyday Monuments: The Photographs of Jerome Liebling” focuses on work by a single artist who captured subjects from orchards to cadavers with a remarkable attention to beauty. The second exhibit, “From Any Angle: Photographs from the Collection of Doris Bry,” displays a wide range of photographs whose main commonality is their visceral appeal to their owner, who refers to the art she has amassed as an “inadvertent collection.” The Liebling exhibit draws attention to the continuities that characterize Liebling’s work; the Bry exhibit examines the amazing variety within the field of photography, from the photographer’s attitude towards the subject to the technique by which the print is made. Yet as different as they are, these two exhibits complement each other well, each helping to shed light onto the complex art of capturing a moment.
The Liebling exhibit displays all 51 of his photographs owned by the gallery. To create a cohesive look at this multifaceted artist, the five student curators attempted to find the common themes that were present throughout the six decades of Liebling’s work. Pam Franks, the gallery’s deputy director for Collections and Education, said the curators chose not to examine his art chronologically, but instead tried to showcase Liebling’s distinct vision, one that the curators suggest highlights the “complexities of human experience,” the paradox of the “mundane and the meaningful.”
Eerily beautiful photographs of bare manikins, some of Liebling’s most famous works, are excellent examples of his ability to do this. And the curators’ decision to hang these pictures next to a study of a cadaver and another of a twisted, almost humanoid tree emphasizes the point even more. Unfortunately, some of the text that accompanies the photographs attempts to drive the point home a bit too hard. A description of two adjacent Brighton Beach pictures, one of three teenage girls and another of three elderly women, informs the viewer that “together the photographs call attention to the aging process and the passage of time.” Really? I couldn’t tell. But if you can ignore the text, connections across Liebling’s work are easy and enjoyable to find thanks to the thoughtful way the exhibit is organized.
The Bry exhibit also emphasizes continuity to a certain extent, since the works were not just taken from a single collection but were chosen in an intuitive way by the curators themselves in an attempt to, as Franks put it, “honor and emulate” Bry’s collecting method. History of Art graduate student Ash Anderson ’11, who served as graduate research assistant for the exhibit, said in an email that Bry herself spoke to the student organizers about her “philosophies concerning photography and collecting … and also gave us some idea of which particular photographs she liked best and why.”
But beyond providing a tribute to Bry’s passion for photography, the show primarily emphasizes the beauty and variety of her selections.
“The one thing that’s the same throughout [the exhibit] is that the quality of the prints is really outstanding,” photographer and Yale professor Richard Benson said at a talk at the gallery Tuesday. Benson also pointed out the distinctive marks of the various printing techniques used by the artists in the collection, from the reddish purple albumen prints of the 1800s to the indentations in the paper made by a flat-plate gravure. One of Benson’s own photographs, Sugar Mill at Aguirre, uses exposures of two different lengths whose positives were overlaid to create a final negative, producing a seductively detailed image.
Benson said that the mechanical side of photography, the physical production of the print itself, is an aspect of the art that is often overlooked. “Virtually everyone who looks at a picture looks through the picture to the subject,” he said at Tuesday’s talk. But the Bry exhibit and the Liebling exhibit each emphasize aspects of photography beyond the content of the photograph. The Liebling exhibit looks not at the subject of the picture but the way the artist viewed his subjects and his work as a whole. And on a more technical level, the photographic diversity within the Bry exhibit encourages viewers to think about the print as an object in and of itself, distinct from what it captures.
Despite their differences, these two exhibits both encourage viewers to examine elements of photography that they might not have considered before.