Yale’s approach in focus

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Every Tuesday afternoon, in a room in Green Hall that still bears traces of its former use as the site of a swimming pool, a student sits alone facing a panel of some of photography’s greatest figures — such as Richard Benson, Tod Papageorge, Philip-Lorca diCorcia ART ’79 and Gregory Crewdson ART ’88 — surrounded by photographs pinned up on the white walls. Lining the room’s walls, other students listen in on the panel’s discussion of the work.

Each week, photography students sit before a panel of distinguished photographers and face criticism of their work.
Christopher Peak
Each week, photography students sit before a panel of distinguished photographers and face criticism of their work.
The weekly critique is a central part of Yale’s photography MFA program and teaching philosophy, and continues a long tradition at the School of Art.
Christopher Peak
The weekly critique is a central part of Yale’s photography MFA program and teaching philosophy, and continues a long tradition at the School of Art.
No caption.
No caption.

This is the weekly critique, the heart of the Yale School of Art’s photography program, where each student’s work is critiqued three times a semester. The comments range from harsh to supportive. The goal is to divine the good pictures from the bad.

Out of this critique-based teaching method has emerged a distinct philosophy of photography as a medium that expresses truths in a way no other medium can, professors, alumni and students interviewed said. The Yale program, shaped by Evans, Papageorge and other photographers who have sat on hundreds of critique panels, emphasizes photography as a lens-based, fiction-making medium, where what is captured on film becomes more important than what was before the camera, making the program unlike any other in the country.

“People ask me ‘Do you realize what a remarkable piece of photographic history this program is?’” Papageorge said. “It’s legacy is an incredible one. I have to objectively say it is remarkable.”

Photographer Mark Steinmetz ART ’86 said Yale’s program is unique because of its emphasis on the meaning of the medium. With its attention on the value of photography as an art form in and of itself, the Yale School of Art has influenced the making of photography in America for the past four decades.

“It’s not just an ‘aesthetic,’ ” Steinmetz said. “Many photographers are out in the world making photographs of phenomenological interest, but often that impulse to create meaning and metaphor just isn’t there or it’s poorly understood.”

‘AURA THAT WALKER EVANS CAST’

Sixty years have passed since photography was first taught at Yale, but it was only in 1971 that the School of Art began awarding masters of fine arts in photography, formerly part of the graphic design program. But beginning with Walker Evans’s arrival in 1965, photography at Yale has cultivated a certain perception and prestige through the success of its students and its notable faculty, most of whom are alumni of the program.

The influence of Walker Evans, one of the most important American photographers, persists at Yale, even 35 years after his death.

“I chose Yale in 1979 because I wanted to be in a place where Walker Evans once taught,” photographer Abelardo Morell ART ’88 said.

Morrell is not alone among students in his pious adoration of Evans. Evans’s work marked a pivotal turning point in the history of photography, discovering an approach based on clarity and descriptiveness that the Yale program has been expanding ever since, Papageorge said.

“I think the program is really an outgrowth of Walker Evans’s time here at Yale,” Papageorge said. “He died in ’75 and he taught in the graphic design program, and of course most people consider him the greatest American photographer, so I think that the notion of the Yale aesthetic can never be separated from the aura that Walker Evans cast.”

Evans joined Yale’s program in its inception and infused the idea of lyrical documentary style into the philosophy of photography here, said Yale University Art Gallery curatorial assistant Rebecca Soderholm ART ’07.

“Walker Evans’s work is an example of what photography does best: record the culture,” she said. “Not photography [that aims] to make someone feel a certain way, but to document the culture in the way he saw it. Lyrical documentary, like poetry. It could document the world from a certain point of view.”

Photography is synonymous with poetry for Papageorge, who arrived as director of graduate studies in photography in 1979.

“[Poetry] is so much a part of Tod’s life that he kind of takes people into the program who are or have been writers,” said Lisa Kereszi ART ’00, lecturer in photography at the school. “It is a visual way to make poetry, with shapes and colors you can have lines or couplets. Not an essay, not documentary, but instead a poem.”

PHOTOGRAPHY AND POETRY

Papageorge’s ability to verbalize his own views of photography as an artistic form, along with the work of his students, became a defining part of the Yale program.

“To my mind, Tod’s best contribution to the program lies in his ability to mix literary perspective and philosophical intelligence with a lens-based way of describing and transforming the world,” Morell said.

Papageorge began photographing in the streets in the 1960s in New York City with Garry Winogrand, looking for “the decisive moment,” as French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson famously described it.

“The influence of Tod’s street photographs, particularly of Central Park, on the generations that came out of Yale have a very dramatic feel, and that work influences his students who then became the people who you tend to think of as the dominant trend at Yale,” said photographer Tim Davis ART ’01.

But Philip-Lorca diCorcia, one of the programs best known graduates, questioned the need to wait for “the decisive moment” and ushered in the new era of color that was only beginning to be accepted in the 1970s as an actual art form. He is well known for his photographs of Los Angeles prostitutes and for setting up street photography with surreal lighting.

DiCorcia’s early work explores the notion of narrative moments that feel real regardless of whether they happened, leaving the viewer to question what they feel as opposed to what they see. It was not the first time photographs were staged, but diCorcia’s control and direction of every aspect of his work and his ability to create drama and highlight depth in his subject made an impact.

“The photographs depict a proposed situation which doesn’t require anything but the information supplied in the picture,” diCorcia wrote in his thesis statement upon completion of the program.

But Crewdson, who studied at Yale about a decade later, moved in a different direction: His photographs have a clear cinematic sense — Steven Spielberg was a major influence, Papageorge said — with huge-sized prints that can require film crews to set up. Each image captures the narrative drama of a film in one dense frame. Critical attention on the Yale program reached its height with the 1999 show Crewdson organized with Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn at the Lawrence Rubin Greenberg Van Doren gallery, called “Another Girl, Another Planet” and featuring work by six Yale grads.

“The program is not interested in repeating an established aesthetic,” Crewdson said. “Its goal is to embrace it and challenge it and apply pressure to it — and find ways to make it new. Really in the end it’s about making it new.”

FICTION-MAKING

Crewdson and diCorcia, though only two of the program’s more than 260 graduates, signify an important aspect of the core idea of Yale’s program: photography as a fiction-making medium. Graduates of the program said they learned from Papageorge that photography holds no responsibility to show facts as they appear, but only aims to transmit truth. And Yale places an emphasis on the distinction between poetic truth and factual truth in a way that is unique to photography.

“When you put four edges around some facts, you change those facts,” said Winogrand, whose work represents the intersection between fact and fiction. What one sees and what was in front of the camera are seldom the same, even for different photographers. The viewer both believes the content and, if he is smart, he disbelieve it at the same time, Papageorge said. A photograph can be disingenuous, but the truth is conveys is not, he added.

“[Yale] is the place of ‘straight photography,’ a beleaguered practice for a while,” diCorcia said in an e-mail. “[It] is the last refuge of a medium in crisis, while it is challenged by it’s own spawn: all of this speaks to the vitality of the program. I say, ‘Go elsewhere, if you can’t deal with contradictions, and conflicts, then Yale is not the place for you.’ ”

Thirty three graduates of the Yale photography program have received the prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship for exceptional creative ability in the arts.

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