Ten large faces hang on the wall. Each is illuminated by a bright light, like a bizarre religious icon set against a backdrop of black nothingness. The static faces are young, male. They stare intently, eerily, not straight ahead, but at something. All of their mouths are open.

“So Craig,” says Tod Papageorge, ledendary photography professor, in his characteristically cutting voice. “What have we here?”

Craig Doty ART ’06, aspiring artist, sits back and takes a deep breath. Across from him at a long, black table sit five world-renowned professional photographers, a.k.a. The Panel. They murmur quietly to each other as they examine the photographs on the wall. Craig watches them.

For the moment, the 17 other photography students in the Yale School of Art who sit behind Craig are off the hook. Three of them were just battered and broken in the humbling educational tradition known as “The Crit,” but all of them are familiar with the sting of The Panel’s notoriously harsh words.

“Technically, these look terrible,” said a panelist to one of today’s victims.

“Maybe you are being a little too indulgent with what you think you are doing.”

Here in the extraordinarily selective Department of Photography, the print critique plays a central role in the education of these 20-something artists. Hailing from all over the country and the world, beloved by their respective undergraduate departments, these budding photographers were accustomed to praise. The cool, detached panelists, however, remain largely unimpressed.

“It’s like your urgency to pee,” veteran photographer Collier Schorr said of one student’s work. “It’s only intense to you,”

This afternoon Craig watched as, one by one, his three peers tried in vain to defend their work to the callous judges. Now it’s his turn. Sitting back in his chair, with his pale blue eyes, black high-tops and Parliament-scented fingers, Craig addresses The Panel with his usual nonchalance, an informality that is utterly disarming. He seems remarkably calm, except for the rapid-fire tapping of his heel on the concrete floor. He wants to believe that he has something special. They always do. But The Panel smells weakness.

They start with the questions: How is this work a product of your evolution as an artist? What was your motivation behind this project? Craig avoids discussing the meaning behind the images, much to the panelists’ dismay. He tells them he is trying to capture a certain expression. Men, masculinity and aggression have always fascinated him, he says. They press him further. Craig chooses his words carefully, seemingly determined to evade the traps they attempt to set as they probe him with question after question.

The Panel’s attention returns to the faces. The open-mouthed faces. What are they doing? the critics wonder aloud. The black backdrop leaves no trace of context, no hints to unlock the mysterious experience these guys seem to share. The necks and shoulders of the subjects reveal little. Most wear T-shirts. One is shirtless, tattoos blazing.

They can’t stop talking about the eyes of the static men. Some are wide. A few squinted. The eyes of one look as though they are about to roll back into his skull. A touch of saliva leaks out of the corner of the third mouth from the left. The critics’ gazes shift from the images, to each other, to Craig.

“What is it that intrigues you about guys with their mouths open?” asks Paul Graham, pioneer of new-documentary style. His curiosity is only half concealed.

Craig says he doesn’t have an answer. He tells the panelists he is fulfilling an urge to photograph dudes with their mouths open. “Angelic retard faces” he calls them. Craig doesn’t repeat what he said only yesterday as he labored over one of the faces on an easel in his small darkroom. He said he honestly doesn’t know why he is making these pictures. “And I don’t give a fuck to tell you the truth.”

Several minutes into the crit, Craig finally divulges the secret of his work to his confused but captivated audience. Like Craig, the men in the photos are 20-something, white males. Some of them are high. Some of them aren’t. All of them are playing Grand Theft Auto.

“That’s wild,” says John Pilson ART ’93. He is wide-eyed himself as he stares at the images on the wall, at the utter self-abandon in the faces.

“My guess was that they were masturbating,” Schorr says. The only woman on The Panel, Schorr loves to speculate about the subconscious sexual implications of the students’ work.

“Are these about ambiguity or you being gay?” she asks, as her usually aloof expression melts into a playful grin.

“Well,” says Craig with mock thoughtfulness, “I really like to have sex with women.”

Everyone in the room laughs. The tension that filled the air only moments ago has evaporated. For the first time today, for the first time in Craig’s Yale career, The Panel is hard-pressed to find something critical to say. The panelists grope for words, as if they themselves cannot believe the praise coming out of their mouths.

“There is a purity to these pictures which is nice. Yet, they’re creepy.”

“It’s a very nice harmonization of a bunch of disparate things that you’ve been working with. I think it’s a great achievement actually.”

“You’re to be commended, Craig,” says Papageorge.

Stoned dudes playing video games. The concept doesn’t exactly sound like the stuff fine art is made out of, and yet here the faces, in all of their disgusting glory, have triumphed.

“You have to call it ‘Grand Theft Auto,'” said Pilson, like an awestruck stoner.

“You can’t be afraid to fuck up,” Craig said as he perched on a stool in his darkroom, waiting for a test strip to finish printing and sipping a Pabst Blue Ribbon, one of his photo-lab staples. That, he said, is what photographers do. They take chances.

For now, Craig is elated with his victory. That was “fucking unbelievable,” he says as he heads back to his darkroom to take it all in. Soon he will have to start preparing for his next crit. Now that he has impressed The Panel, they will only expect more. The pressure will only grow. But for at least one night, he can breathe easy.

“By the way,” he says to the other photography students as they file out of the studio, “party at my house.”