Looking for a diversion from long hours of studying in Sterling? Here’s one option: browse the Rough Proof Photo Exhibit and gaze at former Yalies reading everything from Plato to Playboy in Sterling.
Currently on display in the Exhibit Corridor, the Rough Proof photography exhibition showcases black-and-white photographs of students from the 1950s through the early 1980s. The students in the photographs read, write, research and occasionally gaze wide-eyed at the walls of various campus libraries, including the late CCL.
Not originally intended for artistic display, most of the photos were taken for publication in the News, campus yearbooks and other publications, exhibition curator Geoffrey Little said.
“On the one hand, they were objects produced for some other purpose,” Little said. “Taken out of context, they are works of art in and of themselves that document changing library use.”
Architectural Records Archivist Laura Tatum said she appreciates the naturalistic, candid quality of the photographs.
“I like that even though a lot of the photos were probably taken for publicity purposes, it catches students when they are not necessarily aware that they are being photographed,” Tatum said. “They’re doing what they came to Yale to do, which is learn and to study.”
Originally conceived as an exhibition of Yale library architecture, the curators shifted their focus after discovering several photographs of Yale students studying in campus libraries.
The photographs are arranged chronologically, providing the viewer with the feeling of walking through history. With every step, a new hairstyle emerges, a new clothing fad dies out and the students’ interest in posture and formality wanes. Anyone can enjoy comparing the squarely dressed ’50s boys sitting upright at their desks with the hip intellectuals from later decades sprawled out on CCL armchairs. “There’s certainly a difference in the formality of the way that people studied,” Tatum said.
Interestingly, the photographs implicitly document the 1969 arrival of female undergraduates, as well the increased representation of minority students. But sometimes the curators’ captions impose a questionably revisionist interpretation on these photos. One such placarded caption of a photograph of an early female Yalie describes her as “somewhat uncomfortable looking,” presumptuously casting a fictional pall over a landmark event.
But despite the horn-rimmed glasses and bell-bottom jeans, the images also exude a feeling of timelessness and universality. The photos show students absorbed in their studies, as though enclosed in a bubble with nothing other than books. In most of the photographs, it’s impossible to tell what book the featured student is reading, though a notable exception — and an opportunity for a chuckle — can be found in a 1962 photograph of a young male student ostensibly reading a scholarly volume, though half-heartedly concealing a Playboy in the binding.
Even the team of curators, which includes an architectural records archivist, was unable to identify the specific library pictured in some of the images, Little said. This lends a feeling of mystery to the experience, which is colored further by an almost eerie touch of something between deja vu and voyeurism. The viewer, after all, is a student from 2007, standing in the physical space of Sterling and peering into the world of an earlier student occupying that same space.
“I think they give a really good sense that libraries, library use and students in the library haven’t changed much over 40 years,” Little said.
Little’s right: any current Yalie will feel a certain familiarity with the telling physical signs of stress and exhaustion. Most pictured students stare intently (or blankly?) at reference books, scratching or slumping their heads. And one Eisenhower-era young scholar even snoozes in an armchair, his feet — sans shoes — propped clumsily on a nearby bench. Some things never change.