My morning at the press preview of “First Doubt: Optical Confusion in Modern Photography” was like something out of an episode of “Gossip Girl.”
First there was the experience of hobnobbing with established journalists, being catered to by eager PR associates and sipping on San Pellegrino soft drinks. I imagined myself at a party on the Upper East Side, canoodling with the elite. Seasoned reporters chatted about who had interviewed whom and whose review had led to the success or downfall of what exhibit. Tasteful jokes and controlled chuckles filled the garage-size elevator as we ascended to the fourth floor.
But then the elevator doors opened. The chatting stopped, notebooks were taken out, and pencils began to scribble furiously. The curator cleared his throat and began.
Then there was the exhibit itself. Remember in last week’s episode of “Gossip Girl” when Bart Bass discovered the scandalous photograph of Lily van der Woodsen? The print in question is ambiguous in nature — some viewers see a belly button or flower, others see something far less ladylike.
Controversial and visually shocking photographs are at the heart of “First Doubt,” a special exhibition at the Yale University Art Gallery. Organized by Joshua Chuang, the assistant curator of photography for the Gallery, this imaginative exhibit will be open until Jan. 4.
The photographs come from the collection of Allan Chasanoff ’61, a man who had a penchant for amassing not only photographs but also neckties and recordings of “Amazing Grace.” In the 1970s, Chasanoff became interested in the ways photography distorts media coverage, especially how photographs can be used to mislead. He began visiting art galleries in New York City and searching for photographs that elicited a visceral reaction, and he immediately bought any work he found visually startling. Over the years, he amassed a collection of 1,300 pieces.
“First Doubt” focuses on how images are viewed and understood, rather than on how the photographs themselves are made. The hope is to “exploit the gap between our eyes and the way we perceive,” Chuang said. Although unconventional, the exhibit is successful in causing viewers to stop and take a closer look.
“First Doubt” boasts many unorthodox features. Even the title is a play on words: “Something about each picture creates some kind of doubt,” Chuang explained. “The photograph can change the way we see the world.”
The gallery itself is sparsely decorated. No labels hang next to the predominantly black and white photographs on the walls — only mixed-up numbers that correspond to an entry in the exhibit guide. The aim, Chuang said, is to give the viewer the opportunity to approach the photograph without the preconceived notions of title and artist. By removing all labels, the photographs are stripped of artistic intention, emphasizing the gap between the photographic representation of the world and how we perceive it.
The photographs are placed on the gallery walls in a seemingly random configuration. A still life hangs next to a busy market scene on one side and an idiosyncratic portrait on the other. The chaotic effect is intentional: The viewer is supposed to have a “series of individual experiences,” Chuang explained. The photographs are arranged randomly to “optimize the level of visual confusion.”
The walls themselves are arranged in an unusual manner. In addition to the outer walls of the gallery, panels sit in the middle of the space at awkward angles, blocking any complete view of the room and allowing for the juxtaposition of photographs not just on the same wall, but also on different planes. This configuration, along with the overall sterility of the exhibit, is reminiscent of a laboratory maze for rats. Only rather than a block of cheese, the reward at the end is a trippy — but really interesting and thought-provoking — photograph by some unknown artist.
Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of “First Doubt” is that the arrangement of the photographs will be switched at four points during the exhibit. Members of the Yale and New Haven communities, including students in the exhibit’s Master Class, teens from the New Haven Family Alliance and faculty members from Yale’s Computer Science and History of Art departments, will be invited to bring an outside perspective to the exhibit and rearrange the prints. Chuang hopes to test his “thesis of subjectivity,” a theory that asks whether we are confused by the same things. He hypothesizes that what confuses us is based on previous visual experiences.
Although unconventional and sometimes strange, “First Doubt” is supposed to give us pause. “You wouldn’t normally see these photographs in a museum — the photographers are not well-known,” Chuang mused while staring intently at a Friedlander print of an open market. Then, as though he had just realized something, added, “But clearly they’re still beautiful.”