I arrived 30 minutes before closing time, a guard gruffly informed me. I shuffled into the delicate lighting of the Yale University Art Gallery lobby from the gorgeous darkening day outside. Making my way to a map of the YUAG I located my destination: Photography, 4th floor. As I traipsed through gallery after gallery, a guard directed me each time as they learned about my destination via their headset. Each time, they puzzled as to why I would want to go to that exhibit in particular. Finally, I located the Yale photography gallery: a small, high-ceilinged, windowless room right in front of the elevator, containing nothing but a bench at its center with 20 to 30 photographs hanging on the walls; a sort of afterthought.
But “Photography at Yale” is anything but an afterthought. It’s the product of Margaret Neil ’14, whose senior thesis explored the history of the photography program at the School of Art. The exhibit serves as an account of Yale’s recent yet rich history in photography, one that is both national and international, gelatin silver and chromogenic. The photos span from 1929, before Yale even had a photography program, to 2013 and provide glimpses of different techniques and time periods.
A quick counterclockwise turn around the room reveals that the arrangement is neither chronological nor topical; rather, it’s explorational. Without hidden agenda or intended meaning, it invites the mind to wander. Although each photo forms part of the collection, the nontraditional arrangement allows for each to be considered within its own context, unadulterated by the significance of the neighboring works. Almost every photograph is shot by a different photographer, providing a small taste of the artists’ work and their particular view of the world.
Gracing the back wall, an untitled work by Gregory Crewdson ART ‘88 is one of the gallery’s richest photos in both color and implication, graces the back wall. It’s the first photograph you see when you walk into the gallery, a stark dark rectangle softly lit from behind. Upon closer inspection, blues and greens emerge from the shadows, depcting a backwoods lot with a makeshift shelter, tucked among the branches, set between a misplaced suburban neighborhood and a misty river. A lone figure faces away from the camera, his naked back softly illuminated by the fading light. The photograph contains both a dreamlike essence and a noticeable tension. Its sheer window-like size invites the viewer to immerse herself in the scene.
A photograph to its right, the work of Laura Letinsky’s steady hand, depicts a more intimate scene: a couple sprawled on a bed, the man on his back with his arm bent behind his head, glancing casually at the woman before him, her shirt off and her back toward the camera. The photograph, drawn from a collection entitled “Venus Inferred,” lives up to the series’ name. There’s an ease to the unspoken conversation within the photo, a love implied in a glance we cannot fully catch.
Each photograph is a burst, a moment in time, a collection of photons trapped with the click of a shutter; each is meant to fuel conversation and exploration. Tucked away on the top floor in the back corner of the art gallery, “Photography at Yale” gets little viewing. During the half-hour I spent wandering around that one room, several heads popped in to investigate only to quickly deduce that the exhibit simply wasn’t worth their time, even as entertainment during the five-minute wait for the elevator. But one short glance misses entirely the value contained within that one windowless room, the possible discussions and wandering thoughts, the brief escape into a space where any idea is accepted and no perception is wrong.
As I was about to leave at the behest of a grumpy guard, I looked back at the lonely bench at the center of the room. Ignoring the guard’s complaints, I sat down, sinking into the comfy black leather and calmly glancing around the room. When I finally left, I knew I would be coming back to peer through these photographical windows, to find new insights and to further explore the hidden realities contained behind the clear, reflective glass.