I remember learning in a high school photography class that black-and-white photos make “less noise.” I’m not sure what that means, or if it is even accurate, but this effect seemed especially evident as I admired Donald Blumberg’s black-and-white photographs in the tranquil sanctity of the Yale University Art Gallery.
Blumberg, now 80, has been a professional photographer since the 60s, when he first began documenting striking moments he witnessed on the streets of New York. He was, however, initially trained as a scientist, earning both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in biology. During an event at the gallery on Thursday, Blumberg spoke about the moment he made the pivotal decision to change career tracks. “My professor said he had just done research on how fast cockroaches can run and I said, ‘Sorry, I can’t stay here,’” he said.
His later, career-defining technique of taking snapshots of mass media images did strike me as a particularly scientific, yet simultaneously poetic way to document the human experience, often through word-images. The YUAG exhibition “Donald Blumberg Photographs,” which features about 160 of his photographs, is set up almost as a trip down memory lane, not only in terms of Blumberg’s own stylistic evolution, but also as a historical and cultural commentary on the country over the past 50 years. The photos are grouped into series, each defined by a specific time period, motif or technique.
In one of Blumberg’s earlier series in 1968–69, the artist makes a foray into documenting television. He creates three-by-three mosaics from photographs of TV screens, which depict various politically charged moments, including LBJ’s State of the Union Address and the televised funeral of Martin Luther King Jr.
His next series — snapshots of newspaper clippings about the Vietnam War — represents an ever more emphatic declaration of the photographer’s style and his activist voice. In sorting through the vast newspaper reporting on the controversial war, Blumberg weaves together a distinct narrative that criticizes the brutality and violence of the conflict. Among the most striking images are bold headlines such as “GI SHOT CHILD, WALKED AWAY” and “Grenade is cut from prisoner’s face.”
What grabbed me, however, was his attention to what was going on at home. He includes photographs of soldiers’ smiling mothers visiting the White House and young children reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in front of the American flag, images that seem to subvert the narrative he tells elsewhere about the horrors of war.
In a 2011 series, Blumberg applies the same concept to document the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting, recording both the toll that the tragedy took and the national debate on gun control that ensued. The photographer shifts from documenting newspaper clippings to his earlier technique of capturing images on TV screens.
Blumberg has another side, too. His series “In Front of St. Patrick’s Cathedral” sticks out as an anomaly because it focuses on his artistic idiosyncrasies rather than political messages and commentary. The series is also placed slightly away from the rest of the exhibition, a respite from the heavier material that precedes it. Blumberg developed the series from 1965 to 1967 after noticing that the inside of the cathedral could serve as a pitch-black backdrop to people dressed in their Sunday best as they leave the cathedral, and an opportunity to play with lens focus and negative space.
Blumberg is at his best when he blends biting social critique and his understated sense of humor. In one series, he turns his lens to the world of reality TV — to “Real Housewives” shows, to televised poker tournaments, to televangelist programs and their ilk. The captions are the star of the series. With lines such as “Say it again, say ‘faith’” and “My new breasts symbolize for me everything new,” Blumberg creates a disturbing collage of the visual detritus we are fed through mass media every day. He makes thinly veiled digs at consumerism and body image issues, but most thoughtfully, in my opinion, at our perception of reality.
By capturing moments in the endless slog of our daily visual stimuli and stripping away the “noise,” Blumberg gives us a chance to question how we are taught to see ourselves.