Tag Archive: photography

  1. Photography at Yale: An Exploration

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    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. For senior portraits Middleton call Sheri Birchler Photography.

    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.

  2. Oh, 'Africa'

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    When I was 5 or 6 years old, a cameraman would cycle around our residential estate to take photographs. He had a schedule — Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, I think. Two of my aunts lived with us, and loved photographs. They would prepare for the cameraman’s arrival by dubbing powder on their faces. They would make me wear my best clothes even if it was the end of the day. They would apply wanja around their eyes. They would squeeze a pea-sized amount of the popular 20-shilling face lotion Fair and Lovely onto their forefinger — small enough so that they don’t waste it but big enough that it has an effect. Then they would stand outside the gate and wait for the cameraman. He would come by; camera slung over one shoulder like a handbag. “Click! Click!” an exchange of 20 shillings per picture as pre-payment for developing them, and a few warnings from my aunts of, “Na utoleshe vizuri.” That is, make sure the photos come out right, as if the photographer, and not they, were in charge of how they looked.

    I was always taught, if someone unleashed a camera, you wore your best clothes, and smiled.

    When I see photos depicting Africa at Yale though, I look from a distance, afraid. When Yale had an event to discuss immigration, the poster had only a photo of Africans on a boat, never mind that none of the 54 African countries feature among the top 10 sources of immigrants in the United States. For an event to sensitize people to illiteracy, African children graced the poster. Last week, I picked up the Yale Economic Review, and on the cover, representing a wonderfully written article about how Africa was becoming the best place to make investments, was a photo of someone’s feet in beaded ornaments.

    I wondered if I was the only one to have this reaction. I sent a Kenyan friend at Harvard a link to the Reach Out spring break service trip info session. She exclaimed, “Is that seriously the photo they are using?” You guessed right — a photo of African children seated on the grass watching a show. None of these photos had “Africa” or “Kenya” or “Congo” labeled on them, but what comes to everyone’s mind when they see these photos of black people in developing countries, is almost definitely African countries.

    What is wrong with this? Certain African countries do have high illiteracy rates (although some also have high literacy rates). Certain African countries do have high emigration rates (to Europe, not to the U.S.). Certain people in Africa wear beads on their feet.

    But often the content of these pictures does not have any relationship to what it is meant to depict. I love African fashion, but I do not understand why a feature on the economy of Africa has a man’s feet in beaded ornaments on its cover. Don’t investments make you think of highways and technology and city centers instead? I am passionate about education but I do not understand why a picture of African children should make me think of illiteracy. A photo of Africans on a boat is an oversimplified depiction of immigration. And a photo of African children seated on grass watching a show, should not, on its own without a caption or anything, be what makes you think of aid.

    Instead of the excitement that my aunts and I had when the cameraman brought us the printed photos, at Yale, looking at pictures of home is an activity I associate with disappointment.

    I joked with my sister about how when Humans of New York’s Brandon came to Kenya, he took a photo of a child who said he always takes his sister to the library. Two of the top comments read: “Books are the greatest escape” and “I need to find them and buy them books.” The children had not said they were suffering. They just said they were going to the library, but the approximately 4,000 people who liked those comments assumed that these children needed an escape. A photo of a child from my continent, perhaps my brother or sister, makes people think of a need to escape.

    My sister argues with me. She says, “But Africa IS underdeveloped. We do need infrastructure. We are at war.”

    And what I say is certain African parts are underdeveloped, certain parts need infrastructure and certain parts are at war. To blanket this as Africa is wrong. My sister understands that when she says Africa is underdeveloped, she means certain parts. But for people who have never been, these pictures are all they have of Africa. Yet I know that because of the media I have been exposed to, even I, as well as people from my continent, am not immune to making insensitive generalizations like “Americans are all about parties and making paper and dieting.”

    Mostly, the ‘wrong’ picture painted by the media of the U.S. is often of perfection. America, through the photos we see, is the Statue of Liberty, and Hollywood, and Miami beach.

    When the media signifies “Africa” by using stereotyped images, then you think of stereotypes when you think of African countries. You think of illiteracy, and a need for emigration and escape, and a need for aid. On the Humans of New York page, a man from Kinshasa puts it wonderfully: “We don’t like pictures like this. It is not good to deduce [sic] an entire country to the image of a person reaching out for food. It is not good for people to see us like this, and it is not good for us to see ourselves like this.” Congo has an incredible amount of farmland he points out.

    Sometimes, when I complain about unfair images of Africa, students argue that Yale is different. People are educated.

    “How come you know these songs,” a friend’s suitemate will ask him when he sings along to American pop music.

    From the photos this boy has seen of Africa, he cannot fathom how it is possible that my friend knows these songs. How is it possible that you, from the continent of wild game and underdevelopment and disease, have had access to Coldplay?

    This generalization is what makes a professor at Yale joke — with no bad intentions —in a lecture, “Maybe prayer is what Africa needs.” Because “Africa,” of all the continents, through the pictures they have seen, needs prayers. This photo-collage “Africa” is where you go for service trips; it is, as a language professor put it, a place “to help poor people.”

    “Nairobi, Kenya,” is what I say when people ask me where I am from.

    “Oh Africa!” the reply will come, deleting my effort at specificity. “Dude, we gotta get that buffalo meat we’ve been planning to eat,” someone once said.

    ***

    What is a good photo, then? In my childhood I was an ardent fan of the kids section of the Sunday Nation newspaper. A photo of a celebrity and a caption would appear on the cover page of a magazine, and inside, you would find a whole interview of the celebrity. I liked to read about what they liked, what made them tick, their favorite foods, their history.

    If you are going to use a photo, tell its story. Even if the people in your photo are illiterate or in need of foreign aid, a picture of them should symbolize more than illiteracy or foreign aid. Tell their story so that we remember more: what they like, what makes them tick, their favorite food, their history.

    As a child, it confused me why my aunts said some photos were bad, and some were good, when the cameraman brought them back after printing. To me, you, not the cameraman, were in charge of what your image was. The cameraman has taken this control from the people of my continent. He does not give us the chance to apply wanja and lip stick, to decide what image the world has of us.

    The Yale community is often empathetic towards diversity. Many articles on Africa are well researched and weave in the complexities of people’s lives. I just hope we can give up this monotonous set of stereotypical pictures. There are more countries in Africa than any other continent.  When we think of Africa, we should see more than “Africa.”

  3. Dreamsicle Summer

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    The summer after I turned 20, I spent every day in mud-caked Ked sneakers, the same pair of blue jeans, and T-shirts stained brown and pink by darkroom chemicals and juice of an unidentifiable flavor. This was how I welcomed my first few months of adulthood: in a dense patch of pines in the North Country, where I worked as a photography instructor at an all-boys’ summer camp.

    By midsummer, when the tops of my feet had browned to the color of plums and the mosquito bites on my legs had faded from red sores to blackberry bruises, the days had fallen into a glorious rhythm. On afternoons too sultry for anyone to move, a group of us would sit for hours on a screened porch, the floor fan rustling the pages of the novels open before us. We drifted on the lake in kayaks watching for the first stars to appear, while a trumpet song in the distance signaled bedtime for campers. At meals in the rec hall we played games with the boys and put away plates of tater tots filmy with grease. We sat on red plastic chairs at the Dairy Queen eating Hawaiian Blizzards and Dilly Bars. We watched the locals and chatted of nothing.

    The hours I wasn’t outdoors I passed inside the cool recesses of the camp darkroom. I had started out the summer wanting to encourage the boys to make photographs that contained some element of tension or conflict, rather than of merely pretty things. But I soon found myself genuinely praising their photographs of the same potted plants and waterfalls, or proudly gazing at the same dirt paths and sunsets. Our darkroom sessions often devolved into spontaneous dance parties (there were always the same five pop songs on the local radio station), and my intentions were quickly forgotten.

    Endless numbered days: the only way to describe it. True, there was fear, and doubt, and conflict of all sizes. But as a whole the pulse of the summer was slow and uniform and sweet.

    The cadence drew to a close, and now we’re back at school. In a way, it’s a relief to return to student groups that debate semantics, to poetry classes where we’d spend half an hour identifying the conflicting forces within a single stanza. It feels familiar to return to a world that, each minute, slams you with the notion that ideas are powerful and complex and have stakes worthy of our measured examination.  So often we’re taught to pinpoint the drama and conflict in what we see, read and do. I, too, had hoped that by the time I returned as an upperclassman, I would’ve developed this sense of understanding.

    There’s this “mature adult” image of myself I’ve been fleshing out in my mind since I was nine years old, and I kept refining this image up until the end of my sophomore year of college. I would wistfully borrow attributes I admired from the intriguing upperclassmen I noticed in classrooms and libraries—added to my future adult image a pair of quizzical and discerning eyes, a confident and authoritative voice unafraid to argue. This woman reflected all the good things that I thought would come of experience, of knowledge, and of time.

    But perhaps, this time around, my senses have dulled from too many lazy evenings spent reading out on the fishing dock. Or maybe, somewhere in the process of learning Four Square and attempting to master Magic the Gathering, a bit of the ease of childhood rubbed off me. It’s possible that when the heat lifts from New Haven and my memory of the pines begins to dim, the urgency that I used to feel will be restored—the urgency to ask too much of myself. I’d grown up believing that, for everything valuable and worth having, we had to struggle. I had learned so much in the past two years of school that I came to believe that this was the only kind of life worth living. I felt good, and noble, for deciding to never settle for stasis. My life this summer, then, was easy to swallow but difficult to digest.

    The darkroom has been locked up for the winter, but I imagine I won’t be there next summer. The semester has just begun but already I’m beginning to hear that ever-growing voice telling me to see new frontiers and face new hardships. By next summer, the months that just passed may remain as only a strange utopia. I’m lucky, though. On the walls of my room this year are new additions: a collage of black and white photographic prints, of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve ever seen.

  4. Youth: A Selection

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    On ‘Youth’

    I have always believed that art should imitate life. In my study of photography, the closest thing to imitating life is to document reality. My social reality. My friends, their friends, the random crazies I bump into on a night out are the most interesting subjects to me. This selection of images was taken from an ongoing “Youth” series I have been working on for the past couple years, and features characters from my time in London my sophomore spring and back home in New York. The photographs were done in a wide range of formats — specifically, color film, black-and-white film and digital.

    On Chantel

    All of my images are portraits. The main idea behind my work is to portray how people interact with the places and spaces they inhabit. I also try to create a visual narrative of a particular moment or event. I did not know many of my subjects personally, but I succeeded in achieving a degree of intimacy with them — enough to become more than just a voyeur or intruder of their space. I became a part of the moment that I captured. My camera was simply a mirror of their experience. It’s something I try to recreate in every photograph I take.

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  5. PHOTO BLOG: 'Home'

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    “Home” is the fourth photography series for the WKND BLOG by Jen Mulrow. Watch Jen’s video introducing her photo blog here.

  6. Wounded, and Not Walking

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    From the head up, 19-year-old Charles H. Wood could have been posing for his senior portrait. At any rate, his noble countenance suggests a person far more mature and prepared to graduate than I in my own rogues’ gallery of commencement pictures taken this past June. Evident in those photographs is only raw petulance at being asked, yet again, to strain my head at a neck-snapping angle, then stupidly hold an artificial rose before my lips as though it were a flute. Charles, on the other hand, looks like a decent person who posed like he was told. If you fix your gaze upon his face, you see a boy who might one day have been president.

    Except his face, one among many at the Cushing/Whitney Medical Library’s “Portraits of Wounded Bodies: Photographs of Civil War Soldiers from Harewood Hospital, Washington, D.C., 1863–1866,” is the last to register at first glance. Instead of a future president, you see a man missing a left arm. Blown off by gunshot at the Civil War battle of Petersburg, Va., 1865, the arm was amputated on the field, leaving in its place a dimpled stump. Charles would not die of injury-related complications, but his was a rare example of wartime treatments progressing according to plan. With an average of 504 deaths per day, and more men dying from uninformed surgical interventions than actual injuries, the Civil War left in its wake fodder for an unfortunately comprehensive photographic catalog of battlefield wounds.

    Compared with the other images on exhibit, Charles’ is relatively tame. Photographed on his deathbed, the 18-year-old private Henry Krowlow was only vaguely corporeal, a wasted skeleton upon which flaccid limbs of uneven lengths were draped. The violently mustachioed Thomas H. Mathews was marked by an even more violent saber gash below his left eye. An image of John Miller evoked a jigsaw where someone cruelly forgot to piece in his left thigh. His hands cradle a gangrenous stump that resembles more a crusty boule than the remains of something that once promoted mobility.

    The photographs were drawn from the compilations of Dr. Reed Brockway Bontecou, chief surgeon at the Harewood U.S. Army General Hospital in Washington, D.C. Bontecou, believed to have originated the application of photography to military surgical history. He intended the photos to be of educational value to future doctors while maintaining portraiture conventions. Soldiers’ faces are `free of the requisite grimaces, replaced instead by stoic expressions evincing none of what was surely intolerable pain. In one example of convention, Thomas L. Roscoe, too weak to set his head straight upon his shoulders, was propped against the wall with a wooden plank. Even with his back to the photographer, his hands were neatly arranged on his knees, and his head betrayed only the slightest droop.

    It is a theme common to the entirety of Bontecou’s work: a jarring disfigurement is no grounds for an inartistic presentation. It was an intelligent move that does not hide but rather dramatizes the reality of his subjects’ suffering. Rather than the crumpled, wasted faces of the weak, we see the enduring, steadfast faces of the strong. We sympathize with and pity the former, but the latter wins our respect.

    In the library foyer one can find background to the doctors themselves and their medical practices. Medical practitioners quickly deduced that illness and injury would pose a more significant threat to life than bullets and bayonets, and established the United States Sanitary Commission to ensure improvements of wartime medical treatment. Lest we think these emissaries of Asclepius saw nothing but whitewashed hospital interiors, here on display are the books and writings of Civil War doctors — in a letter by a Confederate surgeon, the author describes helping himself to a “churn of excellent buttermilk” one moment and being nearly shot at the next. A hallmark of wartime medical practice was the element of surprise, both in the volatility of the surroundings and the nature of encountered maladies. Doctors, nurses and volunteers — most notably, Walt Whitman and Louisa May Alcott, who wrote copiously about their experiences — were as entrenched in the turbulent proceedings as their warrior patients.

    We expect bravery on the battlefield, exulting in the boldness of our heroes who know no fear. Less expected is bravery from the prone on their silver gurneys, wincing at the slightest touch like children before their first vaccines. Pry the guns from their hands, and gingerly lift their crisp uniforms from their battered bodies, and suddenly they are no longer soldiers but patients, free to fear as much as they like.

    Yet in these photographs is a palpable defiance, not the anxious tremors of the fallen. Perhaps these men and boys were just following Bontecou’s instructions, angling their stumps and scrapes bravely before the camera because that is how they were asked to pose. Consider, though, what brought them to war in the first place: the relentless pursuit of principles on which their entire lives, and the endurance of their homeland, would rest.

    Charles H. Wood was fighting for his country. And what is an arm to a country, anyway?

  7. 'Creatures of the Night'

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    “Creatures of the Night” is the third photography series for the WKND BLOG by Jen Mulrow. Watch Jen’s video introducing her photo blog here.

     

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  8. WEEKEND | 'Saccharine'

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    “Saccharine” is the second photography series for the WEEKEND blog by Jen Mulrow. Watch Jen’s video introducing her photo blog here.

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