Past Exhibitions

The Deception of Perception: Exploring Distortion and Ambiguity in Photography

November 15, 2016 – March 5, 2017

One of the preconceptions humans have when viewing a work of art, particularly photography, is the notion of a concrete reality; the idea that a camera does not lie and a picture is a freeze-frame of an actual moment in life. In this exhibition, artists exploit this perception by creating enigmatic and/or dreamlike images that blur the boundaries between fact and fiction.

Richard Misrach creates a bizarre scene of baffling proportion in Desert Croquet #3 (Balls, Plane, Car) with croquet balls juxtaposed with a plane and car in a vast and desolate desert landscape. It is uncertain whether the distortion comes from the colossally oversized croquet balls or tiny toy vehicles. In Sandy Skoglund’s surreal Revenge of the Goldfish, the contrasting colors and unsettling imagery lend an uneasy and otherworldly feeling to a scene already far removed from reality. The strange nature of these photographs plays with the viewer’s perceptions and tests the limits of credibility.

Artists have the freedom to create works whose mysterious imagery evokes the paranormal and fantastical. They manipulate scale, color, perspective, and subject to transport the viewer outside of the real world and into the realm of imagination. As the photographs in this exhibition show, even photographers who by the nature of the medium must record what exists before their cameras can twist and shift reality into something seemingly supernatural. For example, Jerry Uelsmann’s house built upon the roots of a tree, Gregory Crewdson’s lone man pulled over with flowers spilling out of his car, or Francesca Woodman’s woman being swallowed by her fireplace all beg the question: Can this possibly be real?

Only through touch, taste, smell, sight, and sound are we able to draw accurate conclusions about the reality around us. Nevertheless, we all tend to draw subjective conclusions when presented with an ambiguous image. Throughout the exhibition, viewers can experience their own personal perceptions. Depending on their individual points of view filtered through their past experiences, the pieces assembled here will evoke different emotions and thoughts for different people: when looking at Leland Rice’s White Door, for example, is the viewer invited in or shut out? Is the figure in David Wojnarowicz’s photograph emerging from the dirt or being buried in it? What is your subjective filter encouraging you to see?

As you enter into the worlds of mystery presented in these images, consider both sides of the lens: What is the artist’s intent? What do you see? What does your personal reaction have to do with your interpretation? How did the artist manipulate their subject to show you something unreal or dreamlike and/or deceive you?

“All things are subject to interpretation. Whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth.” ― Friedrich Nietzsche

“In photography there is a reality so subtle that it becomes more real than reality.” — Alfred Stieglitz

This exhibition was curated by Phillips Academy students in Art 300, Visual Culture: Discovering the Addison Collection.