Immediately upon entering the exhibit, one is greeted by images at once recognizable and disorienting. The photographs in “Light Sensitive” are not merely beautifully captured or distilled moments in time. Rather, they are hyper-consciously manufactured artistic works. In this exhibit the idea of photography as an unbiased portal into reality interacts powerfully with the more interesting notion that the photographer creates his or her own fiction from scraps and trappings of the real.

The photography exhibit “Light Sensitive” opened at Duke’s Nasher museum February 14th and will run through May 12th. The show features over 100 works gathered from both public and private North Carolina collections. Patricia Leighten—guest curator and Professor of Art History and Visual Studies at Duke—co-organized “Light Sensitive” along with the Nasher’s Interim Director and Nancy Hanks Senior Curator Sarah Scroth.

The exhibit is separated into five different sections—each featuring photographers who alter and construct their image in different ways in order to control or influence the experience of the viewer. The show seeks to examine these elements of control and technique—to explore photography not as an access point to a “real” moment or image but as a highly self-aware work of art.

Obviously, the ways in which the featured photographers construct their images differ in a myriad of nuanced ways. However, organizing the exhibit around five different, broad manners through which these photographs were approached and manufactured provides the show with a neat, highly comprehensible format. The five categories into which the photographs are grouped are Light Magic, Intensified Vision, Metamorphosis, Emulations, and Identities Constructed.

“People often want to fall into a photograph like they’re falling through a window into a real space,” said the exhibit’s co-organizer Patricia Leighten. Leighten seeks to disrupt this paradigm. She wants those who come out to see the show to realize a new level of skepticism with regards to photography. “The impulse to believe in a realistic looking image—that’s what I want to interfere with,” said Leighten.

The exhibit attempts to dispel inclinations toward passive viewing. While interacting with the exhibit’s photographs, one is made more aware, likely than ever before, of the different mechanisms at work in each image. However, Leighten is quick to emphasize that this embrace of skepticism should not diminish the impact of any given work.

Instead, Leighten asserts that this greater pause—this increased awareness of a photograph as a constructed image—should only deepen and augment the viewer’s experience. “This skepticism can enrich the photograph for the viewer and make him or her better able to celebrate the final result,” she said. “Any artist in any medium wants, in some way, to control the experience of the viewer. I think this is something to be celebrated about art.”

Vera Lutter’s work Fulton Ferry Landing, Brooklyn: June 26, 1996 is one of the first photos to greet visitors as they step into the exhibit. The image is striking, to say the least. “I wanted it to serve as almost a shock when you first enter the exhibit,” said Leighten. “You know it’s an exhibit on photography, and you expect it to feature images you can easily process or recognize—and then it’s something else entirely.”

To create this photograph, Lutter transformed an entire room into a camera obscura with just a pinhole to allow in light. The image was captured on the opposite wall—upon mounted photographic paper. The result is a mammoth, color-reversed photograph, in the form of a negative. The final image is a product of extensive exposures—ranging anywhere from hours to weeks in length.

“It was really exciting to find that one,” Leighten said. “Someone in a contemporary work dealing with the origins of photography—and in a very different way.” The image is a part of the “Light Magic” section of the exhibit—a section whose works elaborate upon the ways in which photographers use light to transform and comment upon the world. This portion of the exhibit asserts light’s primacy to the process and history of photography. In the works included, light is sometimes used to distill or extract a certain feeling or a particular interpretation of the world. At other times light or light’s role in photography is the photograph’s subject in and of itself.

The next section into which one is ushered is “Intensified Vision.” Epitomizing this section’s magnificent photographic dialogue is Larry Fink’s This Sporting Life from his 1978 series Primal Elegance. In the photo a praying mantis sits perched upon a zinnia stalk. Fink used a strobe flash to capture the scene in greater detail and laid on his back in order to enlarge and highlight the zinnia. Fink’s efforts and techniques have resulted in an image that dignifies the insect, expunging any foreign or otherwise unpleasant aura from the leggy creature. A very specific scene is created—one in which our experience of the insect and his gaze is tightly controlled by the artist.

An image such as this may, if it was viewed in another context, be enjoyed more simply, as a mere interesting peek into life near the ground. However, this exhibit emboldens and equips the viewer to look deeper—to notice the sometimes subtle and sometimes glaring artistry and technique behind photographs. Information on the walls detailing the artists’ methods and each section’s emphasis aid this process and will make visitors active participants and dissectors—not just gazers.

In the exhibit’s “Metamorphosis” section, photographers create fictional images—sewing multiple moments in time together or staging a scene to suit their artistic vision. Gaurdian, by Anthony Goicolea, is a 2008 photograph in which the artist has truly created a fictional world. At a glance, one might register a certain disquietude to the scene but will likely accept the photo as a somewhat eerie shot of reality. However, really look at the image, and you will realize its true strangeness—its obvious manipulation of the real. “Once you notice that it is not a single exposure of a single moment in time, you start realizing that the scale is wrong,” said Leighten.

Then discrete realizations begin to trickle in. The huskies, alone in a snowy landscape, are chained. And, yes, the scale is definitely—and somehow disturbingly—off. The sky is lit, but the image on the ground shows no traces of this light. Though there are buildings in the background, Goicolea seems to have created an image devoid of human life and energy, and the strange, disorienting shifts in scale are markedly unwelcoming.

A myriad of negatives were digitally joined to create this photo. Leighten asserts, of the relatively new, digital world of photography, “I think it’s encouraging a lot of artists to reinvent image making.”

Other works are less high-tech in their manipulation of reality. An untitled piece from 1960 by Ralph Eugene Meatyard, for example, depicts a child playing with a doll while wearing the mask of an old man. Further disjuncture comes from the photo’s the bleak, dilapidated setting. Meatyard took many photographs of his family and friends wearing Woolworth’s masks—seeking, an exhibit description lets us know, to “non-personalize a person.” The result is fascinating and refreshingly original. It held my gaze hostage while also encouraging me to actively parse my own reaction.

“Identities Constructed” is the final of the exhibit’s five sections—and its works are wildly captivating. This section deals largely in portraits. Candy Cigarette, a 1969 work by Sally Mann, depicts a young girl—the artist’s daughter—holding a sugary cigarette in front of a hazily entrancing background. Her pose is defiant and projects a tension between her evident young age and a certain world-weary maturity. This work also reflects a consciousness, on the part of the girl, of herself as a subject of the photograph. This awareness permeates many other portraits included in the section.

“Light Sensitive” is expansive and ambitious—both in its conceptual scope and in the sheer number of images it includes. Despite this, the experience feels remarkably cohesive. The exhibit’s conceptual explorations are purposefully and effectively organized. Its scope somehow manages to seem both controlled and unrepressed.

You will not want to skip a single photograph—so beautifully and eclectically curated is this exhibit.. These images are all gorgeous, and there is something wonderfully luxurious about getting off the computer or out from behind the digital camera and seenig actual, physical photographic works, handsomely displayed. “As a society and culture we’re constantly inundated with photographic images, but they’re all digital, and I think it’s important to be reminded that they’re all physical too and the product of someone’s handiwork,” said Leighten.

Run, drive, or fly to Light Sensitive before it closes. When you leave its rooms, you will feel as if you have engaged deeply, refreshed the way you think and feel about photography, and experienced something complete.

image by hush david via flickr