Photographic truth questioned in new Palmer Museum of Art exhibit

“Weston Super Mare,” a 2002 photograph by David Graham, is one of 18 selections in the “Consciously Surreal” exhibit.
“Weston Super Mare,” a 2002 photograph by David Graham, is one of 18 selections in the “Consciously Surreal” exhibit. Photo provided

David Teplica graduated from Penn State in 1981 but returned to campus two years later, taking a photograph in a fraternity house. The image, which captured a man’s torso positioned perpendicular to a mirror, arrests the eye as an arm and a leg curl around the reflective surface. Teplica, who went on to earn his doctorate in medicine from Dartmouth and then a master’s in photography from the University of Chicago, spoke last January at the Nittany Lion Inn about the body, imagery and the connection between the two.

It’s a grouping that arcs around a small wing of the Palmer Museum of Art as part of its “Consciously Surreal: Photography, The Uncanny and The Body” exhibit, which runs through May 8. Teplica’s work, along with 17 other selections, explores variations on themes of surrealism, such as fragmenting the body, experimental techniques and the peculiar or coincidental.

Planning began for the exhibit about two years ago. The Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State approached curator Joyce Robinson about “La Verita,” a performance showcasing the work of famed surrealist Salvador Dali. Robinson was also contacted by Jonathan Eburne, a professor in the comparative literature and English departments, about feting an important anniversary in the art world: 2016 marks a century since the artistic movement of Dada. It also marks the 50th anniversary of the death of Andre Breton, author of the first Surrealist Manifesto in 1924.

“It seemed like the perfect — indeed, uncanny — confluence of events,” Robinson said.

Featuring images from several American and international photographers, “Consciously Surreal” also references a broad oeuvre, displaying works that span multiple centuries. Winnowing down the selections from the original 40 to 18 proved to be one of the greater challenges for Robinson and Keri Mongelluzzo, a graduate student in art history who helped curate the exhibit. The pair debated intricate details such as the semantics of surrealism and even the cadence in the selected works’ connections.

“It definitely is (a challenge),” Mongelluzzo said. “Because it’s like, ‘Do we keep this photographer in because he’s a big name or do we go with this one who’s not really well known?’ There were a lot of things to consider.”

Other works fuse documentary photography with artistic expression. Prints by American street photographers Frank Paulin and Walker Evans capture everyday life through a distinctive lens. Besides Teplica, two other Penn State alumni, Michael Carpenter and George Vengrin, have works displayed that create a looking-glass effect of beguiling foregrounds or backgrounds and passersby.

Photographs by Ann Hamilton and Adam Fuss play with photographic techniques and a distorted aesthetic. Pinhole cameras blur the images, creating a fisheye effect in their works, Mongelluzzo said. Fuss’ photograph depicts the “talking statue” Marforio in Rome. Mongelluzzo, who is giving a talk about the exhibit at 12:10 p.m. Jan. 22, added that the technique provides new life to the ancient sculpture.

“He wanted to find a way where the sculptures could breathe and photograph them in a way he could animate them,” Mongelluzzo said.

The melding of fact and fiction initially drew Mongelluzzo, who joined Robinson on the project last May, to photography as an object of study. An informational sign, or didactic panel, at the entrance of the exhibit quotes director Susan Sontag on the shared roots between surrealism and photography.

The connections extend beyond the art into the classroom. Eburne and Amy Dupain Vashaw, the audience and program development director at the Center for the Performing Arts, are teaching a course on surrealism’s multidisciplinary reach besides orchestrating a film series at Palmer’s auditorium in February.

Another exhibition, “From Dada to Dali: Surrealist Works on Paper,” features the movements’ evolution and also runs until May 8.

“We see ourselves as a place where we hope different entities on campus will approach us with ideas,” Robinson said. “We like to think of ourselves as the nexus where these connections can happen.”


  • What: “Consciously Surreal: Photography, the Uncanny and the Body”
  • When: through May 8
  • Where: Palmer Museum of Art, University Park
  • Info: www.palmermuseum .psu.edu