Camilo Jose Vergara, a photographer and sociologist who won a MacArthur “genius” grant, documents America’s inner cities—buildings, cemeteries, churches—in a way that melds gritty, unpretentious imagery with compelling backstories. Vergara’s eye notices a painted cross on a sign with a design and brushstrokes that suggest Barnett Newman; a stone façade that’s bizarrely off-center; and a church occupying a building with an enormous, garish, and well-preserved electric sign that’s comically dated. (The former appliance store offered both Philco TVs and “liberal credit terms.”) Churches, Vergara found, fill any abandoned spot—a once-stately bank, an old KFC, an abandoned Honda dealership, even an empty lot–and function despite impossibly cramped quarters. The exhibit’s elegiac centerpiece—a time-lapse sequence showing one Chicago church from 1981–2009—merits comparison to the work of its artistic forbears, Walker Evans and William Christenberry: Cars, shopfronts and pedestrians disappear, frame by frame, until the church stands virtually alone in an urban wasteland.
THE EXHIBIT IS ON DISPLAY MONDAY–SATURDAY 10 A.M.–5 P.M. AND SUNDAY, 11 A.M.–5 P.M., TO NOV. 29 AT THE NATIONAL BUILDING MUSEUM, 401 F ST. NW. FREE. (202) 272-2448.