“Sitebound” At the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden to September 2015

“Reykjavik series” by Olafur Eliasson (2003)

There’s a chill at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, and it isn’t the summertime A/C. A new exhibit, “Sitebound,” bills itself as extending documentary photography “in ways that allow for imagination and conjecture.” If this is what documentary photography has come to, though, it may not be cause for celebration.

With a few exceptions—most notably Catherine Opie’s 19-image series documenting Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration—the images in “Sitebound” suggest that documentary photography has become dominated by tableaux of inanimate objects, and thus something far from the genre once defined by the humanitarian impulses of Dorothea Lange and W. Eugene Smith.

Two German photographers in the exhibit, Frank Thiel and Sabine Hornig, focus their lenses on urban infrastructure and architecture: junctions of metal pipes, a scaffolding-wrapped skyscraper, a dizzying office-building entranceway. Thomas Struth, another German artist, photographs an eerily empty backstage scene at Disneyland and a real but strangely fake-looking expanse of tourists at Berlin’s Pergamon Museum.

Each of these images is photographed calculatedly, and seemingly with an absence of serendipity. But what ties together these and other works in the exhibit even more palpably is their visual frigidity.

In an era of steadily improving digital precision, why are the colors so bland? Even when we’re shown the outside world, there’s rarely any sun, as in Massimo Vitali’s photograph of a flock of people interacting on a mountaintop—a picturesque locale with a lively group of figures, yet inexplicably drained of color. Perhaps this bloodless approach represents an homage to the works of Bernd and Hilla Becher, who deliberately made their celebrated arrays of industrial structures using the diffuse light of cloudy days. (A matrix by the Bechers is included in the Hirshhorn exhibit.) Still, the vibe gets a little monotonous, even when the raw material suggests flashes of vitality.

Take, for example, a project by Danish photographer Olafur Eliasson. He tweaks the Becher approach slightly, photographing an assortment of apartment buildings and storefronts in Reykjavik and ordering them into a 9-by-8 matrix. Eliasson’s twist is that the buildings, and the framed images, get smaller as you go from left to right, and from top to bottom, along the matrix. Yet this dash of whimsy is undercut by the images’ palette, which is as leaden as a Soviet-era industrial block. Or consider a series by Laurel Nakadate, who all but dispenses with light and color entirely, photographing distant relatives she located on genealogical websites at a remote location at night.

Gabriel Orozco and Taryn Simon, meanwhile, produce work that barely fits into the documentary mode at all. Orozco’s signature is deadpan visual puns, like a sphere carved with grooves resting next to a street grate with a grid that echoes these grooves. Simon, for her part, produces a meditation on a South Korean abducted by North Korea, a work that looks more like an academic dissertation than documentary photography.

Oddly enough, the sharpest flashes of color come from an unusual but exhaustive project by Lebanese artist Walid Raad, who photographed seemingly ordinary locations in Beirut where fighting took place during the nation’s long civil war. Raad tracked down bullet holes, marking each with a color-coded sticker dot denoting which nation the ammunition came from. The combination of violence with a jaunty, almost op-art palette from the stickers is bracingly paradoxical.

But there’s no paradox with the works of British photographer Darren Almond. In two works, forged in difficult conditions, Almond captured the elemental textures of snow in the Arctic, skillfully displaying subtle tonalities. They’re the lone works in the exhibit that don’t suffer from being cold and monochromatic—because that’s exactly what they’re supposed to be.

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