Arts Desk

The Best Photographic Images of 2011

Sometimes an exhibit is great in its entirety; sometimes one particular piece rises well above the rest of the exhibit. The images below fall into the latter category. Together, they constitute the 10 best photographic images of 2011, at least in this reviewer's opinion.

1. Harry Callahan, “Telephone Wires,” National Gallery of Art. The National Gallery of Art’s retrospective of Harry Callahan, timed to the centennial of his birth, was a mixture of his brilliant, relentlessly experimental early work and his underwhelming later images. Some of Callahan’s most lyrical images involve the humblest of subjects: sunlight bouncing off the surface of water, the shadowy forms of bollards and birdbaths in a snowy park, and a series of plant shoots sprouting from fresh snow. Of these, some of the least-remembered, yet formally most inventive, are images of bare telephone wires set against a monochromatic sky. Callahan actually made a number of telephone-wire photographs, but the one in the NGA exhibit consisted of five wires criscrossing in the shape of an elongated pound sign—an eloquently minimalist design that breaks free of time and context.

2. Camille Seaman, “The Last Iceberg/Children of B-15 AI, Ross Sea, Antarctica,” Adamson Gallery. In this group show, Seaman was the standout, contributing several impressive landscape and seascape photographs, the most striking of which was a series of rectangular icebergs floating side by side. The image used in the exhibit—just one of a stunning series of iceberg images she’s taken—offers an unexpected bit of geometrical formalism to the harsh natural environment. Adding emotional depth is the context: The series “chronicles just a handful of the many thousands of icebergs that are currently headed to their end,” she writes.

3. Nicholas Kahn and Richard Selesnick, works from “The Apollo Prophecies,” Irvine Contemporary. Alternately using black-and-white and color, the duo creates hallucinatory photomontages built on absurdist faux-historical narratives set in locations ranging from outer space to an iceberg. Several works on display at Irvine came from their series “The Apollo Prophecies,” with a rather deranged premise—it’s the story “of a lost Edwardian English expedition to the Moon.…They were greeted as Gods, prophesied in great stone alignments, and heralded by a prophetic sacred text, before returning to earth with canisters of Moon Paste as evidence.” Hard as the premise is to accept, the works themselves are brilliantly realized, suggesting Jerry Uelsmann on steroids—wide panoramas printed in inky black and filled with enlessly intriguing bit players and eccentric juxtapositions.

4. Louise Rosskam, “Shulman's market, on N at Union Street S.W., Washington, D.C.,” American University Museum. The documentary photographer from the 1930s and 1940s produced lots of impressive work, as her retrospective at the American University Museum demonstrates, but one must-see series features, in breathtaking color, the racially tense (and no longer extant) World War II-era neighborhood in Southwest Washington, D.C. where she and her photographic collaborator husband lived. The photograph of Shulman’s Market is both visually bracing and poignant, from the awkward interaction between black customers and the young white girl sitting on the front steps to the shop’s odd, mustard-color paint job to the empty milk bottles and child’s shoes left behind on the stoop. The photograph’s superiority to another image taken within moments of this one illustrates how crucial timing is to successful photography. Anyone who cares about the history of D.C. should study this work.

5. and 6. Christian Als, from “Kibera, the Shadow City,” and Yeondoo Jung, “Evergreen Tower” series, Corcoran Gallery of Art.

Two works that were finalists for the Prix Pictet stood out. The prize’s mission is “to raise public awareness worldwide to the social and environmental challenges of the new millennium,” and while the works displayed at the Corcoran were uneven, they included two stunning—and revelatory—works. Christian Als offered a view inside a Kenyan slum where 1,500 people live crammed into the space of a soccer pitch. Their hardship is eloquently summarized by an aerial view of roofs crammed together like jigsaw puzzle pieces. Meanwhile, Yeondoo Jung created a slide show that morphed together a succession of still portraits of people living in a high-rise tower in Seoul. The apartments are identical in design, leaving the families’ decorative touches as the only points of uniqueness in an inexorably standardized world.

7. B. Krohn, image of field worker, Addison/Ripley Fine Art. The exhibition “Photography Between the Wars” was composed of works from Virginia Marshall Zabriskie’s venerable New York City gallery – a mix of  lesser-known, but classic, images by such giants as Berenice Abbott, Eugene Atget, Man Ray, Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand, Carl van Vechten, Weegee, and Edward Weston, along with a number of photographs made by virtual unknowns. One of these is a photograph by one B. Krohn. (No, I’d never heard or him, or her—and Google has next to nothing, either.) The photograph shows a female field worker tossing a bale of what appears to be cotton into the air; the individual buds explode with a centrifugal energy, a tableau all the more impressive given the photographic technology available at the time.

8. Hank Willis Thomas, "Martyrs," Corcoran Gallery of Art. Thomas has created a series of large-scale color photographs that highlight the ironies surrounding black athletes, such as basketball players defying gravity below a noose rather than a hoop. These are clever, but much less affecting than Thomas’ lower-key works, which shine a light on the far less compensated and vastly more obscure victims of actual historical lynchings. Thomas begins with archival images of the brutal punishments inflicted upon black Americans before the civil rights era, then transforms them into even more powerful statements. In one particularly stark series, Thomas cuts out the shapes of the lifeless bodies that remain after a lynching; decontextualized, they seem to hover as angelic (yet tortured) forms. In such works, the artist skillfully renders tragedy with eloquence.

9. Kaitlin Jencso, “Snared,” Goethe-Institut. Jensco takes a Cindy Shermanesque approach to posed female identities, chronicling an anonymous figure in a series of tightly circumscribed, lower-middle-class, domestic settings. Her most poignant image is one of the female protagonist leaning over the kitchen sink, her back to the camera and surrounded by an ethereal glow—a pose that uncannily echoes the iconic George Tames photograph of President John F. Kennedy leaning against his desk in the Oval Office. The Kennedy image is titled “The Loneliest Job,” a label that fits Jensco’s gloomy vision perfectly.

10. Kenneth M. Wyner, from The Structure of Spirit, Design of the Heart,” American Institute of Architects. Wyner’s finest work in his sprawling but uneven exhibit consists of fine-grained images on aluminum. His piece de resistance is a large image of the built environment of New York City, refracted kaleidoscopically. This highly detailed, fantastical demimonde seems straight out of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.

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