Arts Desk

Reviewed: Camilo Jose Vergara and Andrew Moore at the National Building Museum

Twin photographic exhibits at the National Building Museum lay bare Detroit’s web of paradoxical absurdities: so many visitors come from overseas to look at the Motor City’s advanced urban decay that it’s inspired the name “ruin porn”; residents have become so accepting of graffiti that a local alt-weekly regularly declares the city’s “best new tag”; a landmark Ford plant has turned into a protected wildlife habitat; and in some places, the asphalt jungle has even begun to sprout corn stalks.

Despite documenting largely the same landscape of classical architecture devastated by neglect, the two photographers offer divergent approaches, with different ratios of humanism and formalism. Camilo Jose Vergara, a trained sociologist, reprises his past approach of using both photography and storytelling to communicate the slow but inexorable changes in neighborhoods. Vergara’s images are more workmanlike than those of Andrew Moore, whose larger-scale photographs are more studied and formalistic even when documenting trash and decay. But Moore’s vibe is also more bloodless, largely lacking the intimacy and personality of Vergara’s work.

Only in Vergara’s oeuvre do we meet a character like Berry, whose greasy-spoon grill is shown to be vibrant, then derelict, and finally revived — all within the space of three images over 10 years. On the other hand, more of Moore’s carefully constructed images are memorable: a 4x4 matrix of windows in an abandoned school that show 16 disheveled tableaux; a homeless man’s jury-rigged cascade of clear plastic hung in an abandoned warehouse, visually suggesting one of Carleton Watkins’ surging western waterfalls; a mysterious fog swirl enveloping a three-story apartment building (above); and a classroom clock that has quite literally melted into a Daliesque symbol (right).

Yet both photographers show they can play the other’s game as well. Moore relates the quirky tale of the “Polish Yacht Club,” a social club where, as he dryly notes, “sailing is not a club activity, nor is the café on the waterfront” – never mind a wall of photographs showing members sporting captain’s caps. Vergara, for his part, offers a few visually striking images. One is a house that calls to mind one of the famed Depression-era subjects of Walker Evans, only jolted by a severely skewed second floor. The other is a pair of images of a back street – first with a group of kids frolicking in fire-hydrant spray (below), then as a desolate wasteland bathed in an unusual, post-thunderstorm light.

Through Feb. 18 at the National Building Museum, 401 F St. NW. (202) 272-2448. Mondays–Saturdays 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sundays 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.


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