Arts Desk

Reviewed: Ivan Sigal at the Corcoran Gallery of Art

Between 1998 and 2005, Ivan Sigal, a D.C.-based journalist and new-media trainer, photographed extensively in provincial areas of Central Asia, including Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Afghanistan. Sigal’s exhibit, “White Road"—which translates as “safe journey," from a sign often posted at the edge of the steppe—offers retro, frequently grainy, and sometimes distorted black-and-white images of ordinary people he met during his travels.

Sigal managed to capture images of his subjects in private spaces—living rooms, breakfast tables—and he seems to have depicted most of them in unguarded moments. He gained access to hospitals (they appear much grimmer than most of the homes do) and workplaces (producing impressive images of fishermen on a shallow lake bed as well as a movie projectionist in a cramped booth); other images depict celebrations and street life.

Visually, Sigal’s work fits comfortably into the venerable tradition of documentary photography that stretches from Henri Cartier-Bresson to Bruce Davidson and beyond, mixed with a touch of Robert Frank-style absurdism, as in an enigmatic image of an improbably elongated arm, presumably from a sculpture, reaching up into the sky. Peer a little deeper, though, and Sigal’s work is something more amorphous than that of his predecessors. The exhibit readily acknowledges that its images are “more allusive than descriptive” and “more poetic than reportorial.”

This offers a sharp contrast to a similarly themed photographic work—Shepard Sherbell’s incomparable 2001 volume, “Soviets: Pictures from the End of the USSR,” which offered detailed stories behind each of its images. Sigal, by contrast, offers the viewer little context. That’s his prerogative, but it limits how much some American viewers may learn about a place that's probably foreign to them.

Through Jan. 27 at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, 500 17th St. NW.

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