Dec. 21, 2001-
By By Louis Jacobson
The past year in Washington photography can be summed up by the old adage "Small is beautiful." Or, more accurately, "Small will have to do."
With the stalwart exception of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington's major art museums paid photography no heed in 2001. The Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery remained closed for renovations until at least 2003. The National Gallery of Art mounted no photography shows this year. Nor did the Phillips Collection. Nor did the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.
It's not as if these institutions have spurned photography in the past. Last year alone, the NGA mounted a wonderful show of photographs by 19th-century master Carleton E. Watkins, the Phillips hosted an important exhibition on photographer-painter Ben Shahn, andjust before it closedthe NPG wrapped up a thoughtful show on African-American daguerreotypist Augustus Washington.
But over the past year, photography lovers in the nation's capital have had to satisfy their jones at smaller commercial galleries. And that's a lot to ask of the galleries. No small gallery can host the kind of major retrospective its larger brethren can. And galleries, being by and large for-profit endeavors, are often restricted to showing the kind of work that they can actually move into collectors' hands.
Nonetheless, photography aficionados who were willing to pound the pavement were able to see much laudable work in and around D.C. this year. Here's one man's opinion of the 10 best local photographic exhibitions of 2001:
1. "Montana Legacy: Photographs by Mark Abrahamson," at the National Academy of Sciences The power of this show came as a genuine surprise. Several photographers who have exhibited in D.C. recently (including Adriel Heiseysee below) have taken to the air to document the beauty of the landscape in the American West. No photographer, however, has done it quite so dramatically as Abrahamson. His palettemidnight blue, lichen green, cinnabar redis as breathtakingly beautiful as its chemical sources are vile. Indeed, Abrahamson, an ardent environmentalist, documents the damage from mining in Montana with such artistry that he threatens to undercut his own message. The exhibition continues through Jan. 4, 2002; by all means, go see it.
2. "Night Work," at the Ralls Collection The British-born photographer Michael Kenna makes crisply, even fastidiously, defined square prints that communicate drama without veering into fantasy. Kenna's finest works play with minimalist geometrical forms: a fence on a beach, curved pool walls, a straight line of stones disappearing into the horizon, rows of books resting on a semi-lit, wall-to-ceiling bookcaseeven nuclear-plant cooling towers. Each is lush, moody, and powerful.
3. "Terri Weifenbach," at Addison/Ripley Fine Art When Weifenbach, a master photographic printer, stands behind the viewfinder, she thumbs her nose at one of the most fundamental assumptions in photography: that images must be in focus. Weifenbach's photographs are flagrantly, even gleefully, out-of-focusand usually the better for it. This treatment renders her prosaic subjectssuburban trees, bushes, and homeslyrical, much as candlelight flatters a date's harsher features.
4. "Arthur Tress: Fantastic Voyage, Photographs 1956–2000," at the Corcoran Gallery of Art At his worst, Tress is self-indulgent and easy to dismiss; at his best, he's a conceptual genius. His black-and-white pieces from the '50s and '60s offer a winning mix of documentary and fantasy imagery, and his 1974 Shadowa novel in photographs brilliantly unspools a narrative using only Tress' own shadow placed within various found environments. Also noteworthy is Tress' more recent, homoerotic work, whichunlike much of his oeuvreis done with a refreshing sense of humor.
5. "The Western Horizon: New Photographs," at the Kathleen Ewing Gallery Wherever he roams west of the 100th meridian, Macduff Everton seems to catch just the right break in the clouds or precisely the right shape of a lifting fog bank. Everton's images are so dramatic that he's either a technical virtuoso or the luckiest photographer on the face of the Earth. Or maybe both.
6. "Under the Sun: A Sonoran Desert Odyssey," at the Kathleen Ewing Gallery Adriel Heisey's images of the American West are almost as striking as Everton's, which were shown only a few months earlier at the same gallery. Unlike many other chroniclers of the West, Heisey demonstrates that man's footprint on the land is not by definition disastrous. In Heisey's hands, for instance, an overhead image of four speeding motorboats on a green body of water becomes a gorgeous and delicate tableau that approximates a passel of soaring butterflies.
7. "In Response to Place: Photographs From the Nature Conservancy's Last Great Places," at the Corcoran Gallery of Art Many of the high-profile contributors to this multiartist show submitted mediocre work, but the exhibition, on view until Dec. 31, includes a few certifiable gems. Hope Sandrow's half-submerged images of Indonesia's Komodo National Parkprinted in segments in a room-long horizontal formatare both technically innovative and visually bracing. Richard Misrach's large-scale photographs of water and sand dunes in Nevada exude a meditative peacefulness. Sally Mann used an old camera with a cracked lens to capture a deserted Mexican beach, and Mary Ellen Mark empathetically documented the forlorn inhabitants of Virginia's Eastern Shore and Alaska's Pribilof Islands.
8. "In Like a Lion Out Like a Lamb," at the Kathleen Ewing Gallery This is surely the least ambitious show on this list, yet "Lion/Lamb" merits kudos for sheer inventiveness. Crammed into the Ewing Gallery's tiny confines were 51 images, including many vintage snapshots by anonymous photographers. The only thread linking them was that they all featured lions or lambs. The idea is whimsical to the point of fluffiness, but the sheer variety of the images in the exhibition exemplified a skilled and creative curatorial mind at work.
9. "Amy Lamb: Recent Work," at the David Adamson Gallery Lamb, a Washington-based scientist-turned-photographer, makes meticulously planned close-up images of flowers. But unlike masters of black-and-white botanical images such as Karl Blossfeldt and Tom Baril, Lamb brings her flowers' colors to life. The twist works strikingly well: Some images feature hyperreal yellows and greens worthy of cake icing; others capture unusual checkered patterns or petals shaped like pine cones.
10. "Vaughn Sills: One FamilyAn Extended Portrait in Photographs and in Their Own Words," at American University's Watkins Gallery Since 1979, Sillsa photography professor at Simmons College in Bostonhas documented the Toole clan of rural Georgia. The Tooles, a virtual catalog of familial dysfunction, received unblinking yet humane treatment from Sills, in words as well as images. The show was most affecting when viewers traced the slow maturation of the children and the subtle aging of the adults. Sills' series is a worthy successor to a long line of documentary work about impoverished families in Appalachia.
Other exhibitions that came close to cracking the top 10 include those of Betsy Stewart's dreamily translucent photograms of fruits and flowers at the Troyer Gallery, Anthony Goicolea's digitally manipulated images of himself playing bad boys at the Corcoran (on view through Dec. 30), Felice Frankel's microscope-aided scientific photographs at the National Academy of Sciences, and Hiroshi Osaka's atmospheric Japanese landscapes at Kathleen Ewing.
A few individual contributions to group shows merit mention as well. A small handful of surrealistic reflections from André Kertész's inexplicably ignored Distortion series stole the show at the Corcoran's "André Kertész and Theodore Fried: Away From Home." Karin Rosenthal's nude portraits masquerading as landscapes similarly stood out in the Fraser Gallery's "The Figure in Photography." And the inclusion of William Christenberry's Red Building in Forest, Hale County, Alabama, 1974–2001 and The Bar-B-Q Inn, Greensboro, Alabama, 1971–1991two elegiac photographic arrays of crumbling Southern buildingselevated Hemphill Fine Arts' small and otherwise unambitious exhibition of his work.
Despite the display of such worthy work, I feel confident in saying that no gallery show this year can top either of the two photography books published recently by artists with ties to the Washington area. One is local photographer Maxwell MacKenzie's American Ruins: Ghosts on the Landscapeimages of gracefully decaying Western barns that were first exhibited two years ago at the American Institute of Architects. The other is Shepard Sherbell's Soviets: Pictures From the End of the U.S.S.R. Sherbell (like me, a contributor to the National Journal) captured the essence of life in the crumbling Soviet Union through a remarkable combination of images and words.
A hopeful note: Three major photographic shows will open in