Dec. 27, 2002-
Big Shots and Small Wonders
By Louis Jacobson
The big boys are back—sort of. Largely absent from the photography game in recent years, Washington's major art institutions staged something of a comeback in 2002. The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the Phillips Collection, and the National Gallery of Art each presented at least one important photography exhibition this year—and most of their shows hit the mark, buoyed by big budgets, lots of gallery space, and assiduous curation.
Only a museum with the space and the resources of the Hirshhorn could have mounted D.C.'s best photography exhibition of the past year: "Open City: Street Photography Since 1950," an exhaustive show that featured 19 diverse artists, each represented by enough work to establish far-reaching resonances and give much more than a mere overview. Likewise, it required institutions as large and well-heeled as the Corcoran and the National Gallery to mount 30 years' worth of collaborative projects by Wendy Ewald and a retrospective of Alfred Stieglitz's long career.
As it happens, neither the Ewald nor the Stieglitz exhibition was among the best photography shows in Washington this year. "Secret Games: Wendy Ewald, Collaborative Works With Children, 1969–1999," at the Corcoran, featured several projects executed mostly with disadvantaged kids. But only some of these efforts were poignant and revealing; others were self-indulgent and didactic. "Alfred Stieglitz: Known and Unknown," at the National Gallery, was accompanied by a breathtakingly comprehensive 18-pound catalog that reproduces every finished print made by the master. It's unfortunate that the modest, haphazardly selected exhibition itself failed to live up to such high standards.
But these shows were big and bold enough to have substantial merits as well as deficiencies—something not always possible in smaller galleries. That said, however, the galleries still drove much of the photography scene in Washington in 2002, presenting everything from shots of building façades to personal travelogues to digitally altered quasi-landscapes. Here's one critic's opinion of the best local photographic shows of the past year:
1. "Open City: Street Photography Since 1950," at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden Rarely has one exhibition embraced so many different artists with so much coherence and insight. Had the show featured merely the brilliant, trailblazing work of black-and-white street photographers Robert Frank, William Klein, and Garry Winogrand, it would have been a success. But the curators added a sampling of contemporary artists who have tweaked the old genre enough to have given it new life: Beat Streuli, with his voyeuristic long-distance photographs of pedestrians; Jeff Wall, with his painstakingly constructed fictitious street scenes; Nikki S. Lee, with her performance-art project in which bystanders photographed her blending into one social milieu or another; and Philip-Lorca diCorcia, with his photographs of passers-by unsuspectingly tripping their own self-portraits.
2. "Joyce Tenneson and Karin Rosenthal," at the Fraser Gallery Bethesda Tenneson's portraits of "wise women" are an Oprah-worthy lesson in fuzzy sepia tones and fuzzier inspirational vibes. But if you think turning the human body into a landscape sounds equally trite, take a look at Rosenthal's work. In her painstakingly arranged tableaux of partly submerged bodies, arms become rock walls, legs resolve themselves into fjords, and butt cheeks become convincing lily pads.
3. "Emmet Gowin: Changing the Earth," at the Corcoran Gallery of Art Gowin is best known for taking intimate shots of his family, but "Changing the Earth," a collection of aerial photographs taken over the past 20 years, demonstrated that he can also handle the big picture. Gowin's aerial images of scarred landscapes are most compelling when they turn reality into abstraction, especially in a series of snow-dusted agricultural settings that toy productively with circular geometries and unreal textures. "Changing the Earth"
4. "Edward Weston: Photography and Modernism," at the Phillips Collection Block out, if you can, this show's abysmal organization. Focus instead on the resonances between works by Weston and later generations of photographers and painters. To their credit, the curators included not only Weston's famous sexualized peppers, splayed nudes, and crystal-clear landscapes, but also such refreshingly obscure (and quirky) works as the pictures he took in MGM Studios' prop-storage rooms and during a swing through the Gothic South. Even half a century on, Weston's photographs remain vital.
5. "Paul Fusco: RFK Funeral Train" at Hemphill Fine Arts This exhibition wasn't as good as the earlier book, but it came close. Fusco, a magazine photographer, was assigned to ride the train carrying Robert F. Kennedy's body from New York to Washington following the politician's assassination, in June 1968. In a moment of inspiration, Fusco decided not to photograph inside the train but rather aim outward, at the passers-by who lined the tracks in a gesture of farewell. Inexplicably forgotten until their publication in 2000, Fusco's boldly oversaturated and aistorted photographs offer a remarkable encapsulation of a poignant moment in American history.
6. "Evelyn Richter: Photographs," at the Goethe-Institut Inter Nationes Living in East Germany during the Cold War, Richter was often repressed by party apparatchiks. Her best images capture visitors to art museums, city pedestrians, and pockmarked building façades with a winning casualness. This exhibition, coming late in Richter's life, won her some much-deserved attention on this side of the Atlantic.
7. "Ms. Booth's Garden," at the Ralls Collection Jack Kotz's photography channels such Southern masters as William Christenberry, William Eggleston, and Birney Imes, but it also reveals an individual vision. Over two decades, Kotz took more than 10,000 photographs—none exhibited publicly until this year—documenting the locales inhabited by his grandmother, Myrtle Booth. Through unexpected symmetries and varying intensities of light, he conveys a sense of place as convincingly as any of his predecessors.
8. "Conversations Through Photography," at the Watkins Gallery at American University This collection of documentary photographs by 10 Israeli and Palestinian artists featured a series of portraits of steely-eyed Palestinian career women, unexpectedly colorful images of life in the refugee camps, and a wistful documentation of a modest experiment in cross-border harmony. But the exhibition's clear standout was photojournalist Rina Castelnuovo. One of her series captured Palestinian children swimming in water covered with an intensely colored film of green algae. Another features gut-wrenching images of an all-too-common rite of passage in the occupied territories: young boys posing with assault rifles in front of incongruously cheery cartoon backdrops, taken so that parents can have a "martyr photograph" if their child is killed in the streets.
9. "Colby Caldwell: Songs," at Hemphill Fine Arts To become finished works, Caldwell's pieces must survive successive alterations by movie cameras, video recorders, and computer software—not to mention the dust and grit that Caldwell gladly welcomes into the mix. The resulting images are sumptuous, grainy fields of color so ethereal as to be otherworldly. And the fact that some of these works convince as landscapes yet are only tenuously related to actual places makes their impact that much more potent.
10. "Façades," at G Fine Art I tried hard to dislike these decontextualized building façades photographed by Roland Fischer. For one thing, the Munich-based photographer's work seems similar enough to that of Bernd and Hilla Becher, Andreas Gursky, and Thomas Struth to be redundant; for another, his portrayals are lifeless to the extreme. Still, Fischer won me over. His crystal-clear printing is impressive, even on a large scale, and his unwavering geometrical focus turns even demonstrably ugly buildings into beautifully ordered compositions.
Finally, a word of praise for an exhibition that classifies only marginally as photography: "Judy Pfaff: Recent Work," at the David Adamson Gallery, mainly featured graphic and mixed-media works, but Pfaff used photographs of gardens and vegetation as the starting point for many of her best pieces—which include at least one reinvention of the humble contact sheet on a