Dec. 26, 2003 –
Arts in Review 2003
Little Big Shots
By Louis Jacobson
The realization dawned on me only slowly, but 2003 actually turned out to be a very good year for photography enthusiasts in Washington. Unlike 2002, this past year brought few blockbuster shows at major museums—just a stylish, if poorly contextualized, Margaret Bourke-White retrospective at the Phillips Collection and a somewhat smarter Robert Frank show at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. The National Gallery of Art and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden—venues that in 2002 mounted important shows on Alfred Stieglitz and street photography, respectively—this year offered photography buffs...nothing. (Don’t get me started on the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery, which are still undergoing their tragicomically long renovation-related closure.) Fortunately, other venues picked up the slack. In fact, the roster of impressive exhibits at smaller galleries was unusually long this year—almost enough to fill two top-10 lists.
One felicitous trend on the local scene was a flowering of black-and-white landscape photography, from Bruce Barnbaum and Carl Austin Hyatt at the Kathleen Ewing Gallery to Sally Gall at the Ralls Collection to a wide-ranging landscape show at the Fraser Gallery Bethesda. In fact, so many dramatic, sweeping vistas were hung this year that they almost canceled each other out. A couple that stood out from the pack were the Edward Riddell show at the Troyer Gallery, and Phil Borges’ piercing, hand-tinted portraits of children and adults set against stunning natural backgrounds in “Cultures on the Edge” at Ralls.
Another notable feature of 2003 was a wealth of art from (and about) Cuba—ironic, perhaps, given Fidel Castro’s recent crackdown on dissidents and artists. Lydia Ann Douglas’ “Cuba Through My Eyes” at the Dupont Circle Teaism and the multiartist “Cuba Now!” at the Sumner School Museum and Archives both presented thoughtful and often enigmatic photographs of the island nation (including, in the latter show, stunning black-and-white street images by Washington photographer Nestor Hernández). Fraser’s Bethesda outpost also mounted “De Aquí y de Allá (From Here and From There),” an impressive and angry group show of Cuban and Cuban-exile photographers and artists, including such standouts as mixed-media artist Aimee Garcia Marrero and printmaker Sandra Ramos.
A third, rather peculiar pattern emerged in 2003: an inverse relationship between the size of the art and the quality of the show. Though there were a few exhibitions of large-scale works that came off well—including “William Wegman: New Pigment Prints” at the David Adamson Gallery and flower images by Andrzej Pluta at the Fraser Gallery Bethesda—many of the year’s finest local photography shows were made up of works that were positively, even aggressively, petite. Most notable among them were the New York images of Godfrey Frankel, shown last spring at Hemphill Fine Arts. Other members of the “Small is beautiful” club were Robert Shlaer, Stephen Petegorsky, and Deborah Luster.
The energy of the small-scale artworks, the dominance of the smaller galleries—together they made 2003’s local photography shows a collective triumph of substance over size. Here’s one critic’s opinion of the best of them:
1. “Godfrey Frankel: Contact Prints, 1943–1948,” at Hemphill Fine Arts. The best photography exhibition this year in Washington featured images made half a century ago. What distinguished the late Godfrey Frankel’s photographs of New York from those of Berenice Abbott, Ben Shahn, and other contemporaries was Frankel’s conscious decision to print his images small—just 2-and-a-quarter inches square, a size that emphasizes their astonishing detail. Looking at Frankel’s photographs requires up-close attention, but the payoff is worth it.
2. “Henry Horenstein: Aquatics,” at the Kathleen Ewing Gallery. Horenstein, who has produced 30 children’s books, visited zoos and aquariums to photograph sea creatures using only available light. A simple idea—but the effect is wondrous: grainy black-and-white images that skillfully communicate the animals’ reflective and translucent properties.
3. “Classic Baseball,” at the Govinda Gallery. Veteran Sports Illustrated photographer Walter Iooss Jr. somehow managed to mount a photographic exhibition about America’s most well-documented sport without including any overly familiar images. No matter how famous the player, Iooss always found some aesthetic angle to draw in the fan and nonfan alike. His pièce de résistance: a wide-angle photograph of Cuban children playing stickball on a street corner that casually echoes the composition of da Vinci’s The Last Supper.
4. “Sights Once Seen: Daguerreotyping Frémont’s Last Expedition Through the Rockies,” at the U.S. Department of the Interior Museum. Robert Shlaer quit academia to learn the vanished art of making daguerreotypes, then hitched up his van and headed West to make a retro photodocumentary of the obscure, and ill-fated, final expedition of explorer John Charles Frémont. Conceptually, the project is on thin ice: The photographs from the original 1853–1854 trek vanished in a long-ago warehouse fire, forcing Shlaer to speculate about what the party saw. But the notion of using daguerreotypy for landscape work—something rarely done in the technique’s brief heyday—is inspired, and the resulting tiny images, all gorgeous detail and eerie tinting, exude an iconoclastic charm.
5. “Stephen Petegorsky: Gold Work,” at the Ralls Collection. After years spent careering from landscape work to conceptual art to photojournalism, Stephen Petegorsky has found a niche that really works: art decoratif. Using a complicated process, Petegorsky photographs prosaic subjects—a bird, a leaf, a starfish—and then pastes emulsions of the images onto small boards coated with colored clay and gilding. The resulting works—some fossil-like, others suggesting cave paintings—are gems whose surfaces play mesmerizing tricks with reflected light.
6. “Stephen Lawson: The Light of Day—New Work,” at the Kathleen Ewing Gallery. Lawson’s geometrically rigorous time-lapse images, made with eccentric, custom-designed cameras, are at once narrowly conceptual and expansively affecting. While some of the pieces at Ewing paled in comparison with cleverer images that were not included in the show, most of those on display were thought-provoking. One work, in which Lawson photographed sequential vertical segments of a rural valley at 4:30 p.m. every Friday for a year, illustrates the cycle of life with efficiency, intelligence, and poignance.
7. One Big Self: Prisoners of Louisiana, in “Southern Images: Six Contemporary Photographers,” at the Kathleen Ewing Gallery. Deborah Luster, the standout of Ewing’s somewhat mediocre Southern-photography show, made an exhaustive series of collaborative photographs with Louisiana inmates. Using a 5-inch-by-4-inch format that resembles an old-fashioned tintype, Luster documented prisoners in unexpected, self-chosen garb, from Mardi Gras costumes to rodeo gear to chef’s toques. In the process, she humanized her otherwise invisible subjects.
8. “Robert Frank: London/ Wales,” and “Both Sides of the Street: Celebrating the Corcoran’s Photography Collection,” at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. A few years before he published the groundbreaking, and still hugely influential, book of photographs The Americans, Frank spent time documenting rich and poor in London and Wales. Though the images are hardly revolutionary, they do include tantalizing details that point to an artist on the verge of an aesthetic breakthrough. An unexpectedly enlightening bonus to the Frank show was the near-simultaneous “Both Sides of the Street,” a retrospective featuring works that either presaged or paid homage to The Americans.
9. “Tobacco: Architectural Photographs by Maxwell MacKenzie,” at the American Institute of Architects. MacKenzie’s fourth major project chronicling vernacular architecture once again set high standards. In an inspired moment, MacKenzie took what had previously been just a tool for spotting old barns—an ultralight glider—and used it as a vantage point from which to photograph the barns. These aerial images were further improved by being arranged into matrices, which exhibited their diverse hues to great effect.
10. “Surface Tension,” at the David Adamson Gallery. Ray Charles White was inspired artistically by the mercury he used to pinch from his dentist father’s reserves. From this petty pilfering he graduated to making photo-based silk-screen prints that document the rippled, quicksilver-like surface of a quiet lake on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. After years of returning to the same spot, White had learned the water’s every mood. He used that knowledge to construct, through painstaking trial and error, large-scale, fractured images of the water’s surface in striking tones of sepia, beer-bottle green, and Tahoe blue.
Though they weren’t photography per se, two impressive pieces of video art this year offered valuable insights on the photographic process. In Civic Endurance, at Conner Contemporary Art, Bradley McCallum and Jacqueline Tarry used digital cameras to capture a carefully choreographed act of social protest, in which 26 homeless youth in Seattle stood successively for one hour each on the same street corner. The project’s intention was to challenge the city’s anti-vagrancy law, but the resulting video—artificially sped up to fit into a two-hour time frame—also accomplishes an artistic purpose, beautifully tracking the shifting daylight and the changing moods of the city. And in Home, part of the “Homeland” show at the Corcoran, Susan Black made exquisite use of a simple conceit: lashing a video camera upside-down to the outside of a car door, then letting it run while driving around an affluent suburban neighborhood. The result is bracingly vertiginous and a little bit unsettling.
Finally, one photographic book of local origin deserves kudos this year. In creating At First Sight: Photography and the Smithsonian, Smithsonian photography curator Merry A. Foresta plumbed the dark recesses of “the nation’s attic” and found a treasure trove of utilitarian images that display unexpected artistry, from X-rays of animal specimens to hundred-year-old blue-tinted images of Japanese kite frames whose spare, minimalist forms foreshadow a number of movements of 20-century art. CP
Copyright © 2003 Washington Free Weekly Inc.