Maybe it’s the national malaise, or maybe it’s just a coincidence, but many of Washington’s finest photo exhibitions in 2012 were meditations on loss – the Holocaust, the extinct empires, the distant wars, difficult young adults, urban ruins and funeral rites.
Here is a reviewer’s choice of the 10 best photographic exhibitions of the year. Four of the 10 photographers behind these exhibitions have already made City paper Top 10 lists (Franz Jantzen, Camilo José Vergara, Colby Caldwell and Maxwell MacKenzie), and all but Vergara are artists from the DC area, indicating that their work has continued at a high standard.
1. “Traces of memory»At the Ann Loeb Bronfman Gallery at the DCJCC
No image from this small exhibit was breathtaking, but collectively, the photographs in “Traces of Memory” added to a moving, yet understated look at the legacy of the Holocaust in Galicia, a region on the border of Poland and Ukraine. The exhibition is the result of a 12-year collaboration between the late British photojournalist Chris Schwarz and teacher Jonathan weber from the University of Birmingham, which has teamed up to offer a refined combination of elegiac words and understated color images. The photographs featured relics of the Jewish community, evidence of genocide, signs of remembrance, and small items of a recent revival. For example, a seemingly ordinary field that once housed a death camp where 450,000 people were slaughtered is kept in a seemingly natural state because the killing and dismantling of the machinery of death was so effective. In another image, gravestones were turned into cobblestones at the encouragement of the Nazis, with their Yiddish letters still clearly visible to anyone walking on them.
2. Arthur drooker, “Lost Worlds: Ruins of the Americas”, at the Art Museum of the Americas / OAS F Street Gallery
Using a digital infrared camera, Drooker traveled to 15 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean to document 33 ruins, some of them famous and some not. He found dilapidated stone facades, staircases, pyramids, and agricultural terraces, as well as thick jungle surroundings and the obligatory ball field for human sacrifice, each enhanced by clever legends. Consider the image of San Nicolás de Bari in the Dominican Republic, in which Drooker momentarily brought a hurricane-damaged hull of the New World’s First Hospital to life by capturing a growing frenzy of birds.
3. Franz Jantzen, “Ostinato”, at Hemphill Fine Arts
Jantzen, a graphic arts collections manager at the Supreme Court as well as a photographer, assembled countless small images to create a larger one. This is not a new approach in art photography circles. What is different about Jantzen’s work is his perspective: the spectators seem to be suspended from the ceiling. Jantzen does not use a device to suspend his camera; he just holds the camera in front of him and points it down. Then he advances slightly; step and repeat. A memorable image from his Hemphill exhibit this year lovingly lingered on the floor of Loew’s Theater in Jersey City, where legend has it a young Frank Sinatra understood Bing crosby in concert in March 1933 and decides to become a singer. The theater shows its age in every detail – worn velor seats, heavily frayed floors – but the most notable sign of life is the electrical cord that winds gracefully across the stage. The job took 95 hours to assemble.
4. Camilo José Vergara, “Detroit Is No Dry Bones” and Andrew Moore, “Detroit Disassembled”, at the National Building Museum
In twin exhibitions through February, two skilled photographers use divergent approaches to paint a
complementary portrait of a troubled and sometimes absurd place: the landscape of classical Detroit architecture devastated by abandonment. Vergara, a trained sociologist, successfully resumes his venerable approach of using both photography and storytelling to communicate the slow but inexorable changes in neighborhoods. windows of an abandoned school showing 16 disheveled paintings; the transparent plastic waterfall of a homeless man, rigged by a jury, hung in an abandoned warehouse, visually suggesting a waterfall; and a class clock that has literally melted into a Dalian symbol.
5. Tim Hetherington, “Sleeping Soldiers”, at the Corcoran Gallery of Art
Tim Hetherington was integrated with army troops in a remote part of Afghanistan for 15 months in 2007 and 2008; he was later killed while on a mission in Misurata, Libya on April 20, 2011. His images – of resting and exhausted soldiers, spider smoke rising from a hillside village, military hazing rituals – are simple yet effective, with suggestions of WWII imagery W. Eugene Smith and a number of Vietnam War photographers. The approach reaches its climax, however, in a three-channel video in which the center panel shows a sleeping soldier while the side screens show footage of combat operations. When the images overlap, they suggest a dream or, worse, PTSD.
6. Shamus Ian Fatzinger, “Personal border”, Civil art projects
Shamus Ian Fatzinger The “Personal Frontier” project raised an important question about artistic authorship. Fatzinger found his artistic destiny in a forgotten cardboard box: dozens of scuffed and largely unprinted family negatives, in standard, inexpensive 35mm format format 110. Fatzinger is essentially a curator, since the footage was taken by his mother, Rebecca mcgahey and, as he said, “other anonymous authors”. Fatzinger’s role aside, the material is compelling. He documents his young parents’ move west, from New Jersey to New Mexico, pursuing the wealth dream of uranium mining. It’s a 1970s working-class demigod with shaggy hair, woman’s bodysuits, and muscle cars – the real deal in our Instagram age.
7. George steinmetz, “Desert Air”, to the National Geographic Society.
To achieve his aerial images, George Steinmetz uses a seemingly rickety 90-pound motorized paraglider that travels 30 miles per hour after taking off with a running start. His crazy bet works: it allows him to capture the emerald, beige and chocolate hues of the evaporation ponds; the delicately cracked salt deposits of Bolivia; the peaceful baby blues of a thin layer of flood water in South American apartments; Unreal green algae bloom in a rusty wasteland in Ethiopia; tiny farms nestled in fragile bowls of sand in the Algerian desert; flamingos frolicking in black water in Iran; and an incredibly cramped neighborhood of multicolored houses on a hill in Algeria.
8. Colby Caldwell, “Gun Shy”, at Hemphill Fine Arts and Civilian Art Projects
Simultaneous exhibitions from Caldwell to Hemphill and Civilian demonstrated his range as a photography-oriented conceptual artist. His monumental portraits (or technically, direct digital scans) of modest objects were particularly striking. Caldwell’s images of dead birds were discreetly impressive, especially a cropped scarlet wing against an inky black background. Caldwell’s exhausted seashell images, however, were even more fascinating, as they had deteriorated in visually intriguing ways on his property in rural St. Mary’s County. Caldwell enlarged them to several times their actual size, exposing intriguing tactile properties (pitted metal, rust, pustules, a pinch of sand, and the occasional protruding twig); mysterious markings of slowly disappearing manufacturers; a range of interesting shapes (flattened, wavy, and a weirdly sultry curve that resembles the bang of a full-length dress), and notable color undertones (including mother-of-pearl, a purple-aqua fade with yellow highlights, and an inexplicable bright pink).
9. Maxwell MacKenzie, “Helter-Shelter”, at the American Institute of Architects
Over the course of his career, MacKenzie has assembled a beautiful piece of work, especially his images of lightly decaying barns and oddly textured farm fields. The images in “Helter-Shelter” aren’t his prettiest, but for someone as talented as MacKenzie, it still means something. “Helter-Shelter” – like its (perhaps too fanciful) title – is “an exploration of the organization of temporary communities”. MacKenzie places an image of a row of attractive houses lining a spire in the middle of a deep blue lake, right in front of a photograph of a row of mobile homes parked in a leafy valley – a sly comment on economic differences. MacKenzie’s most striking works take full advantage of their enormous scale – a large-screen, ground-level view of Nevada’s Burning Man Festival with a freeze-frame complexity that suggests the best work of Andreas Gursky and Edouard burtynsky.
ten. Charlotte dumas, “Anima”, at the Corcoran Gallery of Art
Four of Dumas’s series were collectively exhibited at the Corcoran. Of these, two were particularly noteworthy: a 2008 series on homeless dogs in Palermo that featured a dozen dogs surviving obvious deprivation with crude dignity, and a newly commissioned series that documented the grave horses in the cemetery. Arlington National. Working in teams of six, these horses perform eight burials a day, five days a week. In Dumas’ end-of-day photographs, the horses appear exhausted, enveloped in their stalls by a mournful gloom. In each series, Dumas’s ability to connect with his non-human subjects is eerie.
Meanwhile, a number of non-photographic exhibitions are worth mentioning this year:
Jill Townsley, “TOIL”, at the Project 4 gallery
Turning doodles into art isn’t new, but Townsley does it extraordinarily well. In a series of five large-scale pen-on-paper works, Townsley deposited so much ink – scribble by superimposed scribble – that only a handful of white dots remained, turning what was once a blank sheet of paper into a delicate, starry sky.
Dan Tag to civil art projects
Tag’s inkjet prints of enlarged, crumpled dollar bills mesmerized the eyes and intrigued the mind, with precise creases that used existing lettering on the bills to reveal hidden messages, such as “the resistance is futile ”and“ we need a revolution ”.
“Washington Realism»At the Carroll Square gallery
Three artists stood out in this otherwise uneven show. Trevor Young offered its iconic infrastructural voids – an empty parking cabin overnight and a jet plane parked in the middle of the wide negative space of an airport tarmac. Gregory Thielker painted landscapes of rural roads, the most intriguing a twilight view from the windshield of a moving car, in which the distortion at the edges was perfect. And Martin kotler produced a marvelous pair of depictions of Ashcan school-worthy train stations, crowned with intricately reproduced overhead power line entanglements.
Top 10 previous photographic exhibitions selected by Louis Jacobson for City Paper: 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2009, 2010, 2011