DC’s top photography exhibitions of 2014 had a strong sense of place – from Mexico to Maine, early 1960s New York to mid-1970s Los Angeles, 19th century Burma to contemporary Ghana, and even a little cameo from Washington, CC
Here are, in descending order, my picks for the best photo exhibitions in the DC area this year.
1. Alejandro Cartagena in the Art Museum of the Americas
Cartagena, based in the city of Monterrey, in northern Mexico, has achieved the rare trick of combining visual interest, social uprightness and empathy for her subjects. One of his two series at the Art Museum of the Americas focused on the newly constructed dwellings as they were sculpted into the empty landscape. But the most impressive series (above) documented day laborers being transported in the backs of pickup trucks on a highway near Monterrey. The photographs were all taken directly over the bed of the van, cropped almost identically – a repeat that only serves to highlight the wide array of “cargo” being carried, human and otherwise. Each image offered a poignant slice of blue-collar life in Mexico, a portrayal that is both gritty and human.
2. Lisa Tyson Ennis at Glen Echo Photoworks
The images of Ennis, organized by Frank Van Riper in Photoworks’ annual documentary photography exhibit, was a dreamy hymn to the countryside of Lubec, Maine, a location near the Canada-U.S. border. Ennis photographed weirs – crude but painstakingly constructed barriers that have been used by generations of fishermen – echoing the black and white art of Michael kenna. The dams she photographed are largely disused, symbolizing overfishing and long-term economic distress. But the most astonishing images were of fragile and dilapidated shacks (above) in an abandoned colony 50 years ago, captured with a shallow depth of field that blurred the background and recalled images of toy miniatures of the photographer. David Levinthal.
3. Kai Wiedenhöfer at the Goethe-Institut
On the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Goethe-Institut has put on an exhibition of the walls that divide people around the world. The exhibit includes four meager images of the prolific Wiedenhöfer, but even this small sample offered a compelling vision: a transparent divider on a scenic beach in Tijuana, Mexico; a fenced fort perched above the water in Melilla, a Spanish enclave bordering Morocco (above); a woman in a chador climbing through a wall in Baghdad; and a dilapidated divider of stone, brick, wood and corrugated iron in Cyprus. Wiedenhöfer’s approach to documenting his often highly contested places is, to his credit, unbiased, analyzing the visual, architectural and psychological consequences of human divisions.
4. “72 grams per pixel” at gallery B
The “72 grams per pixel” exhibit was “presented by” FolioLink, a product for displaying photographs on HD video screens. The exhibition was therefore even more commercial than most gallery exhibitions. But art has risen above, with pieces like Raul Jarquinthe brooding renderings of Rock Creek Park (above), Laurie Hatch images of observatories and the sky that envelops them, Stephen Crowley ‘s fascinating series of everyday objects half buried in the asphalt, and Terri weifenbach1.5-minute video of rippling water surface.
5. Garry Winogrand at the National Gallery of Art
The great NGA retrospective on Winogrand helped change the image of the photographer as someone who treated their shutter like a machine gun trigger, sometimes without looking. The exhibition selected from a treasure trove of a quarter of a million images left after his death in 1984, largely unsorted and unedited; around half of the photographs in the exhibition had never been shown or published before, offering a much broader look at his work. Whether working in New York or Los Angeles, Winogrand was the quintessential people watcher, crouching on the sidewalks with an antenna perfectly suited to the movements, faces, and quirks that swirled around him. While the last third of the exhibition, spanning the 1970s and early 1980s, sagged with the mood of the country, her work is reminiscent of the vital genre of street photography that flourished in an era before the suburban isolation and selfies.
6. Larry McNeil and Will Wilson at the National Museum of the American Indian
The exhibition “Indelible: The Platinum Photographs of Larry McNeil and Will Wilson” (on view until January 15) poses a provocative question: can photographic technology serve ideological motives? The exhibit answers yes: because some of the most significant photographic documentary efforts involving Native Americans, including that of Edward S. Curtis, used platinum printing, some have come to regard platinum printing as deeply linked to the fate of the American Indians. The case of the exhibition is not entirely convincing – another exhibition this year at the National Gallery of Art demonstrated that platinum prints were used for much more varied purposes – but the reappropriation of the old technique still produces interesting results. For the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the Western Hemisphere, McNeil produced a series of “feathers,” including a stunning ultra-close-up of a solitary feather (above). He also reinvented the old TV series Lone Ranger and Tonto through a clever series of fake stills that turned stereotypes upside down. Wilson, meanwhile, more directly challenged the Curtis-style depictions, collaborating with contemporary Native Americans and non-Native Americans to make formal portraits.
7. Linnaeus Tripe at the National Gallery of Art
More than 150 years after the brutal end of his brief career, Tripe (1822-1902) is in the spotlight of a retrospective (on view until January 4) featuring his little-known work documenting India and Burma on behalf of the East India Company and the British government. Tripe had to carry heavy cameras, a portable water still, and tin cans to protect his photosensitive materials on his treks in the hot and humid parts of South Asia. Tripe’s paper negatives had to be large enough to communicate the intricate details of the pagodas and other buildings he photographed. He also had to retouch his golden images to capture details that his early tech just couldn’t capture, like clouds in the sky. His mature work was both rigorously formal, echoing his training as a surveyor, and visually pleasing. An accompanying mini-exhibition by more or less contemporary photographers confirms that Tripe’s approach was well ahead of his artistic time.
8. Frank Hallam Day at Leica Store
The Washington-based photographer’s 15-image exhibit documenting the small-scale fishing industry along Ghana’s Atlantic coast (visible until January) is at the same time technically difficult, visually complex and rich in subject matter. In Day’s Telling, the sweaty, romantic and messy universe is characterized by uncertain-looking boats with peeling paint and diaphanous streaks; back on shore, women hover over pots of boiling water and piles of gutted fish carcasses. His portrait is by turns hard and soft; in one image, a boy lies stiffly on the bow of a boat, wearing a red T-shirt that says “Boys Rule Fact”, while in another, two girls are dancing, hovering in the air on the beach.
9. Michael Horsley at DCAC
Horsley is best known for his documentation on DC pre-gentrification, but in “At the Crossroad: A Topography of Space, Time and Memory” he moved away from urban decadence, spending quality time in places as well. as scenic as the Nevada Desert, Lake Tahoe, Utah’s Capitol Reef National Park and the Hawaiian Island of Kauai. Horsley’s work was often highly contrasted in the extreme, reveling in all-encompassing shadows and sometimes becoming so sullen that his images could replace stills of Robert rodriguezthe black comic book movie of 2005 City of sin. In Horsley’s footage, the sky was often an almost impenetrable black, while the reflective surfaces – from concrete to brick to asphalt – were bright, white, producing the disorienting sensation of not to know if it is day or night.
ten. Marc Babej at the Adamson Gallery
Babej, the lesser-known artist in Adamson’s “Recent Editions” exhibition, has taken close-up portraits of women, their faces marked with clusters of Xs as if they were awaiting plastic surgery. It was a nimble spin on glamorous 1940s Hollywood snaps, this time marred by imperfections that to most observers would seem unimportant.
Top 10 previous photographic exhibitions selected by Louis Jacobson for City Paper: 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2009, 2010, 2011,2012, 2013.