“Rimini” by Andreas Gursky (2003)

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In its latest exhibition, The National Gallery of Art aims to reveal the ways in which photography “has been transformed—aesthetically and technically—during the last 30 years.”

It does that—warts and all.

To accomplish this relatively broad task, the exhibition includes just 35 works by 18 artists, almost exclusively large-scale pieces that fit comfortably into the spacious, newly renovated galleries of the museum’s East Wing. It is too limited a selection to fully investigate each tributary of contemporary photography, and as a selection from a personal collection, it is inevitably limited to the interests of the collectors.

Still, the sampling of works manages to touch on a range of trends that have elevated—and complicated—the medium over the past three decades.

Deliberately inscrutable conceptual art? It’s here, in John Baldessari’s work combining an image of a pianist, a vertically flipped image of an orchestra, and three circular blotches of acrylic paint in primary colors that obscure some of the figures’ heads.

Photography that isn’t really photography? It’s got that too, in Anselm Kiefer’s “Vanitas,” a mixed-media work built initially upon a black-and-white photograph but which is almost entirely obscured by a woodsy mélange of oil paint, shellac, plant material, and soil.

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Artistic self-indulgence? Look no further than a chosen work by Cindy Sherman, an homage to Piero della Francesca’s 15th century portraits of the Duke and Duchess of Urbino. Unlike Sherman’s early film-still works, which were groundbreaking and clever, the elaborate, almost grotesque staging of the artist’s self-portrait as the duchess comes across only as decadent.

But the exhibition does help clarify one narrow question of enduring, if surprising, resonance for several recent photographers. When capturing images of museums and libraries, it turns out that the images with people are superior to those without.

Candida Höfer has produced some elegant depictions of museum and library interiors. But with only artifacts and architecture on view, they seem drained of life. By contrast, Thomas Struth’s image of the Cathedral of Notre Dame is elevated by the pedestrians milling in front of it, and Struth’s photograph of the visitors to the Prado in Madrid—made after waiting patiently for the right mix of people—is endlessly absorbing. Caught in one glorious split second, each interaction—notetaking students, a grinning man, a tourist taking a photo—is a revelation.

Another recurring theme of the exhibition is the role artifice plays in modern-day photography. The advent of Photoshop—and the willingness of artists to use it and for viewers to tolerate it—is a defining feature of the period. Whether intentionally or not, the exhibit offers examples in which artifice confuses and where it clarifies.

Consider two images by Andreas Gursky. One, of endless rows of beach umbrellas on Italy’s Adriatic coast, looks breathtaking, but has it been manipulated? The answer goes a long way toward determining how impressive the image actually is.

By contrast, another image by Gursky—of odd, decontextualized, gray swooshes—is so clearly manipulated that the same uncertainty doesn’t undermine it. The curves, which visitors are told come from an automobile raceway in Bahrain, can instead be admired for their pure geometric form.

The same holds true for the works by Hiroshi Sugimoto. His long-duration exposure in a rococo movie theater offers a simple, warm glow on the screen—the sum of all moving images during the movie’s showing. And his image of the sea and sky is as elemental as a Rothko painting. To Sugimoto’s credit, both images are brainy in concept yet comprehensible in practice.

Questions of artifice in photography reach their apogee in the exhibition with the 2003 image “Clearing,” by Thomas Demand. Demand’s modus operandi is to construct miniature renditions of seemingly humdrum scenes that are nonetheless freighted with historical significance. Of these, the most monumental—and convincing—is “Clearing,” which portrays a sun-dappled garden scene made from 270,000 pieces of die-cut paper.

It feels paradoxical that an artist would recreate a tableau that he probably could have captured by camping out for a few hours in a nice patch of shrubbery. But the sheer gusto with which Demand has pulled off this task inspires admiration. It also crystallizes one of the enduring questions of the photographic arts: If photography cannot be trusted, what can be?

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