Bed by Mark Power (2014)

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It took four decades, but Photoworks—the photography center at Maryland’s Glen Echo Park—has become enough of an institution to have a retrospective of its own. The location of the exhibit, a large, airy space at the American University Museum, is quite a bit fancier than what Photoworks had in its early days.

Back then, according to the retrospective, “the facility was rustic. Entering the Photoworks space felt like passing through a tiny Alice in Wonderland door… into a deep, dark cave, a room with bare bulbs and wet floors.” By contrast, the retrospective, which includes the work of both current and past artists affiliated with Photoworks, is impressively large and sprawls across the museum’s first floor.

As might be expected, not every image in the exhibit is equally compelling. Landscapes by Sonia Suter, Brad Beukema, and Frank P. (Tico) Herrera are comparatively bland, and still-lifes and nudes by Judith Walser and Grace Taylor, while technically astute, do not exactly break new ground.

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All told, though, the retrospective’s batting average is pretty high. One image by Henry Freidman depicts sycamores in Gaithersburg; the image looks so timeless that it could be mistaken for a meditation from the Civil War era. Another Freidman image presents a flat white building façade in Waynesboro, Va., layered with the elongated shadows of traffic lights—a pleasing spatial distortion as languid as the setting.

In a more experimental vein, Joe Cameron uses skillful ultra-high contrast techniques to capture a gently curving sidewalk curb; in another image, he photographs a velour chair and carpet, creating an adroit study in surfaces. Sarah Hood Salomon, meanwhile, offers a jittery photograph of trees, seemingly taken while riding on a children’s swing.

The exhibit’s documentarians produce some fine work, as well, from Christine A. Pearl’s images of demolition derbies to Michael Lang’s photographs of drag queens getting ready in their dressing rooms. Tom Wolff gracefully captures the christening of robed celebrants in the Rappahannock River, while Fred Zafran contributes a moody series of nighttime urban vignettes, and Rebecca Drobis offers a moving scene from a Blackfeet reservation in Montana—an image of several kids jumping on a trampoline, one of them holding what appears to be a real handgun.

Several artists indulge a creepy vibe. Elsie Hull Sprague (who passed away a year ago last month) and Mark Power depict institutional rooms in sickly hues, and Sora DeVore channels the pitilessness of Sally Mann and Frederick Sommer by documenting the decay of animal corpses. The oddest image in the exhibit is Power’s monumental photograph of a fork covered with food residue and resting on a used napkin. Power’s style pays homage to Stephen Shore, while the choice of object upends the most familiar previous depiction of utensils: the crisp, stylish fork photographs of Jan Groover.

Far-flung locales provide the raw material for some of the exhibit’s finest images: Drobis’ dreamy depiction of a school bus in the West enveloped by a baby blue sky; Eliot Cohen’s image of three gnarled trees in Namibia set against an off-kilter desert background; and Karen Keating’s black-and-white image of a fenced-in pig in Cuba framed by intersecting phone lines and a stick in the ground, a simple yet impeccably arranged tableau.

Focusing on such distant locations, though, is ultimately a diversion. At root, this exhibit involves a local museum spotlighting the work of local artists at a local artistic institution, and in that mission, it succeeds. Ultimately, the “place” in “Photoworks: Presence of Place” is right here at home.

4400 Massachusetts Ave. NW. Free. (202) 885-1300. american.edu/cas/museum