Encapsulating an entire nation’s photographic culture poses a challenge for “A Democracy of Images: The Smithsonian American Art Museum,” an exhibit that celebrates the 30th anniversary of the museum’s photography collection. To its credit, the show includes worthwhile contributions from a generous sampling of photographers who aren’t household names. Consider the circular, black-and-white image from Deborah Luster’s “Tooth for an Eye” series (shown), which documents the last views seen by the homicide victims of Orleans Parish, La. The work in the exhibit, representing a victim found “face up with multiple gunshot wounds,” looks to the sky, where birds perch on telephone wires—an eloquently simple image that toys with ideas of life and death in a city, New Orleans, where both can seem tightly intertwined. For a visual survey of Americana, one image seems particularly apt: Skeet McAuley’s large-scale photograph of a woodsy scene that, almost imperceptibly at first glance, conceals a section of the Alaska Pipeline. It’s a gorgeous panorama, but so carefully polished it could serve as corporate PR, a mixture of art and commerce that’s quintessentially American. And while these images feature controversial elements of contemporary life, they’re so well-composed that the lines between art and documentary almost blur.

The exhibit is on view daily 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. to Jan. 5, 2014, at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, 8th and F streets NW. Free. (202) 633-7970. americanart.si.edu.