Credit: Photo by Joel Sartore

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You didn’t have to be famous to make this critic’s top-10 list of photography shows. You certainly didn’t have to be living. And in one case, you didn’t even have to be more than a serious amateur.

The subject matter of these 10 exhibits ranged widely, from landscapes to animal portraiture to street photography. Their venues did, too, from major institutions like the Smithsonian and the National Geographic Society to smaller spaces like Bethesda’s Fraser Gallery and Hillyer Art Space in Dupont Circle.

All of the exhibits on this list were impressive in a formalistic sense, but only a handful of this year’s 10 best exhibits succeeded at combining striking imagery with genuine emotion, particularly the first and second slots. Here are my picks:

1. “Rare: Photographs by Joel Sartore” at National Geographic Society

The subject matter of this exhibition was compelling on its own—a visual catalog of the world’s disappearing species, from insects to eagles to wolves, all shown in lightboxes in larger-than-life dimensions. But what made this the best photographic exhibit of 2010 was the artist’s deep humanism. On the one hand, it’s hard not to feel a jolt of sadness seeing images of Bryn, the grayish-brown Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit which was the last of her species when she died at a zoo in Portland, Ore., in 2008, or the last dusky seaside sparrow, that died in 1987 and was photographed in repose in a tagged bottle. On the other hand, Sartore leavened the melancholy with disarmingly witty captions that explained the mundane challenges of photographing such elusive creatures.

2. “imMigration” at Hillyer Art Space

The best of several strong photography shows this year that featured Latin American artists, “imMigration” was a small but tightly themed exhibit about migration and immigration. The photographs were taken by artists from 11 different nations, but the quality of the images chosen was uniformly high, and each concisely explored an aspect of the disjointedness that circumscribes immigrants’ lives, from the loneliness of long-distance migration to the invisibility of immigrants in the dominant culture.

3. International Photography Competitionat Fraser Gallery

Who would have guessed that a bunch of relative amateurs would have produced such a stunning collection of imagery? The roughly three dozen works—selected from a pool of more than 500 entries by 151 locals and out-of-towners—produced a deep bench of first-rate work. The exhibition was heavy on landscapes, but that’s no crime when there were so many excellent ones to choose from, including Edward Hahn’s small dock floating unassumingly in tranquil waters; David Quinn’s dreamily blurred seascape in late afternoon; Allen Russ’ centrifugal symphony of blues at a Scottish pond; Kent Mercurio’s tiny, isolated, leafy island under a silky sky; and Minny Lee’s ominous sky-and-branches image, with the indistinct detailing one might find in an early 20th century gum-bichromate print.

4. “One View—Ten Years” at Adamson Gallery

Neither the idea of photographing the horizon line between sea and sky, nor the idea of returning periodically to the same location to capture how it looks under different atmospheric conditions, is especially original. Yet Renate Aller succeeded in producing some visually stunning sea-and-skyscapes from her visits to the same point on the southern Long Island shore over the course of a decade. Aller’s colors ranged from pastel to murky, her textures from puffy to muddy. Sometimes her images evoked the clouds of Georgia O’Keeffe, the abstract zips of Barnett Newman, and the hill ridges of a Western landscape. One way or another, she always seemed to elicit something new from the same old elements.

5. “Phil Nesmith: Flow”at Irvine Contemporary

Not all of his images worked equally well, but Phil Nesmith deserves credit for the concept behind “Flow.” Nesmith went to the Gulf Coast to photograph the aftermath of this year’s BP oil spill, capturing hyper-current images using the long-obsolete wet-plate collodion process. His rationale for using that technique—that it was the dominant photographic process when oil was discovered in the U.S. in the 1850s—is less important than the fact that it produced a strikingly different reflection of today’s surroundings, making modern objects and structures seem old fashioned and, by extension, calling into question the very notion of progress.

6. “Maxwell MacKenzie: New Work” at Fraser Gallery

It’s a testament to the quality of MacKenzie’s work that the D.C.-based photographer’s newest exhibition made this top-10 list even though his images didn’t look much different from those he featured in his last area show six years ago. That’s because MacKenzie’s photographs, taken from a self-piloted ultralight, retain their capacity to astound—graceful agricultural furrows with the texture of corduroy, fields of green and beige that recall the paintings of Diebenkorn, whimsically curving forms that look like ant trails, enigmatic unplowed areas that suggest a blinking eye, and scatterings of hay bales that resemble tiny pushpins.

7. “Joshua Cogan: Time Given”at 6th & I Historic Synagogue

Cogan, a D.C.-based photographer, has traveled so widely to make street photographs that this exhibition only scratches the surface of his work. (A wider selection appears on his website.) The works on display at 6th & I range from Louisiana and Jamaica to Vietnam and Zanzibar, producing an ambitious portfolio that is at turns gritty, heartbreaking, and joyous. Cogan’s most memorable work in this exhibit is his affectionate portrayal of food vendors around the world, from fishmongers in Bangkok to a funnel cake counterman in Coney Island and a jerk chicken vendor in Jamaica. Open through Jan. 31.

8. “Framing the West: The Survey, Photographs of Timothy H. O’Sullivan” at Smithsonian American Art Museum

This retrospective could have done more to contextualize one of the great landscape photographers of the mid-19th century, but the extensive collection of O’Sullivan’s images from the United States’ Western frontier made clear why he left such a big legacy to later generations of photographers. O’Sullivan’s brown-toned photographs—identically and tastefully mounted within complementary pale yellow borders—were best appreciated with a nose right up to the glass. The prints ranged from granular, intensely detailed surfaces of rocks to gloriously (but due to their long exposure times, misleadingly) placid depictions of surging water.

9. “Helios: Eadweard Muybridge in a Time of Change”at Corcoran Gallery of Art

Though it was needlessly stuffed with supernumerary early works, this exhibition justly showcased the man who first captured animal and human locomotion on film. Especially graceful and timeless were Muybridge’s images of birds flying and greyhounds running, as well as nude human models engaged in boxing, fencing, and acrobatics. When water was thrown into the air, it traced patterns unseen at the time and still striking today, and the brief motion pictures created from Muybridge’s images, despite the vast technological advances of the past 130 years, retained their power to amaze.

10. “Frank Hallam Day: RV”at Addison-Ripley Fine Art

Frank Hallam Day actually helmed two fine exhibitions at Addison-Ripley this year. The first was a group show he curated, “Portray,” that included portraiture by Colby Caldwell, Annette Polan, and Pat Goslee. The second was a solo show in which he photographed recreational vehicles in the gloom of night, parked in anonymous, eerie settings in Florida. The vehicles are semi-hidden amid palm fronds and Spanish moss, seen at dusk or in inky blackness and lit by harsh flashes and eccentrically colored glows emanating from their interiors. The series is too suggestive of Gregory Crewdson and Todd Hido to be considered Day’s finest work, but it’s still effective at creating a feeling of pervasive moodiness.

This week on Arts Desk: Louis Jacobson’s 10 most memorable images of the year.