Unidentified artist,
Unidentified artist,

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The story of photography in Washington in 2009 may have been less about imagery than it was about words.

The five local photography exhibits that made this critic’s best-of-2009 list all offered their share of striking visuals. But what set these five shows apart was the thoughtful, enlightening, and in some cases quirky way in which they combined images with written backstories.

Basing a critical judgment of artworks even partially on captions is not without controversy; recently, Washington Post art critic Blake Gopnik bemoaned the fact that visitors to the National Geographic Society’s exhibit of Chinese terra cotta warriors spent “more time on the texts that line the galleries’ walls than on the statues displayed across their floors.”

Point taken, but I’d still posit that providing compelling captions enlightens a work rather than diminishes it. In fact, the lack of background context for viewers proved to be a serious shortcoming in some shows this year that were otherwise provocative, such as “Edward Burtynsky: Oil,” the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s sweeping exploration of the planet’s petroleum-based culture.

Before listing the Top 5, I’ll mention a caveat: The following list excludes a number of exhibits that ran before April of this year, when I returned to reviewing photography for City Paper after a roughly two-year hiatus. As a result, the list does not include some shows that would have been contenders, including “Accommodating Nature: The Photographs of Frank Gohlke,” at the Smithsonian American Art Museum; “Tokens of Affection and Regard: Photographic Jewelry and Its Makers,” at the National Portrait Gallery; and especially, “Looking In: Robert Frank’s ‘The Americans,’” at the National Gallery of Art.

That said, here’s the best of the rest of 2009:

1) “Faces of the Frontier: Photographic Portraits from the American West, 1845-1924,” National Portrait Gallery

I was surprised that an exhibit consisting almost exclusively of portraits managed to snag the top spot on my list; more often, my tastes have run to landscape and documentary work. But this survey of the 19th-century West, captured through the faces of those who shaped it, is a gem. The exhibit—on display to Jan. 24—includes not just the famous (Sam Houston, John Brown, Mark Twain, Buffalo Bill, Geronimo, Gloria Swanson) but also dozens of obscure, fascinating characters, deftly synopsized in smart captions. Many of the most interesting discoveries are women (proto-political-wife Jessie Benton Fremont, disaffected Brigham Young wife No. 19 Ann Eliza Young, fierce-looking bank robber Laura Bullion, child kidnapee Olive Oatman). Of special note is a sleek wooden viewer for the three-dimensional images known as stereoscopes; it offers a dazzling visual experience that seems far ahead of its time. Despite a rather arbitrary organizational structure, “Faces of the Frontier” provides a moving history of the American frontier.

2) “Storefront Churches: Photographs by Camilo José Vergara,” National Building Museum

Camilo José Vergara, a photographer and sociologist, richly deserved his MacArthur “genius” grant for his work documenting both the crumbling and resilient sides of America’s inner cities. His most recent topic of exploration, storefront churches, found that places of worship fill almost any abandoned spot—a once-stately bank, an old KFC, an abandoned Honda dealership, even an empty lot—and function despite impossibly cramped quarters. Vergara’s accompanying book provides a wealth of detailed background on the images, but the photographs themselves are powerful in their own right. The exhibit’s elegiac centerpiece—a time-lapse sequence showing one Chicago church from 1981–2009—merits comparison to the work of its artistic forbears, Walker Evans and William Christenberry: Cars, shopfronts, and pedestrians disappear, frame by frame, until the church stands virtually alone in an urban wasteland.

3) “Three Seconds With the Masters ,” Addison-Ripley Gallery

James Osher, a Pittsburgh-based artist, will probably hate seeing his exhibit included on a list of shows in which captions have played a prominent role. But on some level, he’ll understand. In his exhibit, Osher provided captions that were deliberately—and radically—unrelated to the image in question, as a way of protesting how viewers tend to focus their attention on wall cards rather than artworks when visiting museums. The title “Three Seconds With the Masters” is prompted by a finding that the average visitor spends only that much time with museum artworks—a reality that seems to irk and fascinate Osher in equal parts. In a deft deconstruction of how people consume art, Osher takes photographs of masterworks, moving his camera fluidly past the paintings, sometimes viewing them in fractured style or elongating them, just as they might appear to a distracted visitor. But the exhibit isn’t just an exercise in conceptualism; it also repackages art beautifully, such as when it stunningly reinvents a precisely naturalistic luminist landscape as something dreamily fuzzed.

4) “Economy of Scale,” Hemphill Fine Arts

Unexpectedly philosophical for a gallery show, this exhibit muscled more than two dozen highly diverse images, by photographers both famous and obscure, into a meditation on “the economy of scale,” addressing both the question of scale in economics and the question of scale in photography. The economics in the captions are brief and at times a bit superficial, but the lessons are illuminating, such as the prosaic photograph of a golden delicious apple tree sapling that reveals the lamentable habit of American farmers winnowing the once-vast number of apple varieties down to a few popular strains. The stunning centerpiece of the show was Franz Jantzen’s massive, overhead image of a food-display table at a county fair. The crisp, 57-by-172-inch portrayal of bounty is stitched together digitally from an abundance of smaller images, demonstrating that the march of technology need not make human ingenuity subordinate to economies of scale we cannot control.

5) “Polar Obsession: Photography by Paul Nicklen,” National Geographic Society

Whether it’s the blue hues of polar ice or images of exotic wildlife, Paul Nicklen offers plenty of material for the eye. But his amiable first-person narratives seal the deal. In detailed, engaging captions, Nicklen relates how a leopard seal repeatedly tried (in vain) to offer the photographer a meal of penguin; how he braved frigid temperatures to document polar bears in a courting ritual; and most unexpected, his successful quest to photograph a narwhal, a whale with a unicorn-like horn longer than most humans are tall. The captions relate the unimaginably brutal conditions Nicklen worked in—all the more reason to respect the clarity and richness of his photoraphs, which are on display to March 25.