David Burnett, Inauguration: President Barack Obama. Archival pigment print, 2009.
David Burnett, Inauguration: President Barack Obama. Archival pigment print, 2009.

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Economics and fine-art photography are not the most obvious partners. Just think of the last time you saw a television news report on the economy that wasn’t illustrated by the same footage you’ve seen a million times before—money being printed, bills leaving a cash register, a corporate headquarters sign, or people lining up for unemployment benefits.

But an unexpectedly philosophical exhibit at Hemphill Fine Arts offers a welcome surprise. The exhibit muscles more than two dozen highly diverse images, by photographers both famous and obscure, on two topics that mesh unexpectedly well—the question of scale in economics and the question of scale in photography. As the curators put it, “The title ‘Economy of Scale’ is more poetic than literal. Our purpose is to raise questions about the size of the photographic print, as well as present evidence of the impact of economies of scale on our lives.”

Sometimes the images speak for themselves. It’s hard to miss the point of Frank Hallam Day’s massive diptych of an even more massive Dora the Explorer parade balloon—specifically, the sense of commercialism run amok at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. (Day’s more modest-sized image of a Buzz Lightyear balloon also wins a spot in the exhibit.) The message of Day’s works is echoed in Carl de Keyzer’s 1994 image of a Hungarian amusement park in which water towers have been painted to resemble cans of Coke—which one could label the ultimate global “economy of scale” product.

Then there’s Sebastião Salgado’s 1995 photograph of the Church Gate railway station in Mumbai—a long-exposure image that dramatically blurs the overcrowded hub’s teeming waves of passengers. Such was the scale of the humanity captured in Salgado’s image that the film director Danny Boyle credited it with inspiring the frenetic Bollywood dance routine that closed his extremes-of-wealth-and-poverty film, Slumdog Millionaire. (Perhaps in homage, Boyle shot portions of the sequence from the same vantage point that Salgado used.)

At other times, the exhibit offers images that are deceptively plain but communicate a miniature economics lesson through an accompanying caption. The theory in the captions is brief and at times a bit superficial, but even so, the exhibit’s breadth and inspiration go well beyond the usual gallery fare.

Through a mesmerizingly rhythmic arrangement of fish being offered for sale, Mexican photographer Graciela Iturbide introduces viewers to the challenges facing sustainable fisheries. Meanwhile, the late American photographer Erich Hartmann’s image of wheat being harvested mechanically in Kimball, Neb., underscores how 20th-century agricultural techniques greatly increased food output. (Oddly, given its point about technological advances, the grainy, black-and-white photograph looks like it could have been taken and printed a century earlier.)

The caption for an otherwise prosaic photograph of a golden delicious apple tree sapling reveals the long and now lamented habit of American farmers winnowing the once-vast number of apple varieties down to a few that consistently sell well, with genetic variation a casualty. The organizers have also included William C. Shrout’s photograph of an enormous mound of new tires, one hopes for ironic reasons. When Shrout took the high-contrast photograph in 1942, it would have suggested abundance and optimism; a similar image in the recent Corcoran Gallery of Art exhibition “Burtynski: Oil,” featuring gigantic mounds of discarded tires, signifies to today’s viewer unending waste and environmental ruin.

Perhaps the most interesting works in the show are those that play with notions of visual scale in photography. William Christenberry’s images of humble buildings in rural Alabama are familiar, but the exhibit fruitfully pairs two of those photographs—one small, relatively washed-out snapshot and one 44-by-54-inch image with deeper, richer green and brown hues. The latter is lush and wistful—a new face on otherwise familiar work.

Washingtonian Colby Caldwell provides a monumentally enlarged image of a spent shotgun shell, following the lead of Irving Penn, who did the same with another deadly weapon, cigarettes. David Burnett offers a wide-angle view of the record-breaking crowd at Barack Obama’s inauguration, but his method of focus is so peculiar that some of the attendees look like the small but heroic action figures in a David Levinthal tableau.

A few of the works are disappointments, including one dated-looking, Cold War–era chessboard with missiles for pieces, and a too-trite series of photographs in which David Byrne (yes, that David Byrne) and Danielle Spencer use “lenticular” 3-D technology to mock corporate headquarters signs (for instance, overlaying an IBM sign with the message “Faith,” or Ciba-Geigy with “Honor”).

Still, the exhibit connects more often than it fails, and it includes a stunning visual centerpiece: a massive overhead image of a food-display table at a county fair, by D.C.-based photographer Franz Jantzen. He stitched together his crisp, 57-by-172-inch portrayal of bounty from an abundance of smaller images—not always seamlessly, a fact that adds to the initial disorientation caused by the image’s unusually flat perspective. Yet ultimately it works, with complete coherence. Jantzen’s is an image that, prior to the digital age, would have been inconceivable. In the context of an exhibit that explores scale in photography, it stands as clear evidence that the march of technology need not make human ingenuity subordinate to economies of scale we cannot control.