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Arguably the biggest news about photography in Washington in 2004 had more to do with next year and beyond: In October, the National Gallery of Art inaugurated a new, 3,000-square-foot space—its first dedicated to photography. The NGA also announced a promising schedule of exhibitions, including one on 19th-century photography pioneer Roger Fenton this year plus two for next year, on Andre Kertesz and Irving Penn.

The NGA’s move comes in what seems like the nick of time: The number of photography exhibitions at Washington’s major institutions remained low in 2004, with only the Phillips Collection offering more than one. Of the large-scale shows mounted this year, the most successful was the Phillips’ Aaron Siskind exhibition, which made excellent use of the museum’s own modern-art archives. Others were ambitious but significantly flawed, including the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s main event of the year, “Sally Mann: What Remains,” and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden’s retrospective on the works of Gabriel Orozco.

The National Building Museum and the National Museum of Women in the Arts picked up some of the slack, though, with shows that were curiosities more than anything else: The NBM mounted an exhibition of photographs of the Walt Disney Concert Hall by former Los Angeles County prosecutor Gil Garcetti, and the NMWA spotlighted the little-known photographic work of author Eudora Welty. Once again, the heavy load of photographic exhibition in the District has been borne by galleries. I saw at least 40 photography shows in D.C.’s smaller spaces; of these, more than half featured works by local artists.

That seems fitting: The photography that stood out to me the most this year had an intensely local focus—a feel not only for a place’s visuals, but also for the stories behind them. Here’s one critic’s list of the 10 most transportive photography exhibitions of 2004:

1. “Lost Images: Berlin Mitte” at Addison/Ripley Fine Art The finest photography show in Washington this year was informed by a potent combination of artistic insight, technical skill, and personal experience. Washingtonian Frank Hallam Day grew up in divided Berlin, then returned to photograph the rebirth—and disappearance—of the city’s formerly Communist sector between 1996 and 1999. Visually, Day’s large color images suggested the more celebrated work of Thomas Struth, Candida Hofer, and Edward Burtynsky. Their greater value came from their illumination of the elements of a city that only an insider can know, from cheap East German plastic fencing to unrepaired World War II bullet holes.

2. “Winogrand 1964” at the S. Dillon Ripley Center International Gallery As a street photographer, Garry Winogrand was one of the photographic innovators of the ’60s and ’70s. This exhibition—bizarrely underpublicized by the Smithsonian—documented the cross-country trek Winogrand took as a Guggenheim Fellow, traveling to state fairs, beaches, airports, and roadside hangouts. The show’s images—156 in black and white and, unexpectedly to Winogrand aficionados, 29 in color—aren’t as revelatory as Robert Frank’s 1955–1956 Guggenheim work later published as The Americans. But these fine works nonetheless capture an artist on the cusp of greatness.

3. “Markings” at Addison/Ripley Fine Art Even after exhibiting several iterations of one big idea—documenting the visual beauty of rural America—Washington photographer Maxwell MacKenzie remains at the top of his game. Earlier in his career, MacKenzie piloted an ultralight aircraft to spot old barns that he would later photograph from the ground. Now he’s begun shooting directly from the air. This latest crop of images, capturing blocky fields of color and zigzagging agricultural patterns, was just as good as, and maybe even better than, his eloquent portrayals of tumbledown barns. Although aerial photography of the rural West is a crowded genre these days, MacKenzie’s mesmerizing palette and knack for spotting improbable geometries set his work apart.

4. “Jacques Henri Lartigue: Vintage Photographs, 1905–1932” at the Sandra Berler Gallery French aristocrat Lartigue (1894–1986) is best known today as photography’s child prodigy—a boy whose eye, even at age 10, was anything but naive. This exhibition of just a dozen pieces drew its power less from its high-society subject matter than from its form: Most of the works displayed were printed by the photographer shortly after they were taken and look much like the snapshots they actually were. Seeing these frequently reproduced images as photo-album and cigar-box artifacts rather than as Great Works of Art helped strip away the layers of mythology laid on Lartigue by generations of historical scholarship.

5. “Martin Kollar: Slovakia 001” and “Darrow Montgomery: Postcards From Home” at the Kathleen Ewing Gallery Aesthetically and geographically, Martin Kollar and Darrow Montgomery (a photographer for the Washington City Paper since 1986) were an odd couple. Yet they were oddly suited to each other: Kollar’s deadpan color images documented the everyday eccentricities of Eastern Europe; Montgomery’s noirish black-and-white photographs told the story of Washington’s nonmonumental side, from its pool halls and diners to its police patrols and dry-cleaning trucks. Crucially, both men share a passion for capturing the fleeting visuals that help define a place.

6. “ABCDF: Portraits of a City” at the Art Museum of the Americas It’s not easy boiling down a 1,500-page, 2,000-photograph book into one exhibition, but “ABCDF” managed to do it with panache. The sponsors of this kaleidoscopic study commissioned 250 photographers to document the teeming metropolis of Mexico City, element by element; images were organized alphabetically from azotea (“rooftop”) to Zócalo (the city’s central square). The visual styles inevitably differ, but through its smart captions, the exhibition consistently maintained a tone of clear-eyed observation leavened by a sense of humor.

7. “Room Service” at Panhwa Art Studio The rapidly advancing art of digital photography has had few ideas as clever as Laura Carton’s. The New York artist took images posted on fly-by-night porn Web sites, digitally removed the sweaty bodies, and filled in the now-unobscured backgrounds, which ranged from cheesy to creepy. Though her manipulated images don’t communicate as much latent sexuality as she intended, Carton’s works do accomplish the neat conceptual trick of placing once-incidental settings at center stage.

8. “Aaron Siskind: New Relationships in Photography” at the Phillips Collection Siskind is famed for his stark black-and-white photographs of walls covered with graffiti or ripped posters. At times, his approach can grow tiresome—indeed, his style barely changed over six decades—yet he had an undeniable a knack for noting and capturing overlooked beauty, from three-dimensional curls of paint to surprisingly orderly matrices of holes and splotches. And this Phillips exhibition added depth through the side-by-side pairing of actual Franz Kline canvases with Siskind’s ’70s homages to the ab-ex master.

9. “Christopher Burkett: Resplendent Light” at the Kathleen Ewing Gallery Oregon-based nature photographer Christopher Burkett walks a fine line between showy and masterful. Detractors will carp that Burkett’s lush color photographs of tall trees, fallen leaves, and so forth wouldn’t look out of place on one of the motivational posters hung in some cubicle-heavy workplaces. But Burkett’s achingly delicate images—tiny tree branches laden with snow, wispy translucent leaves—can’t be captured with such regularity through mere hackwork.

10. “Miyelo” at Addison/Ripley Fine Art Viggo Mortensen—yes, that one—turns out to be a fine photo grapher as well as a cinematic heartthrob. In “Miyelo,” Mortensen used long exposures and oversaturated color to document the Lakota ghost dance, the banning of which precipitated the Wounded Knee massacre of 1890. Some images feature hazy figures that seem to be rendered with unfettered brush strokes; others are blurry abstractions of shadow and flame. Even more surprising: Mortensen’s gorgeous visuals materialized on the set of the cinematic flop Hidalgo.

One artist who showed in a 10-person exhibition deserves special mention: Kay Chernush, a D.C.-based advertising and magazine photographer, was the clear standout in “Take Ten: Works by Ten Washington Photographers” at Touchstone Gallery. Her Self Examination series documents her battle with breast cancer. Some of the prints on display depicted visible traces such as taped-up breasts and chemotherapy-induced baldness, while others spoke more elliptically: In my dreams I wear satin & lace, for example, showed a translucent, irradiated-looking bra. Either way, Chernush told her difficult tale with eloquence.

Finally, two artists exhibited especially fruitful pairings of photographs and audio. In “Images of Italy” at the Kathleen Ewing Gallery, Kate Freedberg elevated her photographs of tourist-infested Florence by offering viewers headphones tuned into a soundtrack of overlapping multilingual dialogue she recorded in local museums. And at MOCA DC, in “Alex Bay: Black and White,” the Virginia-based artist exhibited several striking mixed-media works that combined street photographs of Washington with the ambient sounds of traffic and pedestrians. Simple ideas—but also inspired attempts to broaden the reach of a venerable old medium.CP