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TO NOV. 30
Sam Abell has spent more than three decades as a photographer for the National Geographic Society, but you might not know it by viewing “Sam Abell: The Photographic Life.” Sure, Abell’s statuesque, fog-shrouded fisherman in Newfoundland and his working cowboys in Montana would look at home in the pages of National Geographic. But much of his other work is compellingly experimental. One photograph seems to capture a road receding into the western horizon—except for the marring presence of detritus from ripped-off adhesive tape, which reminds viewers that it’s actually the tightly cropped front of a Japanese soda machine. Another photograph captures fluorescent light fixtures glinting off the surface of standing water in a darkened room; somehow, Abell makes the fluid-covered floor seem as vertical, and as blankly abstract, as a wall. The 22 photographs in this exhibition cover Abell’s work (Mercedes McKee, Muscatine, Iowa is pictured) all the way back to his childhood, including a black-and-white photograph of his father standing on a train platform that is notable for its icicle-draped roof, which has boldly diagonal lines worthy of Ed Ruscha. The exhibit also includes a refreshingly quirky photograph Abell took in a Montreal airport men’s room in 1972: Two conversing men gesticulate colorfully, seemingly oblivious to Abell, photographing their reflections in the bathroom mirror. Unfortunately, the show is marred by self-indulgence—the long row of family Christmas cards is a prime offender—and by odd framing choices. In several pieces, Abell mounts both a large photograph and several smaller images from the same series—an unwieldy format whose asymmetry detracts from the images’ otherwise strong appeal. The exhibition is on view from noon to 5 p.m. Wednesday to Saturday, to Saturday, Nov. 30, at the Kathleen Ewing Gallery’s Gallery II, 1609 Connecticut Ave. NW. Free. (202) 328-0955. (Louis Jacobson)