There’s something different about a photograph taken by a National Geographic photographer: You know that the photographer is engaged in the life of his or her subject and that the photograph tells a story—either its own or that of the article it accompanies. In this sense, William Albert Allard is the quintessential National Geographic photographer. Allard’s modestly sized retrospective at Explorers Hall—timed to coincide with a handsome, newly released coffee-table book of his photographs—focuses exclusively on his photo essays about America. (In a good-natured introduction to the exhibition, Allard jokes about lacking the National Geographic gene for foreign travel—though it’s surely a relative thing, because Allard has actually taken on assignments in 25 countries.) Over his career, Allard has delved skillfully into classically American cultural phenomena: cowboys, the Amish, the Delta blues scene, minor-league baseball (Cohen Stadium, Class AA Texas League, El Paso, Texas is pictured), and the South. Allard is at his best when photographing in low-light situations—sweaty music halls, nighttime rodeos, and blue-collar bars and bedrooms—rather than the sweeping vistas of the American West, which conjure up all too many Marlboro Man associations. Allard’s finest image is Calf Branding, Padlock Ranch, Montana, 1972—a disembodied close-up of a ranch worker’s heavily scuffed hands, casually hanging out of his jeans pockets. In one hand is a burning cigarette, in the other a small knife, with a thin coating of blood on its blade. The image is both eloquent and economical—a perfect National Geographic Society photograph. On view from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Saturday and from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday, to Monday, May 27, at the National Geographic Society’s Explorers Hall, 17th and M Streets NW. Free. (202) 857-7588. (Louis Jacobson)