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TO MARCH 2
From the celebrated Depression-era images made by Farm Security Administration photographers to the more recent Appalachian photographs of Bill Burke and Shelby Lee Adams, documentary portraiture of poor, rural Americans is a storied pursuit. Like Adams, Vaughn Sills has spent an extended period of time documenting a specific groupin this case, the Toole clan of Georgia. This year, Sills, who teaches photography at Simmons College in Boston, published One Family, a book of large-format photographs accompanied by the Tooles’ own words. The images and stories, which Sills had collected since 1979, chronicle woes ranging from schizophrenia to poverty. The related exhibition at American University is more limited than the book but is equally affecting, particularly when visitors take the time to track the slow maturation of the children and the subtle aging of the adults. Sills’ posed, uncropped portraits (Lois and Tina With Tasha, 1990 is pictured) are imbued with the same simple black-and-white atmosphericsand the same attention to family ties and lost innocenceas the photography of Emmet Gowin and Sally Mann. No matter how sunny the day, Sills’ photographs always make the weather look hazy and oppressivewhich somehow seems appropriate. She delicately balances empathy with respectno easy trick with a family that could easily have been treated as a Cletus-the-Slack-Jawed-Yokel caricature. Indeed, the Tooles themselves, upon visiting Sills’ first exhibition, in Atlanta in 1994, told the artist that they were pleased with the portrayal, saying she had “depicted them faithfully.” Sills’ work is on view from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Friday, and from 1 to 5 p.m. Saturday, to Friday, March 2, at American University’s Watkins Gallery, 4400 Massachusetts Ave. NW. Free. (202) 885-1670. (Louis Jacobson)