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“The Western Horizon: New Photographs”

At the Kathleen Ewing Gallery to Jan. 20

Over the past year or two, Washingtonians with an interest in American landscape photography have wallowed in an embarrassment of riches. Last year at the American Institute of Architects Gallery, Washington-based photographer Maxwell MacKenzie exhibited “Abandonings West,” a striking collection of black-and-white images of crumbling barns amid gorgeous landscapes. A few months later, the National Gallery of Art mounted “Carleton Watkins: The Art of Perception,” a retrospective showcasing a major but relatively obscure 19th-century chronicler of the American West.

More recently, the Corcoran Gallery of Art displayed the quirky “Strange but True: The Arizona Photographs of Allen Dutton,” and the Kathleen Ewing Gallery hosted “The Landscape: An Exhibition of New Photographs,” featuring the muted visions of D.C. photographer Frank DiPerna. Now the Ewing Gallery presents one more landscape show: “The Western Horizon: New Photographs,” images by California-based artist Macduff Everton. But even when compared with the top-drawer work featured in the aforementioned exhibits, Everton’s photography holds its own.

Don’t be fooled, as I was, by the show’s promotional postcard, which features an image that Everton titled Grand Canyon, Cape Royal, North Rim. The piece looks less like a photograph than the kind of 19th-century painting made famous by Albert Bierstadt, Frederic Church, and Thomas Cole: a sweeping panoramic vista capped by an unreal, multihued sky. Going into the exhibit, I assumed that all of Everton’s work would be laden with the same outdated, overly dramatic style. Fortunately, that’s not the case. Although the other 16 photographs at the Ewing are indeed dramatic, none are anywhere near as gaudy.

Everton’s horizontal-format photographs are taken with a rotating, panoramic camera that revolves to capture a peripheral field equal to that of human sight. They depict relatively pristine places in the American West, most of them located in national parks and monuments. Not even the cramped quarters of the Ewing Gallery diminishes their sweep. In an odd way, the claustrophobic setting actually enhances the pieces’ impact.

To be sure, dramatic images of the West are not exactly news in the photography biz; I’ve got a lovely book of Ansel Adams photographs consisting solely of panoramas taken by the master in Western national parks. Indeed, some of Everton’s images start to look very familiar very quickly. Fort Niobrara Wildlife, which features bison on a hill set against a brilliant red sky, could easily have been taken by MacKenzie. Fence Posts, Sandhills—a grassy landscape cut by a barbed-wire barrier—is a dead ringer for one of DiPerna’s images. The diptych Missouri River, Missouri Breaks looks strikingly original—until you realize that Mark Klett did much the same thing back in the ’80s, when he made a five-section panorama of the Grand Canyon.

Oddly, the images on view in the Ewing Gallery don’t even show off Everton’s best work. This becomes clear when the 17 pieces in the gallery are compared with the dozens more included in The Western Horizon, a just-released compendium of Everton’s landscape photography that also includes thoughtful commentary by his wife, artist and writer Mary Heebner, and an introduction by Edmund Morris (yes, the academic who wrote Dutch, the controversial biography of Ronald Reagan). The Mono Lake, California image chosen for the Ewing exhibit, for example, ranks about fourth- or fifth-best among the book’s selection of photographs of the site; in the book, the lake appears as either an ethereal mass of blue haze or a perfectly reflective mirror of the sky. A blood-red image from the Grand Canyon seems to be the texture of crinkled paper—not only the parched land, but, incongruously, the sky as well.

And other locations excluded entirely from the gallery show are the subjects of some of Everton’s very best work. In Mount St. Helens, Washington, he captures a jumble of logs scattered like toothpicks as a result of the 1980 blast; in Crater Lake, Oregon, he produces a vertigo-inducing panorama of the circular, deep-blue jewel of a lake.

Everton’s oeuvre is, without a doubt, impressive. The “why” is more puzzling. He’s either a technical virtuoso or the luckiest photographer on the face of the earth. As a jealous amateur lensman, I’m tempted to run with the latter assessment.

Clearly, the wilds of the West provide great material to work with. But everywhere he goes, Everton seems to get just the right atmospheric conditions. In his gallery image of Mono Lake—one of the lesser ones in his body of work—Everton captures a wonderful, late-afternoon glint of yellow. In Lenticular Cloud, Wupatki, Arizona, he catches a fascinating cloud shaped like an airfoil.

On the occasions when Everton is left with a dull, gray day, he turns it into a primordially moody setting, as in Cape Perpetua, Oregon, a mist-shrouded panorama of mossy green cliffs and jutting Pacific Coast seastacks. And in Geyser Field and Storm, Everton encounters wisps of white steam and black cloud that are perfectly complementary, an evanescent yin-yang saved for posterity because of Everton’s fortuitous presence. The rest of us are lucky to see one or two of these atmospheric marvels in a lifetime; how did Everton get to experience one everywhere he roamed west of the 100th meridian?

But what is most likely to annoy the resentful masses is Everton’s introductory note to the book, in which the artist discusses how he makes his images. His tone is neither smug nor arrogant, yet the reader feels discomfited anyway. Everton may use a funky rotating camera, but the rest of what he works with is shockingly pedestrian: “I used Kodak Gold 100—a wonderful film,” he writes. Yes, it is, but none of us schlubs who pick up our Kodak Gold 100 at the local CVS ever produce such striking pictures. “Most of the photographs,” Everton’s note continues, “were handheld. I hate carrying a tripod.” Don’t we all, Mac, don’t we all. CP