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Perhaps fittingly for our uneasy times, the best photography exhibits in the D.C. area this past year have been emotional downers. At least that’s according to this art critic. Here are the five best photographic exhibits in the D.C. area’s museums and galleries in 2018, the fifteenth (mostly) annual selections by the author for City Paper.
Sally Mann: A Thousand Crossings, National Gallery of Art
The sole exhibit from a major museum to make the list this year, the National Gallery of Art’s retrospective was a smartly curated distillation of Mann’s long and productive career. In addition to spotlighting her famed family photographs, the exhibit resurrected several of Mann’s impressive meditations on landscape and history, including a series of brooding Southern landscapes, intentionally blemished portrayals of once-scarred Civil War battlefields, and low-contrast tintypes of the Great Dismal Swamp, all while downplaying some of Mann’s more esoteric recent works. A short documentary film showing Mann making a collodion wet-plate photograph in her Lexington, Va., studio offered insights into the technical limitations that constrain, yet elevate, her creative process.
Timothy Hyde: Neighbors, Multiple Exposures Gallery
The title of Hyde’s Multiple Exposures Gallery exhibition was a deceptively simple word to describe a trenchant exploration of man’s inhumanity to man. Since 2016, Hyde has visited a litany of sites of either mass slaughter or human rights grotesqueries—lynchings, massacres, death camps—and photographed whatever remains. Some places wore their despair openly, such as the ruined building Hyde encountered in Srebrenica, but other locations seemed pleasant, with their rolling hills, fertile farmland, and tree-studded clearings. Hyde’s series insisted that viewers look below the surface.
Kei Ito: Only What We Can Carry, IA&A Hillyer
Ito’s exhibit at IA&A Hillyer was more conceptual than it was photographic—his technique was intentionally primitive and somewhat repetitive—but his organizing concept was arresting and timely. Ito offered more than 80 contact prints that looked like X-rays, each superimposing two items. One was a personal item that Ito would choose to carry if he ever had to evacuate in a hurry. The other was an image of World War II internment orders for Japanese-Americans. The project adroitly tied together two of our moment’s most urgent fears: deportation and nuclear war.
Narrative: Contemporary Photography and the Art of Storytelling, Studio Gallery
It’s not every day that an exhibit with 14 diverse artists offers consistently impressive work, but the Studio Gallery’s vaguely titled group show pulled it off. Among the highlights: Steven Marks’ pleasingly fractured, richly colored portrayals of human figures standing in anonymous spaces; Chris Prosser’s inky, nighttime images of D.C. street corners, separated by years of passing time; Gary Anthes’ photographs of isolated Navajo Nation locales; and Kim Llerena’s images of lonely sites in Arizona and Texas appended with faux bronze historical plaques cribbed from Wikipedia.
Danny Wilcox Frazier: Lost Nation, Leica Store DC
Since 2003, Frazier has photographed depopulated rural communities across the Midwest and the Great Plains, starting more than a decade before the topic became prominent on the nation’s domestic agenda. His somberly grainy black-and-white images offered familiar archetypes of gun-toting farmers, but they also captured a more racially diverse reality, including African Americans in Detroit and Native Americans on reservations. In one image, a youngster sleeps on the floor under a blanket with a stray package of cigarettes just inches from his head. In another, a girl on the Pine Ridge reservation is seen just as her hand obscures her mouth, leaving it unclear whether she’s laughing or crying – an apt symbol of the enigmatic sensibility that pervades Frazier’s works.