Credit: Frank DiPerna

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As you visit the American University Museum’s retrospective of works by the D.C.-area photographer Frank DiPerna, it’s possible to think of the artist’s career arc as the line one could trace in one of his bold mountain landscapes: a slow rise initially, a majestic peak in the middle, and then a tail-off toward the end. 

The spacious exhibit collects dozens of images that DiPerna made over 40 years, much of it while teaching at the Corcoran College of Art and Design. The retrospective groups his images chronologically, which in DiPerna’s case also means they are grouped thematically and according to photographic technique, since his career had such a linear progression. Matrices, usually of six images each, offer commonalities in subject matter and style.

Initially, as was de rigeur in the 1970s, DiPerna produced pleasantly airy black-and-white images, showing a knack for detecting and recording visual oddities, such as a bus perched on top of a building or a statue of a “dead outfielder” on a late baseball player’s grave. By the late 1970s, DiPerna had moved on to color film—a relatively early adopter in the field—often capturing oddly hued flat surfaces such as walls and business display signs. A detour into small-format Polaroid SX-70 images didn’t produce work that rose much above the realm of snapshots, but then again, given the SX-70’s limitations in tone and format, that’s not especially surprising.

It took until the 1980s and early 1990s—when DiPerna attempted to document much wider expanses—for his work to fully crystallize. His large-scale landscapes, while perhaps a bit too washed-out in their color palette than the scenes deserve, are stunning in a way that his earlier work never was.

A view of the Great Sand Dune National Monument in Colorado is an elemental collage of beige, blue, and wispy white; an image of hills in Death Valley in California suggests nothing less than a fragile pile of cocoa powder. DiPerna’s eye for vegetation is strong—a riot of charred palmettos reaching skyward in one image from Mexico, or a surprisingly verdant swath of beach shrub that plays off the reddish volcanic dirt in Maui.

In a few cases, his landscapes are surprisingly calming—a sweeping expanse of wet beach sand on Long Island, for example, or adjoining but forever out-of-reach breakwaters constructed off the coast of Venice.

It’s hard to match the magic of such work, and in the latter part of his career DiPerna never really does. In one 1990s-era series, he places works of art within a landscape setting. While conceptually intriguing—in one image, for instance, a painting of an Indian chief is located in what might have become his descendants’ forest—the effort seems excessively contrived. 

Meanwhile, an early 2000s dive into photographing objects such as fake birds and insects up close seeks to elevate kitsch, but the series is never as groundbreaking as, say, similar works by Stephen Shore. (There is one refreshingly odd image in the mode of William Eggleston; it shows mannequins mingling on the patio of a red brick house.)

DiPerna’s series on surfaces in Italy also counts some successes; here, Renaissance art mixes uneasily and unironically with advertising imagery as utilitarian wall-coverings. Ultimately, DiPerna’s continued stylistic reinventions and his commitment to sampling the latest photographic techniques deserve respect. Still, as this retrospective suggests, not all experiments end up equally valuable. Sometimes when you find something that works—in DiPerna’s case, going West, and going big—there’s value in sticking with it.

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