The finest photographic exhibits in D.C. this year offered a mix of far-flung locales and quintessentially American—and Washingtonian—images. In contrast to years past, they consisted largely of recent work by active photographers. For the 13th not-quite-annual time, this author presents his top-10 list of photographic exhibits in D.C. for 2016. Separately, he has ranked the top five individual images of the year.
Soomin Ham’s elegy for her late mother offers a stunning blend of genuine pathos and stylistic creativity. Ham channeled her heartache by sifting through her mother’s possessions and photographing them. Many of the items are prosaic—articles of clothing, a watch, bottles of pills, even her mother’s fingerprint on a jar—but they are elevated by Ham’s decision to freeze the photograph she made in a layer of ice and then re-photograph it. Doing so deadens the clarity of the image and adds a sprinkling of air bubbles around the edges, producing an almost mystical effect. A second series is even more engrossing. It consists of a dozen reproductions of old family photos—vacations, weddings, group portraits (example pictured). Ham scanned these images, printed them on rice paper, left them in water, then washed and dried them repeatedly until the images became murky. Then she left them out in the falling snow and photographed them again after they were almost covered by the elements. The process dulled individuals’ faces to blankness and turned panoramic views into indistinct fantasies. The resulting works demonstrated that one can transform artworks through something as ephemeral as snow or ice—a poignant metaphor for the fragility of life itself.
Ahmed Mater’s first solo exhibition in the United States packed a wallop. Looking at his photographs, you don’t need to know much about Saudi Arabia to understand that it is in the midst of an epic transformation. In his massive panorama of the holy site of Mecca, for instance, construction cranes encircle the Grand Mosque like birds at a watering hole. Mater effectively used video to further flesh out the pilgrim’s experience. The ominously titled video loop “Pelt him!” showed stones being thrown at a wall, a ritual in which pilgrims symbolically stone the devil; by concentrating on a small section of wall and using a narrow plane of focus, but maintaining the dull roar of the crowd, Mater heightened the tension, showing only the stones, not the throwers. His most inventive work consisted of nine small wooden slide viewers in which he placed composite transparencies (pictured) that document the growth of Riyadh—Saudi Arabia’s largest city—in ways that are dreamlike and enigmatic.
This exhibit about a politically contentious topic—climate change—avoided agitprop and instead offered an understated, eloquent meditation. Glen McClure contributed large, black-and-white portraits of people in Norfolk, Va., whose jobs are shaped by the tides, from shipbuilding riggers to underwater divers; his dignified images blended seamlessly with his compellingly crafted captions. Miller Taylor, meanwhile, offered distinctly horizontal landscapes in subtle, washed-out shades of black and white that documented structures buffeted by the vagaries of shoreline weather (one is pictured). Greg Kahn offered a mix of portraiture and landscape work that highlighted the uneasy nature of life in these forgotten corners of America, such as a crab picker, partly hidden behind a pile of crustaceans, wiping her brow in exhaustion.
Gauri Gill’s two-decade-long project documented the deserts of Rajasthan in northwestern India, focusing primarily on an illiterate villager named Izmat and one of her daughters, Jannat. The project offers twinned tales of perseverance—Gill’s unblinking, immersive focus on an isolated corner of the globe, and her subjects’ sheer will to survive the pitiless forces, from nature to culture, arrayed against them. Her story of Izmat and Jannat is told through black-and-white photographs of everyday scenes (which represent just a small fraction of Gill’s 40,000 images from Rajasthan) alongside a series of dictated letters detailing harrowing violence, discrimination and deprivation. Their relationship was shaken by Jannat’s death in 2007 at age 23, from causes the exhibit doesn’t detail. Gill’s largest and most impressive image is also her most uncharacteristic, as it offers a sliver of optimism. In the photograph (pictured), Izmat is perched several feet up in the air, standing amid the intricate branches of a tree, a fleeting place of contentment in an otherwise crushing life. Through Feb.12 at the Arthur M. Sackler and Freer Gallery of Art, 1050 Independence Ave. SW. Daily 10 a.m.–5:30 p.m.
Chris Earnshaw’s peripatetic life and career was explored at length by the Washington Post’s Dan Zak, but even if you knew nothing about Earnshaw’s background, his rescued photographs from the 1960s and 1970s—elegiac architectural images and portraits of a lost, grittier side of D.C.—would be striking enough for their sheer aesthetics. Earnshaw’s accordion-style Polaroid Land Camera and Kodak Instamatic produced images that were arrestingly fuzzy and dappled with pockmarks, mostly printed on yellowed, vintage paper, that was selected in partnership with photographer and curator Joseph Mills. The combination of primitive cameras and old paper makes these already dated images seem even more archaic. The works really click when the texture of the portrayal mimics the theme of the picture. One grainy image, for instance, shows a façade of gloriously peeling paint. Another, a spot-sprinkled action shot, shows a wrecking ball at the moment it slams into a building, spraying bits of the city’s history into the ether.
Explorations of time using photography—that most technological of artistic media—have an unusually high success rate. While German artist Bettina Pousttchi’s “World Time Clock” isn’t the most profound example of this genre, the project has its charms—and it’s found a temporary home at the Hirshhorn that’s simply perfect. Between 2008 and 2016, Pousttchi traveled the globe to all 24 time zones in order to photograph a prominent local clock, always at the same time of day—five minutes before two in the afternoon. The cities ranged from huge (London, Mexico City, Bangkok) to the obscure (Nouméa, the capital of New Caledonia). The clocks Pousttchi documented all have classic faces—no digital displays here—but they are diverse nonetheless. While her unrelentingly grainy, striated look suggests a 1970s television set with a vertical-hold problem, the project’s formalistic unity provides a bracing internal consistency, heightened by the exhibit’s placement in an inner hallway at the circular Hirshhorn. Fittingly, viewers who want to see it all must see the exhibit as if they were a second hand traversing a clock face. Through May 14 at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, 7th Street and Independence Avenue SW. Daily 10 a.m.–5:30 p.m. Free.
In 1948, fresh off an apprenticeship with the renowned portraitist Yousuf Karsh, Herman Leonard set up a studio in New York City’s Greenwich Village—an example of impeccable timing, as it was becoming the epicenter of jazz precisely when the art form was moving from big-band swing to smaller, more individualized groups. Drawn to the music, Leonard lugged his unwieldy Speed Graphic camera to dark nightclubs and studio spaces to document the field’s leading lights—Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday, Thelonious Monk, Sarah Vaughan, and many others—for magazines such as Down Beat. Leonard’s black-and-white depictions are pitch-perfect: Charlie Parker leaning back into a forceful blow of his saxophone; a regal Duke Ellington seated at a piano and lit by bold, angular shafts of light; Art Blakey looking nearly orgasmic during a drum crescendo; and Clifford Brown blowing, shut-eyed and full-cheeked, into his trumpet. Leonard’s jazz photography ended just eight years later; his timing was exquisite, since within a few years, many of the artists he chronicled, including Parker, Holiday, and Brown, were dead. Fortunately, these images stand as a worthy remembrance. Through Feb. 20 at the National Portrait Gallery, 8th and F Streets NW. Daily, 11:30 a.m.-7 p.m.
The strongest of a solid run of documentary photography exhibits at the Leica Store D.C. this year was Vince Lupo’s black-and-white retrospective of images made in the American West. A Toronto-born, Baltimore-based photographer, Lupo has a knack for finding chance tableaux in the landscapes he visits. In one photograph that pairs elemental land and sky, Lupo balanced a hollowed-out teepee at left and a waving American flag on the right, an admirably concise summation of the region’s painful history. In another image, Lupo captured unexpectedly strong sunlight glinting off a pair of diverging, rutted tracks that veered off into the distance. At times, Lupo’s photographs explore dark places: One shows a headless effigy hanging from a gate, labeled with a sign reading, “We do it the old way,” while another depicts a creepy puppet scene, with one figure pointing a gun. Other times, though, he shows a lighter touch. In one image, he documents a billboard in the late afternoon light; the billboard says simply, “Sundown.”
Sometimes space photography is stunningly colorful. Other times, it’s limned in quieter shades of black, white, and gray. Fortunately, such monochrome hues can be beautiful nonetheless. The several dozen large-scale images from the moon in this exhibit were made with a state-of-the-art, high-resolution camera starting in 2009. The moon’s surface contains craters and peaks that look roughly like what we have here on earth. But there are also unfamiliar landforms with odd names like maria (dark lava flows), rilles (long, thin trenches), and swirls (ghostly light areas on the lunar surface). Some landmarks even suggest dimples or stretch marks. Careful timing is crucial for capturing these features: In many cases, the sun is only rarely at an angle that provides enough light to see them clearly. While the exhibit provides too little sense of scale, the compelling mix of the familiar and the strange make the images’ appeal is impossible to dismiss. Through December 2016 at the National Air & Space Museum, Independence Avenue and 6th Street SW.
For the better part of two decades, D.C. photographer Maxwell MacKenzie has been photographing decaying architecture on the Great Plains, sometimes from the ground and sometimes from the air. His exhibit this year—marking the fifth time he has made our annual top 10 list—had the feel of a final exam, an intimate retrospective on the long arc of his subject matter and his career. The artist’s own Cross MacKenzie Gallery, where the exhibit was held, is cozier than many of his past venues, which enforced a less expansive approach. Instead of displaying a succession of collapsing barns linearly, as if they were lining the prairie, Going Deep focused more on matrices that emphasized the passage of time—revealing how time scars, and occasionally revives, the old structures he finds in places like rural Minnesota. Despite the initial appeal of his early experiments with infrared-sensitive black-and-white film, the monochrome photographs in this year’s exhibit literally paled in comparison to his subsequent color images.