The finest photographs exhibited in D.C. in 2016—at least in this critic’s opinion—ranged from unmediated reality to utter artifice, with several stops along the way. What follows is the eighth annual installment of the five best single images on display in Washington-area museums and galleries.

Thomas Demand, “Clearing,” at the National Gallery of Art 

Thomas Demand’s modus operandi is to construct miniature renditions of seemingly humdrum scenes that are nonetheless freighted with historical significance. At times these works can be bloodless, tedious, or both, but not his 2003 image, “Clearing.” Viewers see a stunning, sun-dappled garden scene—made from 270,000 pieces of die-cut paper. It feels paradoxical that an artist would feel a need to recreate a tableau that he probably could have captured by camping out for a few hours in a nice patch of shrubbery. But the sheer gusto with which Demand has pulled off this task inspires admiration. It also crystallizes one of the enduring questions of the photographic arts: If photography cannot be trusted, what can be? Through March 5 at the National Gallery of Art east building, 6th and Constitution Avenue NW. Free.

Daniel Schwarz, “The Mexico-United States Border,” at the Goethe-Institut 

Los Angeles-based  Daniel Schwarz  produced a 1,000-inch-long pair of accordion-fold books that use Google satellite imagery to track every inch of the U.S.-Mexico border from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico. Think of it as  Ed Ruscha’s “Every Building on the Sunset Strip” on steroids. The books, displayed resting on a long table, showed a swath of desert, often unpopulated, sometimes built up. What the stitched-together images show is mesmerizing: The Rio Grande snakes sinuously through fragmentary green patches of irrigated crops, border fencing crosses the landscape with the singular focus of a zip gesture in a  Barnett Newman painting, and mountain ranges sprawl in fractal-like curlicues. Notably, the project, for all its visual clarity, is somewhat disorienting when viewed in its entirety; it’s not at all clear which end is which, and which direction you are traveling as you circle it. Perhaps this disorientation serves as an apt metaphor for the border in real life. 

Thomas Struth, “Museo del Prado 7,” at the National Gallery of Art 

Thomas Struth’s photograph of the visitors to the Prado in Madrid—made after waiting patiently for just the right mix of people—is endlessly absorbing. Caught in one glorious split second, each interaction—note-taking students, a grinning man, a tourist taking a photo—is a revelation, and far more engrossing than images of unpopulated libraries and museums in the same exhibit, “Photography Reinvented: The Collection of Robert E. Meyerhoff and Rheda Becker.” Through March 5 at the National Gallery of Art east building, 6th and Constitution Avenue NW. Free.

Vince Lupo, “Hope,” at Leica Store D.C. 

Lupo, a Toronto-born, Baltimore-based photographer, has rambled the United States in search of unexpected and eccentric tableaux. Perhaps the finest image in his Leica Store D.C. retrospective, Lupo photographed the façade of the “Hope Vol. Fire Dept.,” focusing on two boarded up windows crowned by what appear to be rising plumes of smoke. But are they? The image echoes, visually and thematically, “McLean, Virginia, December 1978,”  Joel Sternfeld’s iconic photograph of a firefighter calmly shopping for pumpkins as a farmhouse behind him is engulfed in flames. (The fire is part of a training exercise.) In both images, the smoke rises to the left at identical 45-degree angles, and in both, the viewer wonders what part of the image is real and what is not. 

Dorte Verner, “Semi-Nomadic Qashqai Woman, Iran,” at Glen Echo Photoworks 

Dorte Verner, a Ph.D. economist, has hopscotched the globe to track the often subtle impacts of climate change on indigenous peoples, from dried-up lakes in central Asia to mudslide-prone villages in Thailand. The image that stood out in the eighth annual “Mirror to the World” documentary photography exhibit, curated by D.C. photographer Frank Van Riper, was the one of Iranian nomads and bird in flight. The image freezes the moment as a Qashqai woman gazes at a group of birds in flight—but what provides pathos is Verner explanation. The Qashqai people rely on their careful observations of the birds’ behavior to tell them about environmental and food conditions in their area. However, this behavior is becoming more unreliable as the climate changes—a potentially life-and-death problem. 

Bonus selection: Timothy Hyde, “Red Washington Monument,” at Multiple Exposures Gallery 

Timothy Hyde’s image doesn’t qualify as having been exhibited in Washington this year, since he made it too late to include in his “Daybreak” show at Multiple Exposures Gallery. The photograph seems too bizarre to be real, but it is—and it exists thanks to Hyde’s exhausting efforts to visually document Washington at daybreak. Hyde says the monument was bright red for less than 90 seconds. “What is interesting about low-light photography, night or dawn, is that it shows us new aspects of things we think we know, provides new information about the familiar,” he told City Paper. “Nothing is more familiar than the iconic monuments and buildings of our capital city. These sites have been photographed so many times that it’s almost impossible to say anything new about them. But with the selective light of daybreak one has an opportunity to look at them with fresh eyes.” 

Previous picks for top images of the year:  2009,  2010,  2011,  2012,  2013,  2014, 2015