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District II, a photography exhibition jointly organized by the Historical Society of Washington, D.C., and the National Building Museum, builds on the historical society’s “District” exhibit from earlier this year—a retrospective of the down-to-earth images of archaic D.C. buildings and streetscapes by Chris Earnshaw.
In this modestly sized, three-part exhibit, works by Earnshaw are joined by images made by Joseph Mills, Earnshaw’s late-career collaborator, and by Bill Barrett, a freelance architectural photographer in D.C. who died in 1997. As long as you ignore the rather grandiose aims of the exhibit—“to consider how Washington’s neighborhoods have been rethought and redeveloped to serve today’s commercial and residential demands”—it offers a worthwhile look into the city’s uneasy past.
Barrett’s photographs, many of them made on assignment for the home-town journalistic institution Kiplinger’s, are stylistically the most conventional. Indeed, the crisply composed, carefully lit architectural images and street views could easily pass for photographs taken by a property and casualty insurer to be inserted in clients’ files. Only occasionally does one see pedestrians and other denizens of the neighborhood.
Not so with Earnshaw and Mills. The selection of works by Earnshaw closely tracks those from the earlier exhibit, which were made with low-tech cameras such as Polaroids and Instamatics. His images—of literal tumbledown buildings and architectural detritus—are printed either on well-worn, vintage paper or as original machine prints from the corner drug store.
The selection of Earnshaw’s work in “District II” is elevated by the spur-of-the-moment captions scrawled on the back of the photographs and displayed alongside the image. Many of them were written in the immediate aftermath of the 1968 riots; in describing almost in real time how the buildings he photographed were consumed by flames, Earnshaw’s drugstore prints presaged Instagram posts by four decades.
Even more revelatory are Mills’ black-and-white images of downtown D.C. in the early 1980s.
They use photographs as a starting point, but Mills turned them into full-blown artifacts by mounting them with heavy varnish on rusting metal plates that had been salvaged from a garage door. The haphazard photographs by themselves are often intriguing—a man sleeping upright on a park bench with his head at an unnatural angle, an uptight middle-aged couple simmering on a sidewalk, pigeons fluttering but failing to wake a sleeping homeless man. But it’s the surrounding metal plates that add the most character thanks to their meandering patterns of rust.
Mills’ finest image is one showing three pedestrians—dressed in a black suit, a gray suit, and a light suit—walking in the same direction and spaced evenly from each other. The figures’ heads and feet have been cropped out of the frame, turning the image into a quietly eloquent meditation on the human form.
Through Feb. 12 at the National Building Museum, 401 F St. NW. (202) 272-2448. Mon.–Sat. 10 a.m.–5 p.m., Sun. 11 a.m.–5 p.m.