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In Renato D’Agostin’s obscurely titled exhibit 7439 at the Leica Store DC, the photographer quite literally travels well-worn byways of the American West. Fortunately, the Italian-born, New York-based photographer still manages to say something new—or at least newish.
Some of D’Agostin’s black-and-white images come off as pretentious, such as the overly self-referential image of a sign that reads “Driving America,” an overly dramatic rendering of a spotlighted Las Vegas performer, and a Riefenstahlian portrayal of a flexed arm holding a massive arrow against a dramatically lit sky. One image—an aerial view of a partially filled parking lot—pales in comparison to its clear progenitor, a series of photographs by Ed Ruscha.
The artist’s more appealing works lean heavily, and fruitfully, on their monochromatic graininess—a nostalgic throwback to the kind of black-and-white 35mm negative film I cut my teeth on in the early 1990s, before photo editors began demanding color film and, eventually, digital exposures rather than film at all.
Sometimes, D’Agostin applies his grainy approach to white surfaces such as desertscapes in New Mexico’s White Sands region, turning the blank dunes into facsimiles of a freshly opened container of Breyer’s ice cream speckled with vanilla-bean chunks.
The White Sands image calls to mind the impressive, washed-out images of Noelle K. Tan (who notably also photographed in the New Mexico desert). D’Agostin channels Tan in another image, depicting an S-curved path in Death Valley with a blackness that contrasts sharply with the bright sand it cuts into.
In a few of his images, D’Agostin skillfully abstracts the scenes around him. In one, a photograph in Malibu looks like it’s taken through a porthole, looking off into a geometrically arranged horizon of sea and sky.
In another, taken at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, he focuses on one decontextualized portion of the roadway, especially the dark tire tracks on its surface; the image looks as if someone has artfully dragged their fingertips across an icy windshield.
The speedway also provides the setting for D’Agostin’s finest image. From a distance, he photographed a narrow slit of light between the upper and lower decks of the grandstand. The seats above and below fade to deep blackness, while the tiny human figures standing against the bright light devolve into the barest of human forms, spacing themselves throughout a rigid grid of railings and columns. To top it off, the image as a whole suggests a single row of negatives printed on a contact sheet—yet another way in which D’Agostin’s puts his old-school impulses to good use.
Through Jan. 18 at Leica Store D.C., 977 F St. NW. (202) 787-5900. Sun. 12 p.m.-5 p.m., Mon.–Wed. 10 a.m.–6 p.m., Thurs.–Fri. 10 a.m.–7 p.m., Sat. 10 a.m.–6 p.m.