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Chris Earnshaw’s photographs are nothing you’d ever expect to see. It’s not so much the subject matter, although his elegaic architectural images and portraits succeed in transporting the viewer to some of the grittier precincts of Washington in the 1960s and 1970s—a “visual blues track to a D.C. not too far gone,” as the exhibit puts it. Rather, the most unexpected thing is the photographs’ aesthetic.
Earnshaw—whose peripatetic life and career was explored at length by the Washington Post’s Dan Zak here—used an accordion-style Polaroid Land Camera and a Kodak Instamatic to document the streets of D.C.. These cameras produced images that are often fuzzy and dappled with pockmarks.
Then there’s the paper the images are printed on. Except for a selection of original drugstore-printed snapshots, Earnshaw’s 51 black-and-white images—from negatives rescued from obscurity after years in storage—are printed on yellowed, vintage paper, selected in partnership with photographer and curator Joseph Mills, who himself knows a thing or two about documenting old D.C. as a photographer.
The combination of primitive cameras and old paper makes these already dated images seem even more archaic. A vertical, spiral staircase seen from below calls to mind the vertiginous 1920s images of Alexander Rodchenko and
László Moholy-Nagy; a photograph of the former Post headquarters building suggests the moody cityscape paintings of Edward Hopper; a rain-slicked intersection in “old Foggy Bottom” suggests Edward Steichen’s damp New York City nocturnes. The image “Apres Riots” even has a texture like a paper negative print from the 1840s.
Earnshaw’s—and Mills’—approach really clicks 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. We can thank Earnshaw for making sure such moments don’t disappear from the historical record.
Through Feb. 26 at the Historical Society of Washington, D.C., 801 K St., NW, Washington, D.C. Tue-Fri 10-4.