The list of Washington’s 10 best photography exhibits of 2015 is split between images of far-flung locales like Hawaii, Guatemala, and China and photographs from our own hometown. Here, in descending order, are one critic’s choices of the best local photographic exhibits this year.
1. “Wayne Levin: Akule,” National Academy of Sciences
Levin photographs a humble fish known as akule that lives in Hawaii’s Kealakekua Bay. Schools of them swim in multifaceted unison, swooping, unfurling, encircling, and elongating with seeming randomness, even surrounding divers and underwater photographers in seemingly friendly tunnels. Sometimes the fish take the form of a tightly woven basket; other times they resolve into an undulating shape that looks a lot like animal fur, or even the form of a tornado, a tumbleweed, or a breathtakingly simple circle. Levin’s old-school black-and-white is the perfectly low-ley medium for documenting this restless species. Through Jan. 8, 2016.
2. “Push Factors: Perspectives on Guatemalan Migration,” Corcoran School of the Arts and Design
Curators Without Borders executive director Heidi McKinnon curated this exhibition showcasing the sobering work of three photojournalists—James Rodríguez, Rodrigo Abd, and William Plowman. In it, Rodríguez, Abd, Plowman carefully document the profoundly depressing chronicles of modern-day Guatemala, punctuated by just about every dysfunction imaginable, from political disappearances, gang violence, and misogyny to corruption, poverty, and environmental distress. In one image, a woman holds a bloody t-shirt in front of her face as a toddler cries and holds his hands over his eyes. In another, a child walks by a covered corpse leaking a trail of blood 10 feet to the curb. At a moment when it’s sorely needed, the photographers have provided a nuanced look at the complexities of migration from Latin America to the United States. Through Jan. 23, 2016.
3. “Surveillance Blind,” Goethe-Institut
This well-timed exhibition offered an ensemble cast of international photographers, most of whom provided thoughtful insights on the ubiquity of surveillance. The exhibit’s two standouts were the collaborative team of Nate Larson and Marni Shindelman, and German artist Jens Sundheim. Larson and Shindelman sifted through embedded GPS information on tweets and pair a message with the location in the real world where it was sent. The settings are surprisingly evocative; in one, an image of an orange grove, the tweeted message offers the perfect commentary on public cluelessness about new technologies: “These tweets have my location?” Sundheim, meanwhile, seeks out security cameras that have a public feed; he then travels to those locations and poses for the camera, later securing a screenshot to close the loop. His project is at once a cheeky prank and a thoroughly serious policy lesson.
4. “Dark Fields of the Republic: Alexander Gardner Photographs, 1859-1872,” National Portrait Gallery
In this retrospective, Gardner’s photography of the Civil War era—both on the battlefield and in the corridors of power in Washington—comes across as artistically vital and historically poignant, capturing a nation on the precipice between romanticism and realism, as the exhibit puts it. Gardner’s images of bloody bodies retain their gut-punch power, yet the exhibit, to its credit, also lays bare Gardner’s self-aggrandizing streak and his willingness to bend the truth when crafting his images. Despite his flaws, Gardner produced a series of memorable images of an increasingly war-strained Abraham Lincoln and provided a sense of closure to his assassination by documenting the hanging of the conspirators. Through March 13, 2016.
5. “The Memory of Time,” National Gallery of Art
The curation of this exhibition was inspired, capturing the breadth of technical experimentation in recent photographic pursuits. Adam Fuss, for instance, took a vintage, 19th-century negative image of the Taj Mahal, digitally manipulated it, then produced a massively scaled, blue-tinted daguerreotype, creating something that looks more like an etching than a photograph. Matthew Brandt revived the mid-19th century method of salted paper prints when photographing California’s evaporating Salton Sea, going so far as to use the sea’s brackish water in his photographic process, which added impurities that lend unusual hues to his images. Chris McCaw used an accidental process that allowed him to track the passage of light through the course of a day, inscribed directly by the sun onto photographic paper. And Moyra Davey photographed extreme closeups of randomly selected—and deeply battered—pennies, producing not only compelling visuals but also a meditation on Lincoln’s place in history.
6. “Art of the Airport Tower,” National Air and Space Museum
Airport control towers aren’t the most obvious subject for a compelling photographic project, but with 50 images at the National Air & Space Museum, Carolyn Russo has produced an unexpectedly appealing exhibit. The collection includes both abstracted and straight-ahead images, with only its nearly monochromatic palette tying the series together. One tower, in Edinburgh, Scotland, has smooth curves slathered in hand-installed, zinc tiles. Another is a crescent-shaped structure in Abu Dhabi; in Russo’s portrayal, it looks too unbalanced to even stand. Yet another, a tower built in 2012 in Birmingham, England, has tiles that shift ever-so-gradually from pure white to pure black. Through November 2016.
7. Matt Stuart at Leica Store DC
Stuart’s imagery injected a much-needed dose of humor into the city’s photography scene this year. A Londoner, Stuart captured an older man in an energetic mid-yawn; in another image, a bubble blocks a man’s right eye as if it were a monocle. In Trafalgar Square, a man sits impassively while over his right shoulder someone in black does a tight mid-air flip. Stuart’s finest image paired the red feet of a pigeon and the black legs of pedestrians, all perfectly mid-stride.
8. “Agora and Activo Circulante,” Art Museum of the Americas
Mexican photographer Jesús Jiménez dwells on money—the object more than the purchasing power. Some of his photographs show large, abstracted stacks of bills that suggest a tall pile of hand-woven rugs. Bringing his art into the realm of social policy, these stacks are described as being $100,000 worth of pesos sent by Mexican workers in the United States back home to Michoacán. In other images, bills are wound tightly into a circular shapes or jauntily crafted into curled forms. In one especially potent photograph, a dollar bill rests tantalizingly out of reach within a mouse trap.
9. “China: Through the Lens of John Thomson,” Textile Museum
Thomson provided historically important documentation of 19th century China, but his finest work involves portraits, featuring everyone from religious figures to government officials to ordinary people. One woman in Fujian, photographed in a sideways portrait, is shown in simple black clothing yet carefully adorned hair and a huge hoop earring, appearing decidedly at peace with herself. An image of a Cantonese schoolboy is notable for the subject’s piercing eyes, while a portrait of a Guangdong boatwoman in a breezy head scarf exudes an unexpectedly modern look. It’s hard to ignore Thomson’s western, “imperial” gaze; still, he proved a careful observer of fashion, which is nicely paired in the exhibit with a selection of well-preserved and colorful silk jackets. Through Feb. 14, 2016.
10. “Scaling Washington,” National Building Museum
Colin Winterbottom, a D.C.-based economist turned architectural photographer, secured the exclusive rights to photograph the restoration of the National Cathedral and the Washington Monument following the 2011 East Coast earthquake. Winterbottom, using both black-and-white and color images, smartly used time-lapse photography, packaged in a high-quality video format, to show how light travels through the cathedral’s stained-glass windows and across its neutral stone walls. The Washington Monument, by contrast, comes across as bracingly minimalist. Some of Winterbottom’s images are more workmanlike than inspiring, but that’s appropriate to the subject matter—soaring designs coexisting with the gritty work of reconstruction. Through Jan. 3, 2016.
Correction: Due to an editing error, this post mistakenly identified photographers James Rodríguez, Rodrigo Abd, and William Plowman as the curators of “Push Factors: Perspectives on Guatemalan Migration.” It was curated by Curators Without Borders executive director Heidi McKinnon.