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Don’t expect uplift from many of the best photographs exhibited in the D.C. area this past year. Whether it’s dread spawned by omnipresent surveillance, the tattered remains of the clothes of missing persons, or the drudgery of low-income work in America, photographers on the following list not only bore witness to important topics but did so with an artistic flair.
In descending order, here are my picks for the nine best photographic images of 2015 (plus one video project):
1. Jens Sundheim, images from “the Traveller project“
What’s special about Sundheim’s work, included in Goethe-Institut’s “Surveillance Blind” exhibit, isn’t its visual polish. Rather, it’s the artist’s relentless pursuit of an urgent and fully coherent concept. He locates surveillance cameras with a public feed; he then travels to those locations and poses, always wearing the same outfit. Finally, he secures a screenshot of himself on camera—a digital souvenir of his travels to cafes, parks, intersections and receptionists’ desks. Sundheim craftily and resourcefully short-circuits Big Brother, giving him a big poke in the eye for good measure.
2. Fred Ramos, images from “El Último Atuendo de los Desaparecidos”
Ramos, whose work was shown at Hillyer Art Space, photographs carefully arranged articles of clothing discovered in the unmarked graves of missing persons in El Salvador. Stand back a few steps and the image could pass for a fashion ad in a trendy magazine. Look closely, though, and the message turns sharply poignant, a case study in tracing the fine line between beautiful and horrific.
3. Paul Graham, images from “A Shimmer of Possibility”
A decade ago, Graham, the British documentarian, photographed Americans on the economic edge. A portion of that project resurfaced this year in “Celebrating Photography at the National Gallery of Art: Recent Gifts.” The narrative series included in the exhibit documents a laborer mowing a steep field in a commercial strip, interspersed with images of cans of food stocked in a presumably low-rent grocery store. With this series, Graham concisely encapsulates both Sisyphean labor and its meager rewards. Through March 13 at the National Gallery of Art, 6th St. and Constitution Ave., NW, Mon.–Sat. 10 a.m.–5 p.m., Sun. 11 a.m.–6 p.m.
4. Moyra Davey, images from “The Copperhead Series”
Davey’s penny project, now a quarter-century old, was the best of several brainy photographic experiments in the National Gallery of Art’s exhibit “The Memory of Time.” Davey photographed extreme close–ups of randomly selected—and deeply battered—pennies, producing not only compelling visuals (who knew there were so many different ways a penny could become scarred?) but also a meditation on Abraham Lincoln’s place in history.
5. Acacia Johnson, from “Under the Same Stars”
Johnson has extensively documented one of the most remote places on earth—the north shore of Baffin Island, in the Canadian province of Nunavut, opposite Greenland. For her exhibit at the Canadian Embassy, she used an old-school technique—a large-format camera and color film—to photograph eight figures in heavy parkas standing amid the midwinter gloom. They stare calmly at something unknown behind the photographer, as if they were characters in Close Encounters of the Third Kind—a mesmerizing and enigmatic image from a profoundly lonely place. Through Jan. 31 at the Embassy of Canada, 501 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Washington, D.C. Mon-Fri 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m.
6. James Crable, from the “Streets” project
Crable creates large-scale matrices of photographs that, from a distance, look like quilts. Many (though not all) of the works shown at the Heurich Gallery worked; of the ones that did, the finest is a depiction of people entering and exiting the front door at San Francisco City Hall. The image captures its subjects at their most vulnerable—as they are figuring out how to open the door, and as they juggle their purses and adjust to the sunlight or the darkness. The photograph offers a brief, enigmatic look into the unguarded souls of the everyman.
7. Lara Baladi, “Oum el Dounia (The Mother of the World)”
Lara Baladi’s homage to the Egypt of myth and reality—displayed as a stand-alone work at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery—is at once sweeping and quirky. Baladi pieced together the work from photographs and ephemera, producing what amounts to a modern tapestry. At 29 feet long, it is a monumental work, all the better for close, personal inspection of the artist’s penchant for Western pop culture (including The Little Mermaid and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland) and the Egyptian landscape of deep blue sky and tawny sand.
8. Irving Penn, “Frozen Food, New York”
The Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Irving Penn retrospective, “Beyond Beauty,“ was uneven, offering too many underwhelming portraits and fashion images along with some problematic images of Africans. But the exhibit also included an intriguing example of a series Penn made in the late 1970s—still life photos of stacked frozen vegetables, unwrapped but still congealed in their rectangular shape. With their thoroughly unnatural appearance and their frost-laden pallor, Penn’s images are a worthy and ambivalent monument to the century’s march of technology. Through March 20 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, 8th and F St. NW, Washington, D.C. 11:30 a.m.-7 p.m. daily.
9. Dan Lobdell, “Baltimore, Md.”
Lobdell’s architectural and urbanist works were the most impressive pieces in the exhibit “Absence/Presence: Selected Contemporary Photography” at the Luther W. Brady Art Gallery. His large-scale, impressively detailed photographs find visual poetry in unexpected corners of run–down inner cities. His image of Baltimore was made on an empty rooftop parking lot; upstaging an array of distinguished-looking, old high-rises is a window-like void in a concrete façade whose purpose remains mysterious.
10. Amelia Winger-Bearskin, “Say Indian”
Winger-Bearskin was the standout of “Technovisual: Art in the Age of Code,” at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Her video data-mines vintage movies to find examples of the spoken word “Indian.” The usages and contexts of the word are painfully retrograde, and much like a Daily Show segment that skewers politicians or cable-news talking heads by repeating their words ad nauseam, the video expertly lays bare a linguistic absurdity.