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“Recent Gifts” exhibits are inevitably mishmashes and “Celebrating Photography at the National Gallery of Art: Recent Gifts” is no exception.
Coming on the heels of two significant photography exhibits at the NGA this year—“The Memory of Time” and “In Light of the Past”—the newest offering ranges widely, from an 1843 image of a Gothic façade by photographic pioneer
William Henry Fox Talbot to experiments with found imagery from Google Street View.
The exhibit offers some pleasant surprises. The virtually unknown 1850s photographer Joseph Vigier contributes a black-and-white landscape in the Pyrenees (top) that looks unexpectedly modern. An image by Adam Fuss uses the camera-less photogram technique to create a notably ghostly image of a lacy gown. And Deborah Luster’s series of tintype portraits of inmates in Louisiana (an example is at bottom) receives deservedly extensive space.
Other decisions, though, seem more arbitrary, such as the close pairing in one room of photographs by Robert Frank (including the second from the bottom) and Richard Avedon. And one of the exhibit’s biggest focuses—modern landscapes—includes an uneven mix of works.
Some of these landscape projects are underwhelming, including Henry Wessel’s bland images of houses in Richmond, Calif.; Matthew Jensen’s Google Street View photographs looking directly into the sun; and a matrix of surprisingly nondescript detritus from the American West by Lewis Baltz.
But to its credit, the exhibit also offers a selection of Emmet Gowin’s great aerial photographs of pivot agriculture and snowy badlands in the West, as well as Simon Norfolk’s clever project to document the decades-long retreat of a glacier using a lit torch and long-exposure photography.
The work that really creeps up on you, though, is Paul Graham’s narrative series that 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.