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In an era in which both books and photographs are going digital, it’s somewhat ironic that photography books—a media combination doubly cursed—are stubbornly hanging on.
As the National Gallery of Art exhibit “From the Library: Photobooks After Frank” demonstrates, some of the most noteworthy artistic achievements of photography are familiar primarily in their book form, rather than in exhibits.
This photobook “canon” includes The Americans, by the titular Robert Frank; Ed Ruscha’s Thirtyfour Parking
Lots in Los Angeles; William Eggleston’s Guide; Larry Clark’s Tulsa; Bernd and Hilla Becher’s Anonyme Skulpturen (at right); Robert Adams’ The New West; and Stephen Shore’s Uncommon Places. The exhibit features these works and more—a smart selection that also throws in some lesser-known but intriguing volumes by Jacob Holdt and Roni Horn and such recently emerging artists as Doug Rickard.
Any exhibit of photobooks will inevitably be hobbled by the display challenges—unless you let visitors handle the volumes, it’s impossible to get a sense of narrative sweep that makes books of photography so special. Not surprisingly, the presentation of “Photobooks After Frank” lags well behind the curation, with only one interior spread or the cover shown for any given book.
Indeed, the exhibit’s biggest drawback is its size—the whole thing fits into what is basically a vestibule: The detailed pamphlet tacitly acknowledges these restraints, informing visitors to seek out more. “For a broader selection of photobooks, please visit the main reading room of the National Gallery of Art Library during weekday hours,” the pamphlet urges. If even a few people follow that advice, this tiny hors d’oeuvre of an exhibit may well have achieved its goal.
Through Feb. 7 at the National Gallery of Art, Constitution Ave. and 6th St. NW.