The photographs in “Absence/Presence: Selected Contemporary Photography” may be devoid of people, but they are not devoid of emotion.
The exhibit, at the Luther W. Brady Art Gallery, is united by the idea that the absence of people draws attention to the wistful, easy-to-miss signs of past human presence. Not every photograph in the exhibit advances this idea—in many images, it is the more mundane workings of nature and time that shape the scenario—but with 23 works by an impressively broad selection of 14 photographers, a decent number fit the bill.
Nancy Breslin’s pinhole-camera works are especially appropriate, since the long exposure times inevitably turn people into wispy trails, as in her ghostly image of the deck of the Queen Mary II and her photograph of an old-school carnival booth at the Kennywood amusement park. Another natural fit for the exhibit is William Christenberry, who contributes one of his classic images of an abandoned building in rural Alabama being slowly consumed by vegetation.
Indeed, abandonment, both physical and psychological, recurs frequently in these images. Frank Gohlke offers a black-and-white photograph of an abandoned grain elevator; it echoes the unpopulated industrial images of Bernd and Hilla Becher, but with a quirkier feel, featuring an irregular, bulging shape that oddly suggests a pregnant woman.
Meanwhile, Lee Saloutos documents the disused, arched cells of the Missouri State Penitentiary. Pablo Maurer, a contributor to DCist, offers a video that cycles through images of trolleys decaying in a surprisingly sylvan boneyard. And Lisa Tyson Ennis photographs a bright-white, gothic interior from Puerto Rico that recedes far into the distance.
The exhibit’s standout, however, is Dan Lobdell, whose large-scale, impressively detailed images find visual poetry in unexpected corners of rundown urban centers. One of his images, 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. The other image, from Buffalo, features a blocky, brick façade notable for a doorway to nowhere and a zig-zagging metal pipe that snakes over the building’s surface with surprising grace. Not a soul can be seen in Lobdell’s images, but they somehow make you want to be there.
Through Nov. 20 at the Luther W. Brady Art Gallery, 805 21st St. NW. Tuesday-Friday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. (202) 994-1525