“American Moments: Photographs from the Phillips Collection” is the Phillips’ first exhibit to exclusively show images from its own holdings. The exhibit includes work by a wealth of big names—Berenice Abbott, Ansel Adams, Bruce Davidson, Walker Evans, Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand, and Edward and Brett Weston—but also a number of lesser-known photographers, like Louis Faurer, Esther Bubley, and Clarence John Laughlin. Both groups of photographers manage to produce some of the exhibit’s best work, as well as some of its least interesting efforts.
The exhibit is heaviest on mid-20th century work, particularly documentary images of ordinary Americans. This portion of the exhibit is decidedly uneven. Bubley, for instance, documented workers around the country, from oil roughnecks to tobacco harvesters, and did a whole series on bus riders during World War II, but rarely does her work soar above the mere explanatory. Even a photographer as talented as Abbott produces only middling images from an event that should have provided a wealth of gripping material: a trip along the length of U.S. 1 in the mid-1950s.
Equally mundane are a selection of images from Life magazine, including Alfred Eisenstaedt’s 1940 fashion shoot featuring models wearing pinafores, a reminder that for all of Life’s landmark photography, it also included a lot of humdrum work. (Eisenstaedt redeems himself with a 1943 image of several kids—Sky Mastersons in training—playing cards on the streets of Red Hook.)
The exhibit does better with images of the big city: Abbott’s glorious soft-focus aerial view of Manhattan at night, Faurer’s hard-boiled characters standing in front of a sign that says, “Dance with Beautiful Girls,” and the underrated Godfrey Frankel’s photograph of matrix-like shadows from an elevated train track. In an impressive image from 1980, Brett Weston captures a series of reflections in rectangular, modernist glass windows—some precise and straightforward, some phantasmagorical.
Bubley offers a pair of smart sociological studies. One is of young men and women making out in wartime housing in Washington, D.C. (think of the 1943 image as proto-Mary Ellen Mark). The other, from 1951, shows several kids play-shooting guns at some of their friends, who are disturbingly blindfolded like hostages.
Davidson’s work in the show is consistently strong, ranging from a forlorn foursome seated in a bus (top) to a San Francisco drive-in theater set in a valley, improbably ringed by layers of chockablock homes. In his work documenting 1960s poverty, Davidson produces several strong images, including one of a man standing outside in a centrifugal carpet of building rubble. Meanwhile, Laughlin is a genuine find, producing two gems: a deep glance through carefully aligned porches of onetime slave cabins, and a portrait of an older African-American woman looking through a barn window, which intelligently plays off black against white, portrait against façade, and wood against flesh.
The exhibit closes on its strongest note, a selection of works that capture the natural world. Some look at the smallest scale, like Imogen Cunningham’s close-up of the stamen and pistil of a magnolia, which is a dead ringer for a snow-covered pineapple. Others look instead at the middle-to-long distance, like some classic Adams images of Yosemite and the Sierra Nevadas, several hazy color seascapes by Joel Meyerowitz, and Edward Weston’s symphony of diagonals in “Dunes, Oceano.” Still, a different Weston image—1937’s Tomato Field, featuring orderly rows of cultivated plants dotting a gentle hillside—remains a sentimental favorite.
Through Sept. 13 at the Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St. NW.