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Officially, the National Gallery’s survey of photography is called “The Memory of Time.” But an equally apt title would have been “Talented Photographers Get to Play with Some Really Cool Shit.”
The exhibit bills itself as contemplating traditional photography in an age of digitization, a development that “shattered the enduring roles of the medium as a faithful witness and recorder of unbiased truths.” It may be overly fussy about its five-part taxonomy – the differences between an image being categorized under “Traces of History” as opposed to “Framing Time and Place” or “Time Exposed” seem Talmudic at best – but the curation is inspired, capturing the breadth of technical experimentation in recent photographic circles.
There’s a lot of the daguerreotype in this exhibit – that very old and, for more than a century, defunct photographic process that fixes a highly detailed image upon polished metal. Including so many daguerreotypes in the exhibit was a bit of a risk, since reviving lost art has become so popular in recent years that it’s almost become a cliché. Fortunately, several of the artists shown used this tool in creative and unexpected ways.
Adam Fuss took a vintage, 19th-century negative image of the Taj Mahal, digitally manipulated it, then produced a massively scaled, blue-tinted daguerreotype (top), creating something that looks at first glance like an etching – not like a photograph at all. For his part, Chuck Close made a daguerreotype of artist Kara Walker, rendered in her signature silhouette (below); doing so goes against the grain of daguerreotyping, using a medium known for its fine, almost microscopic detail to produce a minimalist form.
Meanwhile, Binh Danh makes modern-day daguerreotypes of Yosemite, echoing the earlier work of Carleton Watkins and Ansel Adams, but in a format that predated even them.
Others play with a variety of quirky techniques. Matthew Brandt didn’t just turn to the mid-19th century method of salted paper prints when photographing California’s evaporating Salton Sea; he actually used the sea’s brackish water in his photographic process, with the impurities lending unusual hues and textures. Better yet, his dreamy image cleverly blurred the line between the object itself and the photographic representation of it.
Chris McCaw used an accidental process he developed that allowed him to produce something keenly elemental to photography – the passage of light through the course of a day, inscribed directly by the sun onto photographic paper. The lines traced by the sun differ depending on location – a straight vertical line when tracked near the equator, a stiletto-like diagonal in San Francisco and a gentle sine wave at the poles – but each example is at once rigorous and graceful.
But few went to more effort than Vera Lutter, who chose to photograph Venice by using a camera obscura – a room with only one small opening for light – and placing photographic paper on the back wall. After two days of exposure, a ghostly image of architecture and water appeared, now mounted in monumental scale.
There are simpler methods here too, such as Mark Ruwedel’s images of western landscapes subtly shaped by railroad construction, and Deborah Luster’s documentation of homicide sites in New Orleans; both use familiar black-and-white techniques to make their images.
Some went in the opposite direction, using techniques that seem overly complicated. One is David Maisel, whose Rube Goldbergian technique starts with an X-ray negative, which is then placed on a light box, scanned, manipulated and finally produced as an inkjet print. And the subjects receiving this lavish effort? Nothing more than statues.
This is why it’s heartening to find artists who have struck a comfortable balance between technique and subject. For instance, Idris Khan used dozens of commercially available snapshots of the U.K.’s houses of parliament and, using digital techniques, turned them into a composite photograph of the building (bottom) that’s as dreamy as one of Monet’s own depictions – and about as far as you can get from their postcard predecessors.
Meanwhile, Carrie Mae Weems produces a smart and coherent series in which she fuzzes old publicity stills of African American singers and actors, poignantly equating their physical disappearance and the public’s fading memories of them. Then there’s Moyra Davey, who photographed extreme closeups 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.
Through Sept. 13 at the National Gallery of Art, Constitution Ave. and 6th St. NW.