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Black-and-white photography has long ago moved into the realm of retro, but that shift only seems to have enhanced its cachet. In today’s cluttered visual environment, black-and-white is the equivalent of comfort food—and this critic, at least, ate it up this year. In this selection of the top five individual photographs exhibited in the D.C. area this year, all but one, an unforgettable creation in color, are rendered in shades of glorious gray.
In descending order, my picks for the best photographic images of 2014:
1. Lisa Tyson Ennis, “God Bless Our Home, Abandoned Outport, Newfoundland”
Ennis’ contributions to the Glen Echo Photoworks exhibit “Mirror to the World” were uniformly strong, but her photograph of an abandoned settlement in Newfoundland was a tour de force of mystery, distortion, and fading memory.
2. Larry McNeil, “Elders”
In the National Museum of the American Indian exhibit “Indelible: The Platinum Photographs of Larry McNeil and Will Wilson,” McNeil delves into Native American iconography, including a series on feathers. One ultra-close-up is particularly notable for its ability to simultaneously communicate smoothness, steeliness, confidence, and fragility. (On view through Jan. 15.)
3. Christine Pearl, “Slam”
Pearl, a D.C.-based construction project manager-turned-photographer, has taken a deep look into the fading, blue-collar demimonde of demolition derbies. In an exhibit at Hillyer Art Space, Pearl dwelled lovingly on the cars in all their dented glory, but her finest image showed a man, mid-swing, wielding a sledgehammer, framed by a roughly cropped onlooker and a bulldog—-a fine embodiment of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moment.”
4. Kim Keever, “west 131f”
Adamson Gallery’s landscape exhibit included three monumental works by Keever, a New York-based artist with a peculiar technique. He created miniature tableaux of nature (rocks, trees, vegetation, fake snow) within a 200-gallon tank of water; he then shined colored lights and dropped in fluids to mimic atmospheric elements like skies and clouds. His finished works, measuring 40 inches by 59 inches, are at once realistic, fantastical, and eerie, calling to mind works by the luminist painters of the mid-19th century.
5. Steve Goldenberg, untitled
Goldenberg’s contribution stood out from a generally strong Leica Store exhibit of works by the STRATA collective, an eight-photographer network based in D.C. and San Francisco. Goldenberg photographed a boy swimming in a pool through a water-splattered, translucent surface. The filter distorted the boy’s face into a grotesquerie worthy of Ralph Eugene Meatyard and Edvard Munch.
Bonus pick: Marley Dawson, “08. Untitled”
This was a video work rather than a photograph, but its creative use of black-and-white visuals earns it a spot on this list. Shown at Hemphill Fine Arts, the work consisted of low-definition footage that exuded the soft, peaceful rhythm of a sonogram. The footage showed a stylish race car, surrounded by ethereal bubbles that traced an aerodynamic arc around the car, as if in a wind tunnel. The video was mysterious, with a secret only explained once the viewer passed through a small room of etchings by Martin Puryear and happened upon an inconspicuous nook. There, a small box containing mineral oil, a miniature car sculpture, and a bubble device provided the source of the live feed initially viewed. The piece worked equally well as an initial enigma and its subsequent explication.
Previous picks for top-10 images of the year: 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013.