Ugliness is hardly a disqualifying characteristic for good photography, as Frank Hallam Day knows well; for years, he has turned the grittiness of plastic fencing and worn ship hulls into unexpected oases of beauty.
So in “Shrines,” it is neither the cluttered streetside tableaux he photographs in Thailand and Burma, nor the irony of the exhibit’s title, that undercuts his current exhibit at Addison/Ripley Fine Art. It’s an uncharacteristic lack of balance.
The exhibit is billed as defining “a sacred and profane continuum” by pairing nighttime images of both religious sites and messy public phone booths. However, his final cut is unbalanced, leaning too heavily on the profane end of the spectrum.
Day’s images of religious sites are appropriately elevating—-a brick pagoda under a starry sky, a blazingly lit temple framed by a pink-flowered tree. But there are too few such images for an exhibit that intends to run the whole spectrum.
Reducing the number of phone booth images in the exhibit would have focused attention on their strengths. The phones themselves, despite their intense wear, command attention, whether they come in mango hues of green, yellow, and orange, or in more contemporary shades of light green and aquatic blue. The cramped booths exhibit a weird melting-pot vibe in which flyers lettered in Thai coexist side by side with discarded cups labeled “Slurpee” (top).
Ghostly blizzards of tape residue lend an underwater, fish-school feel to some images, while others offer bracing, odd mash-ups of Gothic-lettered phrases and anthropomorphic, banana-shaped cartoon buildings (middle).
Overall, though, the repetition of litter-filled disorder becomes wearying. A better approach presents itself in one image, had Day chosen to follow it. In this photo (bottom), light from an unknown source streams through a translucent phone booth window, showering a ray of diffuse, almost spiritual light into one of the night’s dark corners. It’s an unexpected shrine, indeed.
Through Jan. 24 at Addison/Ripley Fine Art, 1670 Wisconsin Ave. NW, Washington, D.C. (202) 338-5180.