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The best photographic images in D.C. museums and galleries this year offered a memorable confluence of visual elements, engaged in conceptual experimentation, and made clever use of atypical materials and techniques. They were not, in other words, antiquated. But among my five favorites, only one was made in 2013.
The others were from 1947, 1956, 1973, and 2002, a fact that should not imply a dearth of new, impressive work. I prefer to see it as evidence that visually daring photography of every era continues to command the respect of our city’s curators.
1. Gordon Parks, “Department Store, Birmingham Alabama, 1956,” from Adamson Gallery’s “Gordon Parks: An American Lens.”
The Adamson Gallery’s retrospective spotlighted Parks’ documentary work in Jim Crow-era Alabama. While many of Parks’ images are no-nonsense, this image, taken on the sidewalk outside a department store, offers a rich and affecting split-second tableau. Using lush, period-atypical color, Parks captured a maraschino-cherry-red “Colored Entrance” neon sign, the expressive faces of an African-American mother and girl, and a series of bold diagonals, seamlessly melding art and morality.
2. Joan Oh, “Through Their Eyes: Pyramids of Giza, 2013,” from the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s “Next.”
Oh’s large-scale works were the standout of the Corcoran College of Art and Design’s student show. Working on the Internet frontier, Oh downloaded tourist photos of the pyramids of Giza, Niagara Falls, and Stonehenge from around the Web, then organized them into seven-by-10-foot arrays to illustrate patterns of “redundancy” in the human travel experience, as well as the “validation” that people get from sharing their snapshots—-a timely exploration in the age of social media. Oh’s works in the series offer the perfect combination of intellectual heft and visual skill.
3. Ed Ruscha, “Hollywood Boulevard, 1973 and 2002,” from the National Building Museum’s “Overdrive: L.A. Constructs the Future, 1940–1990.”
Ruscha’s fame as a painter sometimes obscures his deeply impressive work as a photographer, but for conceptual ingenuity, it’s hard to top his two-tiered tracking shot that documents every structure on Hollywood Boulevard. Obviously, the work (on view through March 10) jumps off from Ruscha’s 1966 landmark “Every Building on the Sunset Strip,” but “Hollywood Boulevard” one-ups its progenitor by shifting its format from fold-out book to video and by communicating a clear sense of urban transition over a 20-year period.
4. Eliot Elisofon, “Kuba nyim (ruler) Mbopey Mabiintsh ma-Kyeen (reigned 1939 – d. 1969), Mushenge, Democratic Republic of the Congo,” 1947, from the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art’s “Africa ReViewed: The Photographic Legacy of Eliot Elisofon.”
Overall, the small retrospective of the former Life magazine photographer (on view through March 2) is somewhat underwhelming, but the exhibit smartly gives Elisofon’s finest works the royal treatment by presenting them in an inspired medium—-large-format brushed aluminum. The portrait of a Kuba ruler in the Democratic Republic of Congo, dressed in baroque, beaded finery, is dazzling enough thanks to Elisofon’s use of diffused flash bulbs, but the effect is heightened when the ruler’s old-school bling is captured in reflective metal.
5. Steve Fitch, “Drive-In Theatre, San Antonio, Texas, 1973,” in the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s “Landscapes In Passing.”
SAAM’s exhibit on the landscape of the American highway (on view through Jan. 20) is uneven, but Fitch’s documentation of western kitsch avoids the ever-present risk of cliché. Along with run-down dinosaur statues, patently offensive Indian-themed motels and a creepy snakepit and zoo in rural Oklahoma, Fitch captured a deserted, nighttime image of the Trail, an Art Deco drive-in movie theater in San Antonio. The vernacular fresco of a cowboy scene offers the perfect confluence of reality, fantasy, and art in the American West.