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Not long before his death, Eliot Elisofon, a LIFE magazine staff photographer from 1942 to 1964, donated 80,000 of his African photographs, his papers, and 700 pieces of African art to the institution that would become the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art. Now, 40 years after his death, the museum is mounting a retrospective.
The exhibit is packed into a tiny exhibit space, though it makes the most of it by using a looping video of dozens of color images.
Elisofon’s early black-and-white work isn’t as compelling as one might expect of a globe-trotting photographer working in the golden age of magazines. But the exhibit, to its credit, offers the royal treatment for his finest photographs, showing versions reproduced in large-format brushed aluminum.
One, made in 1947, is a portrait of a Kuba ruler in the Democratic Republic of Congo, dressed in baroque, beaded finery, captured dazzlingly through the use of diffused flash bulbs. Another image reproduced in aluminum features a pendant-wearing Shilluk woman in Sudan whose smile is positively radiant.
The exhibit includes some departures from Elisofon’s extensive African work, including a clever multiple exposure of Marcel Duchamp mimicking his famed Nude Descending a Staircase and a smattering of Hollywood work, most notably some images from the set of The African Queen, which Elisofon photographed as it was being shot on location in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
But the lasting impression one gets from Elisofon’s work has to do with the continent’s sheer scale, and the logistical difficulties he faced in documenting it. Elisofon once said his quest to photograph the Rwenzori Mountains in Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo turned into the nine worst days of his life, involving tropical rain, poorly outfitted guides and a nearly fatal avalanche.
Perhaps the most resonant object in the exhibit isn’t even a photograph at all—-it’s a map showing the meandering route Elisofon traveled on a long assignment from Cape Town to Cairo. Judging by the accompanying photographs of minimally passable roads, one’s tempted to say that for Elisofon, simply getting there was a large part of his accomplishment.
Also on view: Eerie, dreamlike, black-and-white photographic compositions made over more than three decades by the American-born, South African-based artist Roger Ballen, climaxing with an audaciously transgressive music video collaboration between Ballen and the South African rap group Die Antwoord, titled “I Fink U Freeky.”
Through March 2 2014 at the National Museum of African Art, 950 Independence Ave. SW.