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As it is for any exhibit that seeks to encapsulate an entire nation’s photographic culture, organization and scope pose a challenge for “A Democracy of Images: The Smithsonian American Art Museum,” an exhibit that celebrates the 30th anniversary of the museum’s photography collection.
To its credit, though, “A Democracy of Images” takes its “democratic” mandate pretty seriously. The exhibit doesn’t go as far as, say, serving up a selection of family snapshots and Flickr postings, but the 113-image exhibit does offer more than just a national greatest-hits collection. It includes a generous sampling of photographers who aren’t household names, and many of their contributions are worthwhile.
Consider the circular, 55-inch-diameter, black-and-white image from Deborah Luster’s series “Tooth for an Eye,” which documents the last views seen by the homicide victims of Orleans Parish, Louisiana (top). The work in the exhibit, representing a victim found “face up with multiple gunshot wounds,” looks to the sky, where a row of birds perch on telephone wires—-an eloquently simple vista that contrasts sharply with New Orleans’ complex relationship between life and death.
Also notable are Larry W. Schwarm’s nighttime image of a Kansas prairie fire, a bold abstraction of reddish hues (bottom); Robert K. Hower’s enigmatic image of celebratory Fourth of July fireworks that could just as easily depict a disaster in progress; Joe Deal’s cramped image of a triangular-shaped backyard built into a southern California hillside; and Barbara Kasten’s subtly pleasing cyanotype of a piece of gently folded netting.
If anything, a number of the offerings of name-brand photographers are underwhelming—-a whitewashed cabin wall by Walker Evans, an unusually bland western landscape by Carleton Watkins, a dreary cityscape by Robert Frank, a subdued country road by William Christenberry.
Others, however, are worthy selections: Charles Bierstadt’s multiple-negative print of a roiling Niagara River (middle); Vik Muniz’ sugar-on-black paper portrait of a child whose forbears worked on a sugar plantation in the West Indies; Mark Klett’s magisterial, five-part portrait of the Grand Canyon; Jan Groover’s triptych that uses impeccable timing to capture street shadows that are at once playful and rigorously geometric; and William Wegman’s wink to Eadweard Muybridge, substituting his signature Weimaraners for Muybridge’s running horses.
For a visual survey of Americana, one image seems particularly apt: Skeet McAuley’s large-scale photograph of a woodsy scene that, almost imperceptibly at first glance, conceals a section of the Alaska Pipeline. It’s a gorgeous panorama, but so carefully polished it could serve as corporate P.R., a mixture of art and commerce that’s as American as apple pie.
The exhibit is on view to Jan. 5, 2014 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, 8th and F streets NW.