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Maybe it’s the national malaise, or maybe it’s just coincidence, but many of the finest photographic exhibits in Washington in 2012 have been meditations on loss—-the Holocaust, extinct empires, far-away wars, hardscrabble young adulthoods, urban ruins and funerary rites.
Here’s one critic’s choice of the 10 best photographic exhibits of the year. Four of the 10 photographers behind these exhibits are have made previous City Paper Top 10 lists (Franz Jantzen, Camilo Jose Vergara, Colby Caldwell and Maxwell MacKenzie), and all but Vergara are D.C.-area artists—-an indication that their work has continued at a high level.
1. “Traces of Memory” at the Ann Loeb Bronfman Gallery at the DCJCC
No single image in this small exhibit was stunning, but collectively the photographs in “Traces of Memory” added up to a moving, yet understated, look at the legacy of the Holocaust in Galicia, a region on the border of Poland and Ukraine. The exhibit stemmed from a 12-year collaboration between late British photojournalist Chris Schwarz and professor Jonathan Weber of the University of Birmingham, who teamed up to offer a fine-tuned combination of elegiac words and understated color images. The photographs featured relics of the Jewish community, evidence of genocide, signs of remembrance, and small elements of a recent revival. For instance, an ordinary-looking field that once held a death camp where 450,000 people were slaughtered is preserved in a seemingly natural state because both the killing and the dismantling of the machinery of death was so efficient. In another image, grave markers were made into paving stones at the encouragement of the Nazis, their Yiddish lettering still plainly visible to anyone walking on them.
2. Arthur Drooker, “Lost Worlds: Ruins of the Americas,” at Art Museum of the Americas/OAS F Street Gallery
Using a digital infrared camera, Drooker traveled to 15 countries throughout Latin America and the Caribbean to document 33 ruins, some of them famous and many not. He found tumbledown stone facades, staircases, pyramids, and agricultural terraces, as well as thick jungle environs and the obligatory human-sacrifice ball court, each enhanced by smart captions. Consider the image of San Nicolás de Bari in the Dominican Republic, in which Drooker momentarily brought to life a hurricane-damaged shell of the first hospital in the new world by capturing a rising frenzy of birds.
3. Franz Jantzen, “Ostinato,” at Hemphill Fine Arts
Jantzen—- a collections manager of graphic arts at the Supreme Court as well as a photographer—-stitched together countless smaller images to create a large one. This is not an unheard-of approach in art-photography circles. What’s different in Jantzen’s work is its perspective: Viewers seem to be hanging from the ceiling. Jantzen doesn’t use an apparatus to suspend his camera; he simply holds the camera in front of him and points it downward. Then he moves slightly ahead; step and repeat. One memorable image in his Hemphill exhibit this year lingered lovingly over the floor of Loew’s Theater in Jersey City, where, according to legend, a young Frank Sinatra heard Bing Crosby in concert in March 1933 and decided to become a singer. The theater shows its age in its tiniest details—-worn velvet seats, heavily frayed floorboards—-but the most notable sign of life is the curlicue of electrical cord that meanders gracefully over the stage. The work took 95 hours to stitch together.
4. Camilo José Vergara, “Detroit Is No Dry Bones,” and Andrew Moore, “Detroit Disassembled,” at National Building Museum
In paired exhibits on view till February, two skilled photographers use divergent approaches to paint a complementary portrait of a troubled and sometimes absurd place: Detroit’s landscape of classical architecture devastated by neglect. Vergara, a trained sociologist, successfully reprises his venerable approach of using both photography and storytelling to communicate the slow but inexorable changes in neighborhoods.More polished, but less emotionally invested, are Moore’s larger-scale images—-a 4-by-4 matrix of windows in an abandoned school that show 16 disheveled tableaux; a homeless man’s jury-rigged cascade of clear plastic hung in an abandoned warehouse, visually suggesting a waterfall; and a classroom clock that has quite literally melted into a Daliesque symbol.
5. Tim Hetherington, “Sleeping Soldiers,” at the Corcoran Gallery of Art
Tim Hetherington was embedded with Army troops in a remote region of Afghanistan for 15 months in 2007 and 2008; he was later killed while on assignment in Misurata, Libya, on April 20, 2011. His images—-of resting, exhausted soldiers, of spidery smoke rising from a hillside village, of military hazing rituals—-are straightforward but effective, with suggestions of the World War II images of W. Eugene Smith and any number of Vietnam War photographers. The approach reaches its apotheosis, though, in a three-channel video in which the central panel shows a sleeping soldier while the flanking screens show footage of combat operations. When the images overlap, they suggest a dream or, worse, PTSD.
6. Shamus Ian Fatzinger, “Personal Frontier,” Civilian Art Projects
Shamus Ian Fatzinger’s project “Personal Frontier” raised a weighty question about artistic authorship. Fatzinger found his artistic destiny in a forgotten cardboard box: dozens of scuffed and largely unprinted family negatives, in both the standard 35 mm and cheap 110 format. Fatzinger is essentially a curator, since the images were taken by his mother, Rebecca McGahey and, as he put it, “other anonymous authors.” Fatzinger’s role aside, though, the material is compelling. It documents his young parents’ move west from New Jersey to New Mexico, chasing the dream of riches from uranium mining. It’s a 1970s working-class demimonde of unkempt hair, wife-beater undershirts, and muscle cars—-the real deal in our age of Instagram.
7. George Steinmetz, “Desert Air,” at the National Geographic Society.
To make his aerial images, George Steinmetz uses a rickety-looking, 90-pound, motorized paraglider that goes 30 miles per hour after getting aloft with a running start. His crazy gambit works—-it enables him to capture the emerald, beige, and chocolate hues of evaporation pools; the delicately cracked salt deposits of Bolivia; the peaceful baby blues of a thin layer of floodwater in the South American flats; unreal green algae blooms in a rust-colored wasteland in Ethiopia; tiny farms tucked inside fragile bowls of sand in the Algerian desert; flamingos cavorting in black-hued water in Iran; and an impossibly cramped neighborhood of multicolored houses set into a hill in Algeria.
8. Colby Caldwell, “Gun Shy,” at Hemphill Fine Arts and Civilian Art Projects
Caldwell’s simultaneous exhibits at Hemphill and Civilian demonstrated his range as a photographically oriented conceptual artist. His monumental portraits (or technically, direct digital scans) of humble objects were especially striking. Caldwell’s images of dead birds were quietly impressive, particularly one severed, scarlet wing set against an inky black background. Caldwell’s images of spent shells, however, were even more mesmerizing, because they had been deteriorating in visually intriguing ways on his property in rural St. Mary’s County. Caldwell expanded them to many times their actual size, laying bare intriguing tactile properties (pitted metal, rust, pustules, a sprinkling of sand, and the occasional protruding twig); mysterious, slowly disappearing manufacturers’ markings; an array of interesting shapes (flattened, corrugated and an oddly sensuous curve that approximates the hang of a full-length dress), and notable shades of color (including mother of pearl, a purple-to-aqua fade with yellow highlights, and an inexplicable hot pink).
9. Maxwell MacKenzie, “Helter-Shelter,” at the American Institute of Architects
Over his career, MacKenzie has assembled a lovely oeuvre, particularly his images of gently decaying barns and oddly textured agricultural fields. The images in “Helter-Shelter” are not his finest ever, but for someone as talented as MacKenzie, that’s still saying something. “Helter-Shelter”—as it’s (perhaps too whimsically) titled— is “an exploration into the organization of temporary communities.” MacKenzie places an image of an appealing row of homes lining a spit in the middle of a deep blue lake directly across from a photograph of a line of mobile homes parked in a bright green valley—a sly comment on economic differences. MacKenzie’s most striking works take full advantage of their enormous scale—a wide-screen, ground-level view of Nevada’s Burning Man festival with a freeze-frame complexity that suggests the finest work of Andreas Gursky and Edward Burtynsky.
10. Charlotte Dumas, “Anima,” at the Corcoran Gallery of Art
Four of Dumas’ series were collectively on display at the Corcoran. Of these, two were particularly notable: a 2008 series on homeless dogs in Palermo that featured a dozen dogs surviving obvious deprivation with rough dignity, and a newly commissioned series that documented the burial horses of Arlington National Cemetery. Working in teams of six, these horses execute eight burials a day, five days a week. In Dumas’ late-in-the-day photographs, the horses seem drained, enveloped in their stalls by a funereal gloom. In each series, Dumas’ ability to connect with her nonhuman subjects is uncanny.
Meanwhile, a number of non-photographic exhibits this year are worth a mention:
Jill Townsley, “TOIL,” at Project 4 Gallery
It’s nothing new to turn scribbles into art, but Townsley does it extraordinarily well. In a series of five large-scale pen-on-paper works, Townsley lay down so much ink—-squiggle by overlapping squiggle—-that only a smattering of white pinpoints remained, turning what was once a blank sheet into a delicate, starry sky.
Dan Tague at Civilian Art Projects
Tague’s inkjet prints of enlarged, crumpled dollar bills mesmerized the eyes and intrigued the mind, with precise folds that used existing lettering on the bills to reveal hidden messages, such as “resistance is futile” and “we need a revolution.”
“Washington Realism” at Carroll Square Gallery
Three artists stood out in this otherwise uneven show. Trevor Young offered his signature infrastructural voids—-an empty parking-attendant booth at night, and a jet plane parked amid the broad, negative space of an airport tarmac. Gregory Thielker painted rural road landscapes, most intriguingly a view at dusk from the windshield of a moving car, in which the distortion at the edges was pitch-perfect. And Martin Kotler produced a wonderful pair of Ashcan School-worthy portrayals of train yards, crowned by intricately reproduced jumbles of overhead power lines.