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For the second straight year, this critic is offering a top 10 list of the most memorable images of 2010. Only two exhibits below—-the International Photography Competition at Fraser Gallery and the Timothy O’Sullivan retrospective at the Smithsonian American Art Museum—-also made my top 10 list of the best exhibits of 2010, which suggests that you can stumble upon a great photograph almost anywhere.

1. Image of birds in flight (above) in “John Gossage: The Pond” (Smithsonian American Art Museum): Gossage’s famous book of photographs of an obscure pond in Maryland is known for its moody, muddy, and frequently trash-strewn brambles. What a welcome jolt, then, to see an image of dozens of birds circling in the sky, looking like caraway seeds tossed into the breeze. It doesn’t matter that the photograph wasn’t actually taken at the pond; it is the embodiment of freedom and release from a dreary, troubled world. Through Jan. 17.

2. “A Sea of Steps — Wells Cathedral: Stairs to the Chapter House” by Frederick H. Evans in “TruthBeauty: Pictorialism and the Photograph as Art” (Phillips Collection). The unquestioned standout of the Phillips Collection’s hot-and-cold pictorialism exhibit was Frederick H. Evans (British, 1853-1943), whose contributions included a proto-Walker Evans image of an attic, a careful arrangement of murk and bright lights in Westminster Abbey, and a castle adjoined by a curving, nearly vertical road. But Evans’ finest image is the upward-facing photograph of a series of cathedral steps, worn from centuries of use into delicate patterns that suggest waves on the ocean. It’s a familiar image from photographic history texts, but one that remains stunning each time you see it. Through Jan. 9.

3. “Tumbleweed in Mid Air over the Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah” by John Burcham in “Simply Beautiful” (National Geographic Society). It takes something special to stand out in an exhibit of the most beautiful National Geographic photographs, and this image had it. It shows a tumbleweed hovering in mid-air over a lunar-like landscape—-a thoroughly startling hybrid of landscape and action photography, with a bracing dash of surrealist whimsy for good measure. Through Feb. 6.

4. “Flying the Potomac” by George Borden in “International Photography Competition” (Fraser Gallery). Despite the lack of famous practitioners, this exhibit had a better batting average for memorable images than any other show this year—-which makes it hard to choose a single best photograph. The winner, by a hair, is Potomac, Md.-based George Borden’s image of a plane swooping over Key Bridge at night, which echoes and matches some of the best work of Michael Kenna. It’s hard to choose what makes the biggest impression in Borden’s image—-the gentle S-curve of the plane, the inky blackness of the sky, the skeletally graceful bridge, or the languid reflections of the bridge lights on the water.

5. Thomas Joshua Cooper, “Sudden Nightfall – First View” in “Framing the West: The Survey Photographs of Timothy H. O’Sullivan” (Smithsonian American Art Museum). While the selection of works by the artistic heirs of the trailblazing western frontier photographer Timothy O’Sullivan was one of the weakest parts of this sweeping exhibit, it did include one stunning image—-Cooper’s enigmatic photograph of rock and water in Idaho. Unlike O’Sullivan, whose job was to photograph the West in straightforward fashion for survey purposes, Cooper’s image is decontextualized and very nearly abstract, featuring unnaturally smooth water and delicately chiaroscuroed rock surfaces.

6. Estuary photograph by Yve Assad in “The Breadth and Beauty of Photography” (Studio Gallery). The standout of the Studio Gallery’s FotoWeek exhibition was Charleston, S.C.-based Yve Assad, who prints her color images on aluminum, lending her subject matter a mesmerizing shimmer. The approach works moderately well with an image of a boat on the water, but her work truly sparkles – literally and figuratively—-in an aerial photograph of an estuary. The image, featuring deep blue water and rich green vegetation, is a classic case of technique elevating content.

7. “Trinity Site, NM” by Noelle K. Tan in “The America Project: utopia” (Civilian Art Projects). Tan’s newest project only fitfully replicates her best prior work—-the delicate, almost inscrutable tableaux dominated by fields of impenetrable white or black. But a few of the images Tan made for this exhibit—-based on a road trip to a relentlessly downbeat bunch of American locations—-reach those heights, including the washed-out photograph of tourists at the site of the first nuclear test in New Mexico, a riveting symphony of hazy, repeating forms.

8. “Rt 9” by Vickie Fruehauf (Lucille and Richard Spagnuolo Gallery, Georgetown University). Fruehauf’s black-and-white images, made with a cheap-chic Holga camera and printed on textured paper, are an uneven bunch, but the finest is undoubtedly the one showing a discarded old television amid a brushy field. Its screen faces skyward, seemingly pleading for the assistance of an opaque higher power.

9. Photograph of the Xkeken cenote by John Stanmeyer in “Sacred Waters” (National Geographic Society). “Sacred Waters,” dissecting the role of water in spirituality around the globe, was the quintessential National Geographic photography exhibit—-geographically wide-ranging, diversity-celebrating, technically accomplished, and decidedly earnest. Of all the images John Stanmeyer took for the project, the one from a natural well in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula was the most striking. Just this side of unreal, the photograph features a floating man in a stalactite-filled cavern pierced by a shaft of sunlight.

10. “Pleasure, Brighton, 2009” by Nancy Breslin in “More Photographs Than Bricks at George Washington University” (Luther W. Brady Art Gallery, George Washington University). Breslin, a Newark, Del.-based photographer, frequently experiments with old and alternative techniques, and for this image, she settled on a worthwhile method. The photograph—-of an ornate carnival decoration that reads “Pleasure”—-uses the archaic pictorialist method of gum-bichromate, printed on cyanotype, better known as the paper used for blueprints. The image is a witty homage to Robert Cottingham’s celebrated photorealistic paintings of classic, elaborate signage; in so doing, Breslin pulled off the neat trick of offering a photograph that mimicked painting mimicking photography.