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In 2021, photography (along with many other things) edged tenuously back into real life. After more than a year of existing largely online, museums and galleries in D.C. began to mount images on walls again and invite visitors into their spaces.
This is the context behind this year’s “best-of” local photography exhibits within museums and galleries. Some addressed the pandemic head-on, while others did not, but all captured something important about their time and place. It’s a strange time to compile the 20th anniversary of my first such list, but if anything, recognizing what’s good these days seems especially important right now.
Here are the five most compelling photography exhibits of 2021, plus one mixed-media exhibit:
This exhibit at the Smithsonian American Art Museum was both a welcome time capsule and a belated recognition for three women—Elinor Cahn, Joan Clark Netherwood, and Linda Rich—who, in the 1970s, received a grant from the National Endowment of the Arts to photograph the east side neighborhoods of Baltimore. Before she died in February, Netherwood, the last surviving photographer of the three, helped organize the first exhibition since the small-scale local showings in Baltimore during the project’s immediate aftermath. The images captured the east side of the city when it was heavily working-class, with some Black and Brown residents (and none of the affluent gentrifiers who are more common today). Many of the subjects are elderly, contributing to a sense of foreboding. (Welcome Home: A Portrait of East Baltimore, 1975–1980, is on display through Jan. 17, 2022, at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, 8th and G streets NW. americanart.si.edu. Free.)
In this small exhibit at the Formerly Was gallery—five paintings by Maggie Michael and five photographs by Caitlin Teal Price —Michael offered a bracing interplay among gridded forms, organic sweeps of dripped paint, and 3-D spikes, while Price found eccentric beauty in otherwise unsightly concrete garages and highway interchanges. Price, in particular, infused her images with surprising hidden drama. In one, a woman stands alone in an urban canyon under three prominent surveillance cameras; other images are suffused with the cinematic energy characteristic of images by Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Beat Streuli, and Gregory Crewdson.
Kaitlin Jencso’s collection of more than 1,000 images at Hamiltonian Artists was both site-specific and time-specific. Jencso decided to mark time during the pandemic year through her photographs, turning them into something like tally marks scrawled on a wall to count the days as they passed. The wave of imagery looped horizontally around the gallery’s walls, improvisationally and with elliptical gaps. Her images traversed a variety of genres—portraiture, still life, landscape, abstraction—and they varied widely in size, documenting slices of life in D.C. and southern Maryland. Seeing it marked my first visit to a gallery in more than a year—and Jencso’s installation was the perfect way to return.
Philip Brookman is best known for curating the images of others, but an exhibit at the American University Museum focused on his own photography, spanning more than five decades of work in a dizzying and bewildering array of genres and styles. Brookman’s most successful effort at wrestling his work into a coherent whole came from the images he used in his 2015 “cinematic novel,” Redlands. These photographs date from the early 1970s and capture the eponymous city in inland California; they mix Walker Evans-style depictions of vernacular architecture and the slice-of-life road images of Stephen Shore, notably sharing Shore’s washed-out color palette.
The Smithsonian American Art Museum’s exhibition of works by Dawoud Bey and William H. Johnson was small—just seven large photographs by Bey and one painting by Johnson—but they offered a convincing artistic portrayal of the Underground Railroad. Johnson’s 1944 allegorical oil on paperboard, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” keys off the eponymous spiritual, which, according to some accounts, was written with the Underground Railroad in mind. Even more evocative is Bey’s series of photographs from 2017, which pair silvery water and enveloping woods amid an encroaching darkness. The gloom that pervades Bey’s images effectively conveys the challenge of seeking a path to freedom in the twilight.
The Phillips Collection’s juried invitational, Inside Outside, Upside Down, forced visitors to remember a time that left us “confused, battered, and disoriented.” In all, 64 D.C.-area artists contributed works from 2020—the turbulent year of disease and calls for racial justice, some of them tackling these themes literally and others metaphorically. Particularly notable works were Tim Tate’s homage to the plague during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian, embodied through a gray “mirror” filled with pained faces; and Nekisha Durrett’s eulogy for a pair of Black women killed by police, memorialized through perforated magnolia leaves, which, the artist notes, are so tough that even the dead leaves refuse “to be erased and forgotten.”