In 2021, photography (along with a lot of other stuff) made a tenuous return to real life. After more than a year of largely online existence, DC museums and galleries have once again begun to mount pictures on walls and invite visitors into their spaces.
This is the background behind this year’s “best-of” local photography exhibitions in museums and galleries. Some have approached the pandemic head-on, while others have not, but all have captured something important about their time and place. It’s an odd time to compile the 20th anniversary of my first such list, but on the contrary, recognizing what’s good these days seems especially important right now.
Here are the five most fascinating photo exhibitions of 2021, along with a multimedia exhibit:
Welcome Home: A Portrait of East Baltimore, 1975-1980
This exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum was both a welcome time capsule and 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 eastern neighborhoods of Baltimore. Before his death in February, Netherwood, the last surviving photographer of the three, helped organize the first exhibit from small-scale local exhibits in Baltimore in the aftermath of the project. The footage captured the east side of the city when it was heavily labor-intensive, with a few black and brown residents (and none of the wealthy gentrifiers who are more common today). Many of the subjects are old, which contributes to a feeling of apprehension. (Welcome Home: A Portrait of East Baltimore, 1975-1980, is on display until January 17, 2022 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, 8th and G streets NW. americanart.si.edu. To free.)
Contiguity is a kind of order: associating painting and photography
In this small exhibition at the Formerly Was gallery — five paintings by Maggie Michael and five photographs of Caitlin Teal Price —Michael offered an invigorating interplay between grid shapes, organic sweeps of dripped paint, and 3D spikes, while Price found eccentric beauty in concrete garages and otherwise unsightly road interchanges. Price, in particular, imbued his footage with surprising hidden drama. In one, a woman stands alone in an urban canyon under three prominent surveillance cameras; other images are imbued with the cinematic energy characteristic of live images. Philippe-Lorca diCorcia, Defeat Streuli, and Gregory Crewdson.
We miss you
Kaitlin Jencso ‘Hamiltonian Artists’ collection of over 1,000 images was both site-specific and time-specific. Jencso set out to mark time during the pandemic year through his photographs, turning them into something like pointing marks scribbled on a wall to count the days as they passed. The wave of images looped horizontally around the gallery walls, improvised and with elliptical gaps. His images crossed a variety of genres – portrait, still life, landscape, abstraction – and they varied widely in size, documenting slices of life in DC and southern Maryland. Seeing it marked my first gallery visit in over a year and Jencso’s installation was the perfect way to return.
Philip Brookman: In Light of Memory, 1969-2021
Philippe brookman is best known for having preserved images of others, but an exhibition at the American University Museum focused on his own photography, spanning more than five decades of work in a dizzying and confusing array of genres and styles. Brookman’s most successful effort to bring his work together into a cohesive whole has come from the images he used in his 2015 ‘cinematic novel’. Red lands. These photographs date from the early 1970s and capture the eponymous city in the interior of California; they mix Walker evans-the style representations of vernacular architecture and images of the road slice of life of Stephen bank, notably sharing Shore’s washed-out color scheme.
Dawoud Bey and William H. Johnson
The Smithsonian American Art Museum’s exhibition of works by Dawoud Bey and William H. Johnson was small – only seven large photographs of Bey and a painting of Johnson – but they offered a compelling artistic portrayal of the Underground Railroad. Johnson’s 1944 allegorical oil on cardboard, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” uses the eponymous witty, which some accounts say was written with the Underground Railroad in mind. Even more evocative is Bey’s series of photographs from 2017, which combine silvery water and enveloping woods amid increasing darkness. The gloom that permeates Bey’s images effectively conveys the challenge of seeking a path to freedom at dusk.
Inside outside, upside down
The Phillips Collection jury invitation, Inside outside, upside down, forced visitors to remember a time that left us “confused, beaten and bewildered”. In total, 64 artists from the DC area have contributed to works of 2020 – the eventful year of disease and calls for racial justice, some of them addressing these themes literally and others metaphorically. Particularly remarkable work has been Tim Tate ‘s homage to the plague during the reign of the Byzantine emperor Justinian, embodied through a gray “mirror” filled with pained faces; and Nekisha Durrett ‘The eulogy of a pair of black women killed by the police, commemorated by perforated magnolia leaves, which, the artist notes, are so harsh that even the dead leaves refuse “to be erased and forgotten”.