By Louis Jacobson
I’ve been a photography critic with Washington City Paper for more than 20 years, but for obvious reasons, no prior year has been like 2020: I haven’t been in person to a single photography exhibit since March.
Fortunately, local galleries and museums moved online this year, using either newfangled 3-D gallery software or simple websites to mount their exhibits. So I am able to once again publish my annual choices for the year’s best photography exhibits in Washington, D.C., something I have done (mostly) since 2001. I reviewed each of the following exhibits in my capacity as photography critic for Washington City Paper.
The best D.C.-area photography exhibits of 2020
For years, Colby Caldwell used a scanner in his studio to make highly detailed images of dead birds, spent shotgun shells, and other subjects. Then, in January, Caldwell decided to take the scanner directly to the forest floor, lugging it and a power source in his backpack. The images, based on eight- to 10-minute exposures, are still lifes that feature leafy detritus and tree bark. But the scanner also provides atmospherics wholly unlike a camera — blocky segments caused by the scanner being moved mid-exposure, with the segments often separated by horizontal ribbons of digital glitchiness. The best images toy with geometrical echoes between the segments and the forest forms being photographed.
Gerson, who died last year at 74, was a Washington attorney and foreign affairs expert, but in his off-hours, he was a photographer. The American University Museum’s posthumous exhibit, Border Wall, features his images of the Mexican side of the U.S.-Mexico border. Gerson’s images aren’t fancy, befitting their gritty subject. The worn and rusted metal walls he documents are sometimes topped by razor wire and are often adorned with graffiti and amateur paintings: faces that straddle the line between goofy and menacing, a clenched fist, a skeleton, a dead-eyed eagle, even the Spanish translation of an Oscar Wilde quote from The Picture of Dorian Gray: “The value of an idea has nothing whatsoever to do with the sincerity of the man who expresses it.”
The Photoworks online exhibit “A Walk in the Park,” juried by the photographer Barbara Tyroler, spotlights the visually calming landscapes of the D.C. area. Some depict wildlife, including Linda McKnight’s intriguingly shaky portrayal of a buck in the brambles. But the exhibit’s most resonant portrayals are its unpopulated, melancholy landscapes.
Images available at Photoworks’ website.
Through a combination of sober, black-and-white images and deeply reported captions, photographer Russel Albert Daniels documented the Genízaro, a centuries-old community with a complex history. In the 1600s, Spanish colonizers arrived and abducted or purchased members of the Apache, Comanche, Kiowa, Navajo, Pawnee, and Ute peoples and enslaved them for 10 to 15 years under Spanish law. Regardless of where they came from, the Spanish called these people and their children “Genízaro.” In 1754, Genízaro and Hopi families received a land grant they still hold some of today. The Genízaro continue to observe aspects of their unique Catholic and Native American heritage, such as the Santo Tomás feast day ceremony, which is punctuated by the 150-year-old El Cautivo (The Captive) dance, in which participants dress as their ancestors, with face paint, feather hair ornaments, ankle bells, and dollar bills pinned to their clothing, signifying their “ransom.” Daniels’ crisp images are undergirded by his own personal history; while Daniels is not Genízaro, he comes from Diné, Ho-Chunk, Mormon settler, and European ancestry, and calls his work “an act of self-discovery.”
Images and text available online, along with a recorded interview, at americanindian.si.edu/developingstories.
Sailors and Daughters focuses on the people and ports of the Indian Ocean, offering a whirlwind tour across continents, decades, photographic technologies, and genres. In the exhibit, the distance between colonizer and colonized is never far from the surface, but nowhere is it more noticeable than in a collection of identification photographs from the Seychelles islands. The images are of Africans who were rescued by the British Navy from slave ships in the 1860s and 1870s. Despite their supposed “liberation,” they were taken to a depot, photographed, renamed, and forced into indentured servitude for five years. The effect of their fate can be plainly seen in their faces, which are printed in no-nonsense fashion, replete with muddy blemishes and an overlay of bureaucratic jottings.
Just one year after mounting an impressive exhibit at the Foundry Gallery, Geršković returned with a new one, Texturescapes, with works that barely overlapped with her prior show. Geršković offered color images that featured a widely varied palette, often discovered during the artist’s urban walks and nature hikes. Her works sometimes echoed satellite images of urban street grids or beaches, scanning electron micrographs of cells, or surfaces of far-flung planets — views far more dramatic than their original sources, which range from pavement and bark to eroding rock.
This joint exhibition paired photographs by Anthes with works by sculptor Lisa Battle. Both artists have been drawn to the desert scenery they witnessed during separate visits to Utah, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, and California, ranging from the well-known canyons of Death Valley and Canyon de Chelly to remote, unnamed features in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Anthes’ digital images, made over 15 years, offered precise renderings of swooping canyon walls, while Battles’ pastel-shaded works in clay were smoother and more impressionistic.
I didn’t review an exhibit by Marks this year, but his ongoing works, many of them shown at the Studio Gallery, merit a mention. Most of the images from Marks’ recent “Shadows and Acts” series feature anonymous figures standing within lush but disorienting geometrical spaces. Marks’ aesthetic is more than just an artistic choice — it’s an approach shaped by years of worsening vision loss. “To tell the truth, the only time the world appears in sharp focus is when I hold a camera to my left eye,” Marks told me earlier this year. “In this respect, photography has become my way of addressing, and compensating for, my visual impairment and putting the world in clear order.”
Two painting exhibits of note
The quarantine left the outside world looking a little like a Trevor Young painting: Lots of empty space, devoid of people. So it was either ironic or eerily appropriate that Young held his fourth exhibit at Addison/Ripley Fine Art this year. If the miniature, pixelated versions don’t compare to Young’s full-sized, creamily textured paintings, their subject matter was undoubtedly of the moment: blank billboards in the twilight, empty gas stations, unclogged highways, desolate Metro platforms, and vacant parking garages. At the same time, there’s something timeless about Young’s minimalist architectural forms and evocative hues, which included lavender, fiery ochre, royal blue, and McDonald’s yellow.
The works are available at artsy.net.
Baswir‘s paintings teeter compellingly between order and chaos. He paints his acrylic canvases flat on a table, starting with a steady background color, ranging from royal blue to lavender to lime. Baswir then superimposes that layer with a broad cluster of small, white, circular shapes made by hand using a special tool. The circular shapes are organized in irregular but pleasing patterns that suggest vibrating atoms or television static. Baswir imbues his paintings with spirituality: The round shapes were inspired by prayer beads, and by “the look of the gathering of hundreds of thousands of human beings in one place for the one purpose of worshiping and praising their Creator,” he told me.
And one exhibit of conceptual art
At his peak, Yuri Schwebler was a major presence in the D.C. art scene. Now, 30 years after his death by suicide at 47, Schwebler got a long-awaited retrospective at the American University Museum that spotlights his minimalism- and earth-art-inspired conceptual artworks. Schwebler’s career was meteoric. “Within three years of being discharged from the Army Reserves and Walter Reed’s psychiatric ward, he managed to have two museum shows and an appearance on national television — all without a college degree, much of a track record in Washington, or anywhere else for that matter,” wrote curator John James Anderson (who’s also a fellow art critic for City Paper). Schwebler, an immigrant from Yugoslavia, was best known for his 1974 work that turned the Washington Monument into a sundial. His inspiration came when he realized he had never seen the obelisk’s shadow because it was so big; he would eventually discover that the shadow moved at four feet per minute, making it feel like “you can actually see the earth move.”