Arts Beat

Portraits of a Changed Landscape

"Fawn" by Ashley Rice is among the photographs in an exhibit focusing on a changing Northern Virginia.
"Fawn" by Ashley Rice is among the photographs in an exhibit focusing on a changing Northern Virginia. (By Ashley Rice)
By Rachel Beckman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 4, 2008

About 50 college photography students were given the assignment of "documenting the new Northern Virginia," and here's what they found: traffic, housing developments, Starbucks, misplaced deer, and people of all different colors.

An exhibition of the Northern Virginia Community College students' work, created during the 2007-08 school year, is on view through Wednesday at the Annandale campus's Ernst Cultural Center.

"We told them to take pictures that 100 years from now, people will find interesting," says Gail Rebhan, a NOVA photography professor and the project's director.

Paul Sposari, a 31-year-old Alexandria mechanic who takes college classes as his schedule allows, focused on highway architecture. Sposari rode his motorcycle across the Woodrow Wilson Bridge and around the Springfield Mixing Bowl. He parked on the shoulder and scouted photographs on foot.

"I did a lot of walking," he says. "I would know what roadway, or what bridge I wanted to shoot, then I'd walk a couple of miles around the whole area taking pictures."

(He dismisses the suggestion that strolling along Interstate 95 in the middle of the day constitutes dangerous behavior: "I wasn't playing in traffic. I was safe.")

The exhibit includes two of Sposari's photos of soaring concrete structures. It's the first time his work has been shown in a formal gallery.

Part of the joy of teaching the "new Northern Virginia" project was the diversity of students, Rebhan says. Classes consisted of 20-year-olds, retirees and all ages in between.

"What I think is interesting is they're documenting where they live," Rebhan says. "They really know what's going on."

Many of her students seemed interested in traffic, new construction and ethnic changes in Prince William County. Among the 97 photographs on display are images of day laborers and immigration protests.

Ashley Rice, 22, photographed a new housing development about a mile from her home in Gainesville. The area used to be a campground, and Rice liked to take pictures of deer. When the bulldozers moved in, Rice saw the trees and wildlife disappear. One of her photos is of a wide-eyed deer surrounded by orange construction fencing.

"To me, it's really ironic that our method of construction is destruction," Rice says.

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