Spark of humanity in FotoWeek fizzle

HUE TUBE: The subject in Ansett's all-white modernity
HUE TUBE: The subject in Ansett's all-white modernity "Woman With Wire Cap #1" viewed pictures while her brain activity was monitored. (Richard Ansett/fotoweek Dc)
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By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The latest of this week's Daily Pics from FotoWeek DC, Washington's third annual celebration of the photographic arts.

For a picture that's almost a symphony in white, there's a lot going on in Richard Ansett's "Woman With Wire Cap #1," which won him second place in the "Single Image -- Fine Art" category of the FotoWeek DC International Awards, now on view at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

One thing that's going on in Ansett's photo is its relationship to anything called "Symphony in White" -- from Whistler's first ideas about pictures-as-patterns in the 1870s to Barnett Newman's white-on-white abstractions from the '50s and '60s. That's modernism for you. And Ansett pushes back against it by adding pungent content: His all-white modernity isn't pure and pretty. It's about equipment and, maybe, science gone amok. Or maybe not.

A wall text tells us that Ansett's sitter is wired up to record her brain activity while she's exposed to pictures. Which means that she's rather like us, looking at this picture of her, and paying attention to our own brain states -- our thoughts; our feelings; our perceptions -- as we do so. For the time that this woman's being studied, modern science seems in the service of culture.

It even looks a bit like culture. The pure red, green and blue of Ansett's wires, on their white background, evoke the hues of Mondrian's abstractions. Their meanderings recall the drips and skeins of Pollock. The old woman's parchment face, in its white electrode cap, recalls elegant Dutch matrons in their white lace caps, in paintings by Rembrandt and his ilk.

For all its art-world froideur and its antiseptic, scientific gleam, Ansett's photo has that kind of sympathy, that kind of humanity.

Overall, the FotoWeek awards are a terrible disappointment. You've seen almost all their pictures many times before, in almost any publication you could name. The shot by Ansett, a commercial photographer from England, is one of the few that demands, and repays, closer looking.

As headquarters for FotoWeek DC, the Corcoran Gallery of Art will have free admission and extended hours through the end of the festival Nov. 13. It will be open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and until 9 p.m. Thursday. Call 202-639-1700 or visit and

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