By Mark Jenkins
Thursday, February 17, 2011; 9:38 AM
Living up to its title, "Eye Wonder: Photography From the Bank of America Collection'' is an eye-popping survey of photography by women from 1865 to 2004. The show, which contains 115 pieces by 45 artists, is arranged thematically rather than chronologically. That makes it harder to describe but more rewarding to wander. The photos often complement one another splendidly.
This exhibit at the National Museum of Women in the Arts marks the first time the bank's extensive photography holdings have been catalogued by sex. The results are far from stereotypically feminine. Yes, there are images of children and flowers, and one of jeweled high heels, but there are also grimy street scenes, smoke-belching factories and a zeppelin.
The earliest work includes some of the sootiest. That may show the intent of such photographers as Dorothea Lange, Berenice Abbott and Margaret Bourke-White to compete with the boys on their own terms. But it also reflects the aesthetic of early 20th-century photography. The vivid colors and near-antiseptic crispness of today's photos were not possible then - but also not considered desirable.
Those values have been overthrown as photography's range has expanded. The show's later work includes such large-format views as Elspeth Diederix's 2002 "Still Life With Milk,'' which magnifies a tableau of mundane consumer products to heroic scale. Wijnanda Deroo's three prints, from 1992 to 2003, tweak the idea of the still life by pairing decorative objects with ornate backgrounds that echo their appearance. And Sandy Skoglund's 1981 "Revenge of the Goldfish'' is a photograph of her own installation, which features dangling cloth fish and clashing aqua and orange.
The show begins with portraits, including the earliest piece, Julia Margaret Cameron's 1865 "Alfred, Lord Tennyson." The earlier ones tend to be of artistic notables, although they also feature Lange's photos of Depression-era migrants. Among those is probably the best-known image here, "Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California.''
In later works, the emphasis shifts to views of everyday people. The contrast can be playful: In Gisele Freund's portraits, Virginia Woolf, Marcel Duchamp and Jean Cocteau all announce their worldliness by holding cigarettes or cigars. Turn the corner and there's Hellen van Meene's untitled picture of a teenage girl with a different sort of oral fixation: bubblegum.
Some of the show's most interesting work is by Eva Besnyo, whose 1930s portraits favor composition over their subjects' dispositions. In "Violette Cornelius in the Attic Window of Keizersgracht 522,'' a woman is upstaged by the undulating pattern of the roof tiles that frame her. The human form is central to Besnyo's "Gyorgy Kepes, Berlin,'' but what the photo emphasizes is its dramatic lighting and angled orientation.
The show's other sections, which include landscapes, interiors and still lifes, are equally rich in contrasts and surprises. From Abbott's straightforward view of a 1930s Automat to Linda Butler's ghostly 1986 closeup of Japanese radishes, "Eye Wonder'' shows some things as they were but others as a only single person ever saw them - until she captured her vision for other viewers' wonder.
Jenkins is a freelance writer.
EYE WONDER: PHOTOGRAPHY FROM THE BANK OF AMERICA COLLECTION Through May 22 at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1250 New York Ave. NW (Metro Center). 202-783-5000. www.nmwa.org . Hours: Open Monday-Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Sunday noon to 5 p.m. Admission: $10, students and seniors $8, age 18 and younger free.