Big Ideas From a Small Group of Photographs

(By Lynn Davis)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 5, 2008; Page WE20

"Scale Matters: Photographs From the Joseph and Charlotte Lichtenberg Collection" isn't, despite its name, a particularly big show. There are only seven pictures on view, by all of two artists, in this chamber-size exhibition at the Phillips Collection. Even they themselves aren't all that large.

Lynn Davis's "Iceberg XI, Disko Bay, Greenland, 2004," for example, is 40 inches square. A decent-size print. By comparison, a Richard Avedon portrait of political activist Abbie Hoffman and the rest of the Chicago Seven over at the Corcoran Gallery of Art is 21 feet wide and almost nine feet tall.

"Scale Matters," rather, is a little show about a big idea. The idea of Bigness.

Take that iceberg. One of two in the show by Davis (who since 1986 has made several trips to Greenland to shoot its calving glaciers), the picture doesn't feel that different from the show's other works by Davis: a black-and-white study of a ship at anchor in the Indian Ocean or a vista of a crumbling pyramid in the Sudanese desert.

Each has a kind of majestic monumentality. A stripped-down subject matter that's minimal in form, but never small. Whether it's a wall of ice or a sea of sand or the gently curving steel of a ship's hull, her almost abstract images resemble nothing so much as the musculature of the black-and-white nudes she's also known for.

Only on a much, much grander scale.

Edward Burtynsky also likes big. His three color photos in "Scale Matters" depict a Canadian oil refinery, a Vermont granite quarry and a Bangladeshi shipbreaking operation.

For those unfamiliar with shipbreaking, it's the dismantling of old ocean liners and tankers -- the kind of vessel seen in Davis's "Indian Ocean, Zanzibar, Tanzania," for instance -- for scrap, one piece of rusty sheet metal at a time. Burtynsky's "Shipbreaking No. 4 (Chittagong, Bangladesh)" depicts the hulking, eviscerated carcass of such a ship, rising up from the sands of the beach at Bangladesh's main seaport to tower over the crew of weary-looking laborers below.

See, Burtynsky, like Davis, is also a landscape photographer. But unlike her, he isn't interested in the unspoiled. Instead, the artist is drawn to scenes of nature that have been altered by man's activities. There isn't much nature, or even man, to be seen in "Oil Refineries No. 22, Saint John, New Brunswick": This one's all pipelines and valves, lit with an eerie, almost theatrical glow, which may be the point.

Burtynsky's photos are a stark counterpoint to Davis's. Her pictures are all about a sense of awe in the face of the environment, whether it's built or grown. But is Mother Nature even capable of making man feel puny and small anymore? It isn't the wide, wonderful world around us, Burtynsky seems to be saying, but our own appetites that have become outsize.

Scale Matters: Photographs From the Joseph and Charlotte Lichtenberg Collection Through Feb. 1 at the Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St. NW (Metro: Dupont Circle) Contact: 202-387-215, Hours: Open Tuesday-Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursday 10 to 8:30 p.m.; Sundays 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Prices: $12, seniors and students $10

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