The are two different strains - one spooky, one straighforward - in the American aesthetic.
The churches of New England, the no-nonsense prose of Hemingway, the photographs of Walker Evans and the portraits of Tom Eakins are hymns to the plain statement. Yet this nation, born of puritans, is equally attracted to the mysterious. In the prose of Poe and Lovecraft, in Andrew Wyeth's shadows, in the blood-red hangings of dark Victorian parlors - and in the famous photographs of Clarence John Laughlin - lurk the gloomy and the Gothic.
"The Transforming Eye," a Laughlin retrospective, will be on view through July 3 at the Phillips Collection here.
The new Orleans photographer, born in 1905, spent his first five years on an old plantation whose ancient, past-evoking trees were, one can be sure, festooned with hanging moss. A masterful technician, Laughlin likes to photograph old graveyards and old buildings, mysterious, enigmas. I find his hokey pictures rather hard to take.
Their images and titles - "Elegy for a Ruined Door," "The Complex of Reality," "The Beauty-Ugliness of Time" - are unabashedly "poetic." "My central position," Laughlin writes, "is one of extreme romanticism."
At 20 he was writing "poems and Gothic fiction." He began to use the camera in 1934. A number of his images - flaking paint on weathered wood, a shiny automobile fender - have since become cliches, but few younger artists dare to make their arty studies as theatrical as Laughlin's.
His is at his worst when he pulls out all the stops. In the 1940s, for example, Laughlin, now, 75, dressed his models in long gowns and black veils and asked them to strike spooky poses before ruined walls and tombs. He is a first-rate architectural photograher. His tricks, with props and multiple negatives, are frequently embarrassing. But there is no doubt the New Orleans photographer believes in the images he shows us.His photographes ar heart-felt.
Washington's Bill Christenberry, Whose small color photographs will be on view through July 9 at the Sander Gallery, 2604 Connecticut Ave. NW, is an artist of the other sort. His photographs are unpretentious, unassuming, plain.
Christenberry also photographs the ghost-ridden South. (His master, Walker Evans, shot "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men" in Hale County, Alabama, where Christenberry was born.) Christenberry uses a cheap Brownie, and his color prints are small. The rural graves he shows us, the red earth and falling shacks, are centered in their frames. We see them as they are.
They are, one is surprised to see, occasionally beautiful. Whether photographing a magenta car in Havana, Ala., or the red brick trimmed with white of the railroad station in Selma, or the bright blue concrete spheres that decorate a restaurant next door to the Sander Gallery, Christenberry uses color well and truly, as Hemingway might say.
If there is one phot show in town that the viewer ought to see, it is the Bay Area California show that will be on view at the intuitiveye Gallery, 641 Indiana Ave. NW, through June 23. The four artists represented - JOhn Spence Weir, Catherine Wagner, Robert Barry and Timo Tauno Pajunen (whose works are unforgettable) - somehow blend within their pictures the mysterious and the clean.
Many new photographers, having studied Walker Evans and hard-edge '60s painting, like to give their pictures a fashionable toughness by anchoring the images to a strict geomety. The galleries are full of pictures whose compositions echo the edges of the rectangle that the viewfinder presents. The four Californians at Intuitiveye fully understand the toughness of verticals and grids, diagonals and horizontals, but they use geometry as a gateway, not a crutch.
They photograph plain things - a flower bed, the patterns of the pavement, a windowscreen, a wall - and unlike Laughlin they avoid exotic tricks and props. Yet the spaces that they show us, the textures and the forms, are so rich in ambiguity, so authentically mysterious, that their photographs give the viewer feelings, not just thoughts. A veiled woman in a graveyard may be "enigmatic," but the California artists conjure a purer pressed in plots, theatrics words.
Washington's J.R. Black is a very good photographer with less than perfect taste. Black, whose handsome color pritns are on display at the Atlantic Gallery (in the Foundry Building beside the C&O Canal on Thomas Jefferson Street in Georgetown), has a weakness for the picturesque.
His huge color prints of the monuments, the mists, and the shores of the Potomac tend to look like postcards of an exalted sort. Memorial Bridge dramatically dissolves into mist. Black likes the operatic. Beneath a gorgeous orange sky the sun sets just behind the spires of Georgetown University. A branch of blossoms placed just so decorates the foreground of a shot of the Jefferson Memorial. Black is at his best when, as in his photograph of a rower in a single scull drifting before autumn trees, he does not let the pretty interfere with beauty.
The Henri Gallery, 21st and P Streets, is having its first photo show. Washington's Bill Kreykenbaum is another young photographer who cannot resist images tht were long ago worn out by excessive use. He should know that viewers do not need to see yet another picture of a flaking rural sign, a weathered wooden wall, or ripples upon water. Valerie Crosby's pictures of cows grazing in Britain, wildebeests in Africa and sweet children, though well made, look like snapshots. The best photograph at Henri's is Douglas Chadwick's shot of rugs and bare white walls that lead the eye, though complex diagonals, to a dog at a dog door.
There is a nice transparency to Diana H. Walker's portraits of Washington celebrities, now on display at National Camera, 1740 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. Jimmy Carter laughs, and frowns. Art Buchwald grins, Dustin Hoffman plays the star, Ronald Reagan gives a speech. Walker, staff photographer for the Washington Monthly, does not insert herself into her protraits. We see her famous subjects exactly as we imagine them to be.