Looking at the new AT&T-sponsored photography show at the Corcoran is like dialing Information: it takes a long time before you connect with another human voice.
Viewers are likely to leave "American Images," which opens today, wondering whether this show is so uncommunicative because that is the nature of contemporary photography, or because the organizers awarded their commissions with blinders on.
Most of the names are familiar to photography watchers: Lewis Baltz, Harry Callahan, William Eggleston, Elliott Erwitt, Larry Fink, Washington's own John Gossage, Joel Meyerowitz, Nicholas Nixon, Tod Papageorge and Stephen Shore.
It was a generous, enlightened commission. Twenty artists were paid $3000 plus expenses to deliver 15 images. There were no restrictions except that the work had to deal with physical or social America.
So with this rare opportunity in hand, some photographers took off for Hawaii, while others headed south and west toward home or explored their own back yards. Stephen Shore went to watch the Yankees in spring training. Mary Ellen Mark, one of the few photo-journalists in the show, documented the pregnancy and labor of a 14 year-old girl.
Meanwhile Jan Groover went to her own kitchen, and from knives and forks and their interlocking reflections and shadows, made the most beautiful images in the show.
But many -- too many -- of these photographers ended up looking at parched landscapes, nostalgia-laden facades of old houses and tangled swamps -- all by now chiches even in the hands of their own creators.
There are some exceptions: Linda Connors shows texture in the landscape that is palpable to the eye, and William Clift occasionally creates a worthy epic. And the artist's statements in the catalogue (unfortunately not ready yet) help us appreciate the fact that Frank Gohlke is exploring his memories at home in Texas, and that Robert Adams is seeking to retrace the steps and sights of his forebears through the wilderness. (He always includes some evidence of man, and looking for the clues -- often just a tire-track, adds a puzzle element.)
It helps not at all to know that William Eggleston is exploring the 32nd parallel. His photographs, with the exception of one murky pond, are boring as ever.
There are actually some people in this dead pan, dead serious show -- even a smile or two as the whimsical Elliott Erwitt and Tod Papageorge, king of clutter, head for the beach. Nicholas Nixon warms up in his portraits of people in this show, and he gets downright tender in one shot where a disembodied hand touches down on a newborn calf.
Larry Fink, on the other hand, continues to catch people when they are least able to defend themselves from the affront of his flashbulb -- bending over in a short dress, for example.His "manner" now subverts everything he sees -- even when he means to be sympathetic -- into something eerie.
It should be made clear that with all its faults, this is a rather daring enterprise in art patronage for Ma Bell, especially given the "Bell Telephone Hour" image. It takes a lot more courage to commission photographers and take what they give you, than it does to go out and choose the best from already existing work. This kind of patronage supports and advances art by helping artists directly. It is to be applauded.
The beautifully printed catalogue, with the artists' statements, will, in the end, probably be the most important contribution of this enterprise.
The photographers who contributed to "American Images" were chosen by Renato Danese of the National Endowment for the Arts in consultation with Jane Livingston of the Corcoran and other photography curators and publishers.
In her new show at Foundry Gallery, 2121 P St. NW, Claudia De Monte is still exploring her own life in her art, but here it is in a mood of disarming innocence, very different from the more sophisticated (and sometimes hypersophisticated) modes she has employed in the past.
She surrounds the viewer with a room-size mural made of childlike crayon drawings representing landmarks of her life (home, school, church, etc.). She then marches several small handmade papier-mache "Claudia Dolls" through her scenario. The viewer becomes involved in this visual biography because of the tantalizing clues.
Even without knowing the artist it is clear that she was born in Manhattan, spent a lot of time in church and church schools, and has happy recollections of Easter bunnies, Christmas trees and skating in Rockefeller Center. A cemetery scene is an unhappy digression, after which she continues what seems a rather joyful trek to palm-studded islands, Europe, Washington and back to New York.
There is another room full of small tableaux depicting "Claudia in Haiti," "Claudia in Quito," even "Claudia in Paradise." In real life, the artist spends most of her time on the Metroliner between New York, where she lives, and the University of Maryland, where she teaches. This is her most captivating show to date.