There are half a dozen photo shows in town just now, ranging in scope from the Hirshhorn's insightful "Brancusi as Photographer" to the Museum of Natural History's brief glimpse at the Orient.
The exhibit of photographs by the French modern sculptor Constantin Brancusi is the most ambitious of the lot. Dissatisfied with the way his sculptures had been photographed by others, Brancusi focused his own energies on the task of recording them, beginning around 1905 and, by the close of his career, amassing more than 500 negatives, many on glass. Original prints made from 73 of those negatives are here, borrowed from the Pompidou Center in Paris, where the complete collection is housed.
Studio views taken in the 1920s and '30s show several well-known scuptures -- some completed, others in progress -- including the famous "Bird in Space," captured amid a clutter of wood and stone.
For those of a contemporary turn of mind, there are two shows a the Library of Congress; the awards exhibit of the White House News Photographers Association and a documentary study of Chicago's ethnic population. More than a hundred stills, along with several tapes and films, make up the News Photographers display. Among the award-winners are "Happy Moment" by Ira Schwartz, who made the shot last November at Andrews Air Force Base when a few of the American hostages returned from Iran, and "Prisoner's Looking Glass," James Thresher's mournful feature photo made in a Maryland jail. The ethnic communities of Chicago are the real and sometimes bittersweet subjects of Jonas Dovydenas' 118 photos made in conjunction with the American Folk Life Center. "Inside Our Homes, Outside Our Windows" shows joyous bridesmaids at a Greek wedding, dancing children at a Buddhist temple, black musicians at a southside blues club and more.
At the National Archives, "The American Image: 1860-1960," 191 black-and-white photos culled from the 5 million prints in the Archives, tell the starkness of life of a Kentucky coalminer and the hopefulnes of a blind Helen Keller touching the face of President Eisenhower.
At the National Portrait Gallery, a few new prints have been added to its photography collection. Among the 64 studies are Man Ray's 1923 portrait of a youthful Ernest Hemingway and an undated Mathew Brady photo of a wide-eyed, white-haired Walt Whitman. While most of these are interesting mainly for their historical references, rather than for their esthetics, Walker Evans' print of James Agee and Edward Steichen's multi-layered image of Carl Sandburg must be counted among a few dozen beautiful exceptions.
In an alcove at the Museum of Natural History, a simple, spare show of 24 photos pictures turn-of-the-century China, Korea and Japan. Most are the work of Occidental visitors to the Orient: educators, diplomats, missionaries and a few professional photographers. Works by the Japanese photographer Ogawa Isshin are also shown.