The work of two Washington photographers -- Joyce Tenneson and Charles Rumph -- opens to the public today at the Phillips Collection. Both are serene, sensuous and ambiguous. Both pose visual conundrums. And both seem to be on the brink of full maturity. Otherwise, the two could not be more dissimilar.
Joyce Tenneson, well-known in Washington as a teacher and photographer, is showing a new suite of photographs printed on highly textured paper, with results that have the look of pale graphite drawings. Though they deal with the same highly autobiographical subject matter that has preoccupied her in the past -- herself, her son, her friends -- and the objects that have become her signature -- old lace, shells, and a plaster mask of herself -- these prints are far more interesting than her earlier work.
Charles Rumph has not had major exposure before, and is here introduced with a series of unpretentious, flawless meditations on the "found" geometries of architectural interiors -- winding stairways, intersections of ceilings and walls -- which, in his hands, read as pure abstractions. These photographs succeed to the degree that they sustain that abstraction, and conceal from the viewer's eye and mind any concern with their architectural sources. As soon as the viewer is moved to say, "Aha! That's a stairwell looking up," much, if not all, is lost.
Rumph, a former Houston Symphony French horn player, now a trial lawyer with the Internal Revenue Service, is about to jettison both of those careers for a third as an architectural photographer. If his functional photography (none of it on view here) sustains the mastery and sensitivity of his "art" work, Rumph may well add his name to the very short list of good Washington architectural photographers.
While Rumph focuses chiefly on what he sees, Tenneson continues to mine the potentially deeper territory of what she feels. And in this show, she seems to have developed both a broader range of expressed feelings and an ability to get out of the way and let us share them. No longer devoted exclusively to the expression of her own seemingly unrelieved high angst, Tenneson's scenarios now seem more natural, less stagey and more relevant to other lives.
We don't need to know anything about Tenneson, for example, to enjoy the implications of "Christiana's Nest," a child lying beside a bird's nest, or to explore the evocations of her most beautiful image, "Self-Portrait with Child's Dress." Tenneson now seems less militant, more mature and considerably less confrontational and obvious in her exploations of sensuality, motherhood and reverie.
Both shows will continue at the Phillips through Sept. 7. Rumph's show spills over into the Barbara Fiedler Gallery just a block away.