An exemplary exhibit of local art photography -- show designed to travel--goes on view today at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. "Washington Photography: Images of the Eighties" (its undistinguished title is its only flaw) has two signal virtues. Its illustrated catalogue, by assistant curator Frances Fralin, is the best thing of its sort yet published in this city. Thoroughly researched, well-written and fair-minded, her unpretentious history of art photography in Washington should prove a document of value for many years to come. Compelling as her booklet is, her show is even better. Somehow it succeeds where most local group exhibits flop about and fail. Fralin's show is true to the history she's witnessed, but it does more than reiterate: It seems to prophesy as well.
Her exhibition is both familiar and surprising. Nine of the 11 artists she's included are well-known in this city, but she has judged them freshly. The new pictures she has chosen, and the themes that she has stressed, extend our understanding of what they've already done.
Few will be surpised to see that Mark Power and John Gossage remain among the most gifted and inspiring photographers around, or that William Christenberry continues to pay homage to the textures and the shacks of his beloved South, or that Frank DiPerna is a classicist at heart, or that Steve Szabo's street shots are still loaded to the brim with complex information. But what is unfamiliar--in a city where so many photographers are intimists--is the toughness of this work, its lack of foggy sweetness. Also unfamiliar is the way a kind of portraiture seems to dominate these pictures even when they're landscapes.
What is even more surprising is the color of this show. Only four of the 11 artists represented display work in black-and-white.
Though the beauty that arises from pure and complex color has long been a concern of the painters of this city, our photographers, until very recently, have tiptoed round its edges. Allen Appel and Mark Power, true, have shown hand-tinted photographs, and the SX-70 has not been ignored, but color in this exhibition, as in few before, dominates the walls. Each triptych on display by John Balfour McIntosh shows a vase of flowers shot against the primaries, red, yellow, blue. Their color is not background, their color is their message. It is the message, too, of Arnold Kramer's portraits here, and of DiPerna's landscapes.
The DiPernas, shot in France, are, as he intended, "both elegant and rugged." They show a crumbling sandstone cliff, the blue of sky, the green of grass. Their elegance resembles that of color field paintings, their ruggedness is seen in their refusal to be either theatrical or severe.
The Christenberrys seem less cliche'd, and more abstract, than many seen before. More complex (and less Walker Evansy) than his humble straight-on shots of old southern buildings, they are full of subtle hues and grid-like rhythms. His autobiograpical obsession seems to have been softened here by an overdue return to the freer realm of open, abstract art.
Mark Power, who here shoots in color, too, continues to accomplish something quite astonishing. He somehow gives photography, that most literal of arts, the spirit of the fictional. His splendid, dream-like pictures--a girl beside a tree, an eel in a dish, blossoms strewn on fabric, all accompanied by texts--pretend to tell the story of a man who's lost his past, or at least its photographs. "You mean you have no childhood because there's no record of it? That it's not real because it wasn't photographed?" is the eerie question that spurred Power's quest. The real, and its opposite, dance in Power's art.
The old, the new, the dark, the light, the ordered and chaotic, somehow coexist in Szabo's black-and-white shots of Arles in France. As busy and as balanced as a drip painting by Pollock, they seem to seethe with muchness.
The Gossage pictures here, also black and white, seem at least as full, but their fullness is mysterious. One sees it through old fears, through the memory, the heart, more than through the eye. Presences unnameable and as ominous as ghosts haunt his slow and sunny streetscapes of Los Angeles. Why does that shadowed passageway recall Pluto's path to Hades, could that lid from a garbage can be the shield of a god? Before Gossage's work, and Power's--they share nothing else--one feels a kind of awe.
Shirley True here dares display 16 pictures all of downtown Washington--and all taken in less than 90 minutes with one roll of film. Not all the pictures are beautiful--how could they be?--but this concentrated, and oddly confessional, tour de force is beautiful in parts.
Claudia Smigrod's art is the least photographic, and the most affected. She puts big scrawled words, lengths of yarn, and, yes, little photographs on big sheets of paper, say, a photo-of-a-photo beside a photo-of-a-photo-of-a-photo. Get it? One picture, for unclear reasons, appears displayed on its side.
Fralin's show, which does not attempt to be a survey, introduces work by two artists less well known. Melinda Blauvelt's color photographs of Mardi Gras, handsome though they are, seem within this context a little overloaded. She shows us startling colors, blues and pinks, and startling subjects, too (large women in leopard skins, young men in mesh stockings wearing Nixon masks or plastic grapes) but her startlements seem a little deadened by her formal compositions. Her attempt to blend Diane Arbus freakiness and Walker Evans staidness (she studied with him at Yale) and strong color, too, misses by a bit. John Radcliffe's more straightforward portraits of his friends in Maryland's Hartford County somehow manage to be both friendly and disturbing. Arbus was never as kind as he is, but his images, without artifice or distance, are near as troubling as hers.
Fralin, not for the first time, has done the art scene here a favor. Her show was designed to promote the photography of Washington, and as it tours the country should fulfill that mission well. It closes May 2.