Moneta Sleet Jr. was the first black American to win a Pulitzer Prize for photography -- for the memorable photo of Coretta Scott King at her husband's funeral. The retrospective of Sleet's work, displayed at the Martin Luther King Memorial Library, reminds you of the White House Press Photographers Association's annual show: It is crisp, consummate photojournalism. But in this case, just one photographer has witnessed all this history.
As staff photographer since 1955 for Ebony magazine, Sleet photographed rain-soaked marchers in Selma, Ala., and high-and-dry celebrities in the March on Washington. He chronicled African independence and the life of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. He photographed Malcolm X at a rally and Eartha Kitt at home -- even with her baby girl under her arm she is a sultry siren. He shot Reggie Jackson sitting out of uniform in Yankee Stadium on a bad day, and a pockmarked Billie Holiday lounging in pajamas on a worse one. And Alex Haley in 1977, surrounded by new-found relatives in Africa, and Sammy Davis Jr. in 1956, dictating to his assistant from behind his bar/desk, in a humble New York apartment -- and sporting, even then, a monogram on his bathrobe.
One of the very best of the 126 photos here is of two unidentified men, neighbors on death row in Florida's Raiford Prison. Beyond them stretches a row of cells, and on the floor, barely within their reach, stretches a line of dominoes.
There is no way that this remarkable exhibit belongs in a library basement, but that's where it is. At the Martin Luther King Memorial Library, 901 G St. NW, take the elevator on the right just inside the front door, to Level A. Sleet's work will be displayed there through February. Hours are Monday through Thursday, from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.; and Sunday from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.
'Naive' Art at Anton There is something irrepressible in Kentucky that makes old men carve whirligigs, families of pigs and statues of Elvis. Just as there is something irrepressible in Washington that makes gallery owners call that art.
The debate over whether naive impulses qualify as art continues at the Anton Gallery, with its seventh annual show of "The Unschooled Artist." Take Jimmy Lee Sudduth's "Turtle." The medium listed for this painting is "mud/sugar/board." That's the best that can be said for it.
On the other hand, Carl McKenzie's carved wood figures, freckled with bright paint, are in the best tradition of African fetish figures. An "Avon Lady," a Bible-toting Statue of Liberty and Carol the topless carhop -- his mutely gazing statues charm. A retired Kentucky logger who uses scraps from a nearby sawmill, McKenzie brings all his figures together in a whimsy of whittling called "Noah's Ark": Only on second glance do you notice that all the animals are stuffed and mounted.
The master in this company of contemporary folk artists is the legendary Howard Finster (The Wall Street Journal called him "the South's Warhol"). He's a retired minister who paints or carves his religious visions. His trademark is the lengthy commentary he prints on his work. On a wood cutout here, he has written: "Elvis at 3 was an angel to me by Howard Finster from God 11:21 Jan. 5, 1987 ..." And sometimes in modest moments he signs his pieces, "Howard Finster, the Man of Visions."
One thing these works have in common is their charm. They turn the galleries into children's rooms with brightly colored animals and simple, engaging designs. Like children, primitive folk artists allow themselves to see -- or invent -- things that convention forbids to the rest of us. Carved snakes (which double as canes) have teeth, not fangs. And painted wood tigers are like nothing ever seen at the zoo.
"The Unschooled Artist: Folk, Visionary and Isolate," will be at Anton Gallery, 2108 R St. NW, through February. Hours are noon to 5 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday.
Photography at Athenaeum The idea behind the "Photography: Process" show at the Athenaeum in Alexandria is that sometimes the image isn't as important as how one obtains it -- that the viewer ought to come up to a photograph and wonder what's going on.
"All the people in this exhibit," says curator Sharon Keim, "are really demanding more of the viewer." These photographers' messages are not always clear. And unfortunately the show is not as engaging as it sounds. When it comes down to it, the most interesting work here was taken with a Polaroid.
Among the alternatives are photograms and computer-generated photographs. Martha Madigan's photograms, bleached out in the sun, are leaf patterns like stick figures, with a message printed in smaller leaves ("This world is like a garden in bloom only for a few days"). The imagery -- cats and people with tulip-poplar leaf vests, playing croquet -- underscores the consistent Pollyanna quality of this work.
Producing the computer-generated color images here is Manuel, a team of two artists. Ed Hill appropriates popular images from the TV screen and then manipulates the image on his computer -- superimposing words such as "Good Life" over a photo of Joy dishwashing liquid. Then Suzanne Bloom photographs the image on the screen. In the end, the photograph is a curiosity -- but its dehumanized images produce a feeling of indifference.
By contrast, Joyce Tenneson's large-format color Polaroid images elicit all sorts of reactions. There is a touch of Diane Arbus here, in the flabby backs of two naked women, in the grotesquely hunched back of a naked man. Tenneson drapes her models with a fine gauze -- a caul, deathly pale. The process she employs is not so much unusual as rare. She got a grant from the Polaroid Corp. to use the very large camera in its studio in New York to produce her 20-by-24-inch prints.
"Photography: Process" will be at the Athenaeum, 201 Prince St., Alexandria, through Feb. 21. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday, and 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Sundays.