"Terra Sancta" -- Latin for sacred or holy ground -- connotes different things to different people. Certainly the four photographers whose works form the exhibit of that title at the Corcoran Gallery have widely differing interpretations of the term. Yet all of these artists manage to convince the viewer that theirs is the correct one.
Only one photographer, Arnold Kramer, has undertaken to portray the Holy Land of vox populi definition, specifically the deserts and ancient cities of Israel and the Sinai, whence arose Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Husband-and-wife team Peter and Bernis von zur Muehlen took as their subject the mountains and lofty villages of Nepal, for centuries home to Hinduism and various sects of Buddhism, and Frank DiPerna the deserts of the American Southwest and Mexico, sacred lands to many North American Indians. These artists evidently related strongly to the terrain they chose to depict, and the results of their labors make for a fine and sometimes moving show.
Many of these large-format color photographs convey about these places a sense of their unique natural character, as well as the imprint of whatever human history is etched upon them. Among the most striking works in this regard are several of Kramer's studies of old Jerusalem. Evidently shot from the hills surrounding the ancient city, its myriad clusters of dust-colored dwellings seem inseparable from the landscape, looking almost as if over the centuries they grew naturally out of the earth.
Even when Kramer turns his lens upon sites within the city itself, this impression of vast age and hallowed presence is retained. Two pieces that especially stick in the mind are a shot of the Western Wall, imposing above the tiny figures come to say their prayers before it, and a scene of picturesque, ramshackle rooftops. In the foreground a black cat dashes across a roof under a line of hanging laundry. Incongruously, it seems that every one of the roofs bears a television antenna, creating a forest of technological reception above a community that might otherwise look exactly as it did in Christ's time.
DiPerna's portraits of cactus-studded plains, blistering, bone-white deserts and the ore-stained mountains of Death Valley, Saguaro National Monument and various sites in Mexico also communicate a sense of profound holiness. Forbidding though the locations are -- especially the immense and eerily vacant "Sand Dune, Great Sand Dunes National Monument, Colorado" -- their sere emptiness inspires a kind of awe. And even though in some of these photographs DiPerna has intentionally included in the foreground a stray bottle or other bit of litter left by some thoughtless fool, such things oddly serve to enhance the splendid desolation of these places. They accent the fact that there are still natural places in the world man may have sullied to some extent, but has not yet been able to tame or utterly violate.
Of DiPerna's contributions, perhaps the loveliest is his panorama "Maguey Field, Pachuca, Hildalgo, Mexico." In this picture you look out upon a gentle-seeming lime-green plain, sprinkled with maguey agaves and riven across the center by a dry wash. The photograph is so sharp and present that it seems like a window through which you might simply step into the landscape.
The intense imagery and vivid colors of the von zur Muehlens' efforts set them radically apart from the work of the other two photographers. In fact, you may be forgiven for first thinking you've walked into another exhibit altogether. Many of their photos depict interiors. And the temples and sacrificial sites they've captured throughout Katmandu and other areas of the Himalayas are most definitely terra sancta by any definition. Carvings of Buddha and various subsidiary deities are ubiquitous, decorating every doorway and facade. Here we see fearsome-looking idols, smeared with vermilion and the remnants of other offerings. Some are practically featureless after centuries of touching, lurking in their temple vaults like faceless monsters who might awake in the dark.
Red is everywhere in these carefully composed, powerful photographs, dusting the gleaming brown, ornately carved temple entrances and niches, and staining the floor in the form of crimson fruits and flowers left by the faithful. Even outdoor scenes such as "Temple Complex Near Pashupatinath" are saturated with the color, from the warmth of the brick and stone as well as the amber glow of the morning light.
All told, this is a fine and fascinating show. The show was assembled and its title selected by Corcoran assistant curator Frances Fralin. None of the photography is particularly unusual or technologically startling in and of itself. But it all serves its purpose admirably, providing clear windows on worlds apart.
Terra Sancta: Photographs From Israel and Sinai, Nepal, and the North American Deserts, at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, 17th Street and New York Avenue NW, through Aug. 12.