If there’s a single point to be made — or a single story to be told — by the 113 photographic works in “A Democracy of Images: Photographs From the Smithsonian American Art Museum,” it’s the story of photography itself. The question is, can that story ever be fully told, even in 113,000 photos?
I call the objects on view at the museum “photographic works,” because they aren’t all, strictly speaking, individual photographs, through most of them are. One display case features an entire photo album, circa 1942, of mug shots taken by anonymous photographers from the San Francisco Police Department. Another work, dated 2012, is from artist Ellen Carey’s “Dings and Shadows” series, made by exposing crumpled photographic paper directly to colored light and then smoothing out the paper and processing it. Carey never even uses a camera.
The rest of the show, more or less, connects those two dots.
The earliest works aren’t the ones in that police blotter. They date to the mid-19th century, when cameras were used, in large part, to record how something or someone looked. The evolution of the photograph from a documentary tool to a form of creative expression is laid out by guest curator Merry Foresta in four broad, thematic chapters focusing on people and portraiture; the natural landscape; American expansion and industry; and, finally, photographs as art.
Foresta’s work couldn’t have been easy. The show celebrates the 30th anniversary of the museum’s decision to collect photography, and her choices were culled from a collection of about 7,000 images.
The title means it when it says “Democracy.” Giants of the art form mingle with nobodies. You’ll find works by Mathew Brady, Ansel Adams, Annie Leibovitz and everyone in between, along with several images by anonymous photographers and daguerreotypists who mostly created mere keepsakes.
There’s a meritocracy, too, of course. The show is filled with great, iconic pictures: William Eggleston’s “Tricycle (Memphis),” from 1975; Edward Weston’s “Pepper no. 30,” from 1930. But you’ll also encounter artists you may have never heard of, but should know: Deborah Luster and Skeet McAuley, among others.
Luster’s photograph in the show stands out for its conceptualism; it’s a shot of birds on power lines, from a series of images representing the last things seen by New Orleans murder victims. McAuley’s wry photograph, at first glance, looks like a straightforward landscape — wild and beautiful — until one notices the oil pipeline hidden among the trees.
There’s a secondary meaning to the show’s title, really more of a subtle resonance than anything that hits you over the head. The “democracy” of “A Democracy of Images” also can be read as an allusion to America itself, suggesting that the show is, in some ways, a portrait of our nation formed by looking at it from many angles.
To that end, the exhibition features works that serve as historical milestones, marking such momentous chapters in our story as the Civil War (Alexander Gardner); the Great Depression (Walker Evans); World War II (Weegee); the Vietnam War (Diane Arbus); the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. (Alfredo Jaar); and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 (Kevin Bubriski).
More often, though, the moments, places, people and views that have been collected here feel offhand and stumbled upon, telling a fragmentary, incomplete tale. Sometimes it’s literally a glance, as in “Girl Holding Popsicle,” a 1972 image by Mark Cohen, who rarely even looked through his viewfinder. Other times, it’s more like a long stare, as in William Christenberry’s 1979 “China Grove Church — Hale County, Alabama,” a locale that the Washington-based artist and Alabama native returned to again and again. These 113 pictures are, at the same time, quietly telling, revealing bits of America in oblique, prismatic ways.
Like many Americans, several of the artists in “Democracy” were not born here. Robert Frank came from Switzerland, Ana Mendieta, from Cuba. Muriel Hasbun, the daughter of a Frenchwoman with a Polish-Jewish background and a Palestinian Christian father, was born in El Salvador and now teaches at the Corcoran.
This melting pot is, of course, quintessentially American. And the outsider’s eye often helps an artist see things that those born here might miss. One of the show’s sub-themes is photography as a tool of political commentary.
The Chilean-born Alfredo Jaar’s piece “Life Magazine, April 19, 1968” appropriates someone else’s news shot of the funeral procession for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and supplements it with two diagrams marking the white people and the black people in the crowd.
That 1995 triptych is conceptually related to a larger body of work in which Jaar used reprinted magazine covers to highlight how the Western media either ignored or stereotyped Africa, depicting it, on one hand, as a place of exotic wild animals and, on the other, as a wasteland of famine and poverty.
— Michael O’Sullivan