The Exposed DC Photography Show includes some postcard views. (Erin Kelly)

What would an extraterrestrial think of Washington if his spaceship crash-landed in the middle of the Long View Gallery, where 49 photographs of the District and its suburbs are on display? Well, he might feel right at home.

Scattered among the more expected images, which run from postcard views of the Tidal Basin to gritty street photography, E.T. would find a handful of shots that make the city look like a strange and wondrous place, where unicorns ride the subway and a giraffe stands guard over a parking lot at night. The most intriguing work in the “Exposed DC Photography Show” makes the capital city look like no place on Earth.

The stated mission of the annual group show, which was founded by the DCist blog in 2007 as a way to spotlight emerging area photographers, is to offer a prismatic vision of life in and around Washington, not just as it is all too often caricatured, but as it is actually lived. But the show, which split from DCist this year under the aegis of the Exposed DC photo resource site, is at its best when you can’t tell where the pictures were taken.

Chances are you won’t recognize the people who took the photos either. True to its name, “Exposed DC” is a platform for artists who aren’t yet household names. For the first time, the show offered six $100 prizes, courtesy of the Corcoran College of Art and Design. Judges included Lucien Perkins, a Pulitzer Prize-winning former Washington Post photographer. The photos themselves are bargains, with prices in the $100-to-$300 range.

So what does the D.C. of “Exposed DC” look like? The show is a somewhat schizoid affair, and not because the images depict a racial, economic, geographic or cultural divide (though they do skew heavily toward the city’s Northwest quadrant and underrepresent the disadvantaged). Rather, the show, in general, can’t seem to decide which it loves more: the picturesque or the plain.

Right off the bat, you’ll notice recurring themes. The region’s natural beauty is one, not just as it is reflected in our famous pink blossoms, but as seen in JP Benante’s lurid shot of sunflowers at the McKee-Beshers Wildlife Management Area in Poolesville. The Metro system is another favorite. Matt Dunn’s “Unicorn on Blue Line,” which focuses on a subway rider in a unicorn mask, is a delightfully surreal example of the urban genre, not to mention a welcome departure from more conventional images of the rush-hour grind.

Other go-to subjects include the street fairs, festivals and such that make living here colorful, sometimes literally. Rey Lopez’s prize-winning “Do or Dye” documents the D.C. Color Run, a race in which runners get doused with brightly colored powder. Other spotlighted events include the 17th Street High Heel Race and the Capital Pride celebration. Fireworks are another popular subject, as are such local landmarks as the U.S. Capitol, the Maine Avenue fish market and the Florida Avenue Grill (or at least one of its waitresses).

Unsurprisingly, the most obvious shots are not the best. Among the prize-winning photographs are several that don’t scream Washington. One is a striking shot of a little girl aiming a toy bow and arrow at photographer Patrick Wright. He captured the scene — which has the vague sense of menace of a Diane Arbus or Ralph Eugene Meatyard photo — on Capitol Hill, but it could have been taken anywhere. Similarly, Veeresh Inginshetty’s “Chinatown King” is a dynamic composition of nine faces, not a portrait of a place. Shot in a parking lot on H Street NW during last year’s Chinese New Year celebration, the image is timeless and untethered to its location.

One of my favorite photographs is Gerda De Corte’s “W.” It’s not prize-winner, but the black-and-white picture of a white-haired man sitting in a white car, wearing a white coat and talking on a white cellphone outside the W Hotel (also known as the Hotel Washington) is simply fabulous. Who is he? And what’s he doing here?

Sure, the setting is iconic. But the picture, like the best images in “Exposed DC,” is imbued with a sense of mystery that’s rare in a city of memorials and monuments.

The Story Behind the Work

Park of Erika Nizborski’s “The-Hyattsville-Project,” a series shot in the photographer’s adopted home town, “Carnival Giraffe” is one of the most haunting images in the “Exposed DC” show. Shot at night, the prize-winning picture centers on a fake giraffe on a trailer, backlit by a glaring street light in a mostly empty parking lot near Magruder Park.

Nizborski, who has a BFA in photojournalism from the Corcoran College of Art and Design, took the enigmatic picture during last year’s Hyattsville Carnival, an annual multiday event, now in its 128th year, that includes a parade, concert, rides and fireworks — but apparently not an artificial giraffe. “I thought it was really strange,” Nizborski told Exposed DC. “Why didn’t the giraffe statue make it into the carnival?”

This year’s carnival, which starts Thursday and runs through April 6, features a parade April 5 that begins at Hyattsville Middle School at 11 a.m., and ends at Magruder Park, where the day will wind down with a concert by the Fabulous BelAirs and fireworks at dusk.

The Story Behind the Work

— Michael O’Sullivan