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Plenty to like at “A Democracy of Images”

Writer and photography / Nancy Breslin

There is lots for alt photographers to like at “A Democracy of Images” in Washington, DC according to Nancy Breslin.

Cyanotype by Barbara Kasten, at the Smithsonian American Art Museum
Cyanotype by Barbara Kasten, at the Smithsonian American Art Museum

On a recent trip to Washington, DC, I visited the show “A Democracy of Images” at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. It features a wide selection of photographs from the museum’s collection, spanning the history of the medium. Of interest to alternative photographers are some vintage processes, both in the original form (such as early Daguerreotypes and tintypes, some charmingly hand colored) and as revisited by contemporary artists (such as a silver gelatin print from a wet plate negative by Sally Mann). The show is divided into four sections, featuring “American Characters” (mostly portraits), “The Spiritual Frontier” (mostly scenes of the American West), “America Inhabited” (including artists such as Weegee, William Eggleston and Tina Barney), and finally “Imagination at Work.” These works tend to be the most experimental, in terms of both subject and process. There is a trippy and colorful panoramic self-portrait by Lucas Samaras, made from strips of Polaroid prints. Also strikingly colorful is “Dings and Shadows” by Ellen Carey, in which a crunched up piece of chromogenic paper was exposed to different colors of light and then flattened so it could be processed. A beautiful blue and brown print by Susan Rankaitis was made by a complex process of applying photo emulsions and then montaging imagery through the use of digital negatives, photograms and projected photos. Simple but exquisite is a cyanotype by Barbara Kasten, where the shadow of a piece of screen becomes what could be a cloak or a wing.

The Smithsonian museums are currently closed because of the Congressional impasse, but hopefully they will reopen soon and this show runs through January 5, 2014.

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