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DISTRICT II: A photographic look into D.C.’s past

From the 1960s onwards, see what the nation’s capital looked like for three local photographers

Until February 12, 2017, the public will be able to travel to Washington, D.C.’s past with help from the National Building Museum’s latest exhibition, DISTRICT II, organized by the Historical Society of Washington, D.C. Here, there are photographs dating all the way back to the 1960s with artifacts included like a vintage Metro map.

Anne McDonough, library & collections director at the Historical Society of Washington, D.C., said that the idea for DISTRICT II stemmed from the very first exhibition, DISTRICT, which opened in January 2016. This exhibition was Chris Earnshaw’s first solo photography show with over 50 photos displayed.

“We wanted to make sure that people could see not only the images, but the poetry that he created that describes what was happening in D.C. on these blocks when he was taking these photographs,” said McDonough.

In order to expand this train of thought, the Historical Society of Washington, D.C. decided to put Earnshaw’s works into context with other photographers who were in the city at the time.

The three-artist exhibition, DISTRICT II, is separated into three sections: Mt. Vernon Squared, Billy Luck’s Downtown, and Inner City. The show starts with a photo by the late William Edmund “Bill” Barrett, Jr. of the area around the Carnegie Library, which is where the Historical Society of Washington, D.C. is headquartered. From there, the public is able to see photographs from the 1960s.

Moving forward, there are photographs from the 1970s and 1980s and onwards, taken by Earnshaw, who focuses on the built environment of the city.

Ending the exhibition is Joseph Mills, whose main goal with his works was the people, rather than the buildings.

There are plans for a DISTRICT III, but no date or location for the exhibition have been set just yet, according to McDonough.

Mt. Vernon Squared

The 14 images featured in Barrett’s section of the exhibition are part of the Historical Society’s Kiplinger Washington Collection. Each of the images were taken in the 1960s around Mt. Vernon Square.

According to the Historical Society of Washington, D.C.’s website, Barrett graduated from Georgetown University in 1951 and later began taking freelance photographs in the early 1960s. His clients included the National Capital Planning Commission, Octagon House, and the National Park Service.

Billy Luck’s Downtown

Earnshaw is not only a photographer, but a playwright as well. Since the early 1970s, he has long imagined setting a movie in the underbelly of Washington, D.C., which was once the bus stations, night clubs, and all-night restaurants in Downtown. His play is, according to him, “a love story veiled in a conspiracy.”

With the wish to bring his story about a man named Billy Luck to life, he took to the streets to capture as much of the city in the 1970s and 1980s as possible.

“Some people would sleep in abandoned offices ... or they would have a little business and a cot in the back,” said Earnshaw. “People were really living in a very improvised way, and I found that fascinating.”

Some 50 “drugstore” prints and a dozen enlarged, sepia reprints are featured in this section of the exhibition.

Inner City

While Earnshaw was concerned about the buildings in the nation’s capital, Mills was instead concerned about getting through each day of the 1980s. During this time, Mills took around 50,000 to 60,000 photographs of the people and the cityscape of D.C. While the city seemed to be the motivation for his works, Mills is quick to say, “It had very little to do with Washington, D.C.”

Instead, it was “a great deal to do with the deteriorated nature of myself,” said Mills, who explained that he experienced severe psychosis when he was younger.

“This incredible state of mind was overwhelming,” he said. “I would go out in the streets, and I would try to find people who were as destitute as I was, someone who shared my state.”

Each of his photographs in the exhibition are centered on approximately 20 eight-inch-by-10-inch rusted metal panels. The reason for this type of framing is due to him being inspired by vintage photographs. Mills said, “I kept thinking how could I get the glass off my work?” He then began to use found objects and varnish rather than matting and glass. “When you see something without glass, that’s the way it ought to be.”

If interested in visiting DISTRICT II, be sure to check out the hours and admission prices for the National Building Museum here.

National Building Museum

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