In new exhibit, photographer travels back through bygone DC

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Someone once said, “Everything is nostalgia.” Viewers new to Michael Horsley’s photography of “old” Washington DC might assume the same of his work: images of urban blight, neglect and decay, but also of the long-gone businesses, places and people who made up the character of the city some three decades ago.

Horsley’s new show — which opens with a reception this Saturday, Sept. 22, at 7 p.m. and continues through Jan. 11 at the Gallery O on H, 1354 H St. NE — is titled House of Champions, but the show’s subtitle makes its directive clear: Tour DC Like It’s 1979: An Immersive Photo Exhibit.

Dolly Vehlow, director of the Gallery O on H, installs photographs by Michael Horsley for an exhibit opening Sept. 22 and continuing through Jan. 11. (Photo by Ray Barker)

Horsley wandered these streets as a younger man, at a time now considered a low point of the city’s history: 1979 to 1990. Armed with a film camera, he used photography as his impetus to explore some of the more blighted and crime-ridden areas, capturing an era that he may have sensed at the time was evolving, if not close to its end. He took shot after shot — hundreds, maybe thousands of stills — as he traversed Washington by bus and on foot, often alone.

But even all of that sounds nostalgic.

Dig beneath the gritty surface of the approximately 65 mostly black-and-white images on display, gaze at the 3D artifacts seemingly plucked right out of the photographs, and one would see something else: an intimate but decidedly unsentimental narrative of personal lives in DC at this moment in time. It’s a wistful reflection, but not a romantic one.

As conceived with gallery director Dolly Vehlow, the exhibition is meant to recall or replicate a tour through the capital city aboard a White House tour bus, with Horsley — or the smoking male bus driver, in one photo — as guide. Each section in both the downstairs and second floor of the gallery space forms a segment of that journey.

With the aggressive development throughout the city today, it would be an easy, even logical, path for Horsley and Vehlow to use his images as an opportunity to make outraged commentary on how drastically DC has changed, raising a middle finger to the new condos and Starbucks on every corner — lamenting the loss of a more authentic urban experience. Instead, their collaboration offers a thoughtful and well-coordinated sidestep to that obvious angle. Vehlow says pointedly, “I didn’t want this to be a show about gentrification.”

One of Michael Horsley’s photographs from 1994 shows the facades along 11th Street NW between F and E streets, including Whitlow’s Restaurant. (Photo by Michael Horsley courtesy of the artist)

Horsley found a “champion” in Vehlow — a creative, think-outside-the-box partner who helped expand his work through the suggestion of incorporating actual artifacts, but also in refraining from the tendency for romanticization.

“She really helped me avoid being trapped in the nostalgia bucket, making it more about the story,” Horsley says.

Mixed with Horsley’s images of places and faces of bygone DC, the artifacts help evoke that past era concretely. In one corner, a stack of videocassette boxes recalls the classic American cinema of this period: titles like Diner, The Big Chill, Cocoon, and other mostly 1980s films that place you appropriately in time. Other items throughout include oil drums, a barbershop pole, window frames, spray-painted signs and a pint glass from a defunct local bar.

A portion of Horsley’s artist statement reads: “The city I portray is the city I saw at a moment in its eventual history; it is the city that I made my own … [and] the environment that I captured is a personal city.”

The exhibit is equally personal for Vehlow as a DC resident who lived here during the same period Horsley’s photographs capture.

The new exhibit at the Gallery O on H is meant to replicate a tour through Washington aboard a White House tour bus.(Photo by Ray Barker)

The gallery director says it was never a goal to make a statement about what was “wrong with the city” — she knows “there were parts that were impacted by the riots and there were things that were in disrepair, but it never struck me as a city that was forlorn.” One of the main intentions, Vehlow says, was to show “the city was still alive. Still had people that went to work. Went to church. Went shopping.”

“To me it’s really important to show that even though the city needed attention, it was a very vibrant city, and there were people that lived here and worked here and got a lot out of living in DC,” Vehlow says.

Horsley’s images attest to that life, in the alleyways, street corners and old places of business brought into focus: the Zanzibar Chinese-American Restaurant; the WIST 1120 AM radio station sign; the “House of Champions,” the defunct boxing gym in Northwest DC that gives the show its title.

In Vehlow’s eyes, if the show’s realism becomes overpowering, there is one photograph that provides a degree of respite: “The one little piece of hope is this little girl making her sign,” she says. The little girl is African-American, placing the letter “O” on a completely blank sign board. One is compelled to imagine she’s stopping somewhere in the middle of the word HOPE. But maybe that’s nostalgia again.

The show is no stroll down Horsley’s memory lane, nor is it a purely autobiographical portrait of a punk-rock Man With a Camera. Horsley says his collaboration with Vehlow allowed him to create a more external focus: to become “this fictitious guy who may or may not have existed. It removes me and my personality, and makes it into ‘that guy’ walking around with the Army bag as his camera bag. Never expecting he’d have a gallery show 20 to 30 years later.”

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