- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 26, 2009

“The Architecture of Authority” is a compelling photography exhibition although it sets up the expectation of seeing imposing buildings reflective of political might.

Its title suggests grandiose structures like the Nuremberg stadium designed by Nazi architect Albert Speer and filmed by Leni Riefenstahl in her 1935 propaganda masterpiece “Triumph of the Will.” Instead, the 44 color images by California photographer Richard Ross concentrate on far more mundane spaces. They reveal how power is wielded through familiar environments such as the courtroom jury box, the waiting room at the motor vehicles department and the interview room at the police station.

In the National Building Museum exhibition, benign scenes of schoolrooms and meeting spaces give way to unsettling images of interrogation rooms, prison cells and a lethal-injection chamber at a state penitentiary. This combination makes the viewer think about the similar ways in which instructional and punitive spaces define the relationship between the powerful and powerless.

Mr. Ross, who has taught at the University of California, Santa Barbara since 1977, is adept at capturing the claustrophobia of such impersonal interiors while unearthing a haunting beauty. He mostly shows rooms devoid of people so the viewer is left to imagine the life — or death — that has gone on in these places.

The traveling exhibit is organized by the New York-based Aperture Foundation, a nonprofit founded in 1952 by Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange and others to promote photography. Curator Laura Schiavo of the National Building Museum arranged the photos to encourage comparisons between building types that seem unrelated but turn out to share the same approach to control. A picture of a circle inscribed onto a classroom carpet hangs next to one of a cellblock commons room to reveal how schools and prisons similarly achieve supervised socialization.

Images of confessionals at a mission, telephone booths at a Four Seasons hotel and a “communications with others” room at a customs enforcement facility evidence an analogous compartmentalization of space. Suspect-interview rooms at the Secret Service headquarters in Los Angeles and Delta Camp 5 at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Station in Cuba are furnished with the same folding chair; only the handcuffs are attached differently in the spaces.

Mr. Ross‘ viewpoint isn’t dispassionate but is motivated by his outrage over the Bush administration’s “war on terror” after Sept. 11. “I grew tired of walking my dog on the beach in beautiful Santa Barbara and not feeling I was putting some effort and risk to improve the political and environmental positions that I believe in,” the photographer noted in an e-mail.

In 2005, he gained access to high-security spaces in Iraq and at Guantanamo Bay and photographed the places where suspected terrorists are held and interrogated. Some of these images have been published in Time and Newsweek magazines, but still shock in their portrayals of inhumane environments.

As Mr. Ross writes in the exhibition catalog, “Architecture is not necessarily an innocent act of creativity.”

The most disturbing shot in the exhibit shows a row of “segregation boxes” at the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad. These outdoor cells, covered by tarps held down by sandbags, are reserved for inmates who misbehave. With their metal bars and tight dimensions, they resemble upended cages for animals.

Another grim shot reveals abandoned shower stalls at Camp X-ray in Guantanamo. Vines envelop the chain-link enclosures under a protective shield of barbed wire.

Starker than the photo of the cell inside this high-security prison are the images of “rubber rooms” used by U.S. customs and border officials to protect suspected illegals from inflicting damage to themselves. One such isolation chamber, shot by Mr. Ross in San Ysidro, Calif., resembles a white shower stall overseen by a security camera mounted in a corner of the ceiling.

In capturing the brutal reality of such confining places, these photos are much more effective in exposing American authoritarianism than Fernando Botero’s interpretative paintings of abuse at Abu Ghraib, shown in 2007 at American University’s Katzen Center.

Mr. Ross bolsters his quiet condemnation of the intimidating spaces in his series with a keen eye for detail and graphic composition. A photo of the El Paso, Texas, police department’s DUI testing room focuses on a red stripe running across the floor and up the wall to leave the viewer conjuring the image of a drunken driver navigating the line.

Other images simply document the beauty of magisterial architecture across the globe. A photo of the Palacio de Lecumberri, a former panoptic prison now housing Mexico’s General National Archive, focuses on the surprisingly ornate guardhouse at the center. An interior of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey, captures the preserved splendor of its 17th-century architecture.

The exhibit is the first of three photography shows to be held this spring and summer at the National Building Museum. Images of storefront churches by Chilean-born Camilo Jose Vergara will be displayed in June, followed in July by the work of New York-based Philip Trager who documents modern dancers as well as Palladian villas.

“Architecture of Authority” is a strong start to this series in its timely provocation, coinciding with the Obama administration’s release of details related to prisoner interrogation methods sanctioned by the Bush administration.

While exposing the sinister settings for these tactics, Mr. Ross widens his lens to link them to gentler spaces of control. Preschool circle time won’t ever seem so innocent again.

WHAT: “Architecture of Authority: Photographs by Richard Ross

WHERE:National Building Museum, 401 F St. NW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday, through Aug. 16

ADMISSION: Free; suggested $5 donation

PHONE: 202/272-2448

WEB SITE: www.nbm.org

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