- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 11, 2006

Lovers of photography and Washington history are in for a treat with the newly opened “Silver Mysteries,” a Volkmar Wentzel photo exhibit at the Decatur House, a block north of the White House.

“They’re both great works of art and important historical documents,” says Katherine Malone-France, the museum’s director of collections and programs.

On display are 40 large black-and-white photos from 1935 to 1937, when Mr. Wentzel, young and jobless, had just arrived in Washington. He quickly got a job mixing chemicals at a local photo studio.

His passion lay elsewhere, namely in discovering and portraying his new city using a clunky Speed Graphic. In his own words (a quote from the exhibit): “My range was limited only by the size holes I could patch in the soles of my shoes.”

His most famous pictures from these early years — he was just 19 when he started his photo journey — were of monuments and other Washington landmarks. They were taken on foggy, wet, sometimes snowy nights and include “View From the United States Treasury,” showing a snowy Pennsylvania Avenue with fuzzy streetlights and streetcar rails, with the imposing, lighted Capitol in the distance.

Many of these early pictures later landed in a book, “Washington by Night,” and helped win Mr. Wentzel a job at the National Geographic Society, where he remained as a photographer and writer for almost half a century.

The exhibit, however, goes beyond showing the famous photos, devoting more than half the space to pictures of 1930s Washington street life, self-portraits and pictures of the photographer’s friends and neighbors, many of which have never been seen by the public.

Mr. Wentzel, not well-heeled in the early years, lived in a small apartment at Jackson Place, just around the corner from the Decatur House. In those days, the neighborhood was full of residences, both houses and small apartment buildings. Now, all those buildings belong to the government, says Ms. Malone-France, except for Decatur House, which was bequeathed to the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1956 by its last owner, Marie Beale.

A self-portrait featured in the exhibit shows Mr. Wentzel in his tiny apartment, sitting on a small, modest bed. In the background is a radio, and on the wall is a swatch of checkered fabric. In an exhibit quote, Mr. Wentzel, who died in May at the age of 91, says his room was small enough to have been a closet during grander days.

Several pictures depict late-night all-bachelor parties complete with poker chips and whiskey bottles strewn about.

Some of the pictures are timeless. Others, such as “Near Memorial Bridge,” which shows a horse-drawn carriage, clearly are depictions of a bygone era, as is “Bowling Alley,” which shows a young black man wearing shoes beyond threadbare whose job it was to reset the pins after each play.

“It’s a Washington that’s familiar and foreign at the same time,” Ms. Malone-France says. “That’s part of what makes it so interesting. You recognize it, and you don’t.”

The exhibit — which can be toured in as little as 15 minutes — has appeal to all age groups, says Ms. Malone-France, who is planning to create an exhibit catalog giving more background on Mr. Wentzel and contrasting his streetscapes with contemporary streetscapes.

“You can learn something about Washington in the 1930s, or how the city has changed, or you can be inspired,” Ms. Malone-France says. “The way he became a great photographer was by honing his craft. He taught himself. To a teenager, that can be very inspiring.”

Another exhibit-related program is a photo competition for high schoolers. The competition will take place in early 2007; the exhibit will run through mid-April.

When you go:

Location: The “Silver Mysteries” photo exhibit is at the Stephen Decatur House Museum, 1610 H St. NW, in the District.

Directions: The museum is one block north of the White House.

Hours: The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to 4 p.m. Sunday. Tours are offered every day except Monday, when self-guided gallery tours may be taken. The museum is closed on major holidays.

Parking: Limited street parking and pay-to-park garages are available. The Farragut West station on Metro’s Orange and Blue lines and the Farragut North station on the Red Line are less than a 10-minute walk from the museum.

Admission: A $5 donation is suggested.

Information: 202/842-0920 or www.decaturhouse.org.

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