NEW YORK — IT'S a good bet there's trouble when the refrigerator opens to a mysterious glow in the middle of the night. Or when a parent gazes into the backyard to find the kids, a can of gasoline in one of their little hands, torching a favorite tree. Or when the viewer peers out a window to a lush fantasia of flowers, butterflies, dragonflies, and moss, only to realize that the pretty insects are preserved specimens and most of the flowers are fake.These domestic images are just a few amid a plethora of still photographs from the last decade - works that examine, question, and record personal responses toward home life in the United States. Peter Galassi, the newly appointed director of the department of photography at The Museum of Modern Art in New York, has framed the matter boldly in the exhibition, "Pleasures and Terrors of Domestic Comfort" (through Dec. 31), including 152 color and black-and-white photographs by 74 Americans. The show signals a trend in the world of photography toward picturing domestic scenes that reveal attitudes and mannerisms peculiar to Americans. Mr. Galassi charts a territory staked out largely during the 1980s. He finds the tendency toward depicting middle-class domestic subjects as promising as the street documentaries of modernists in the 1940s and 1950s. The domestic situation "was an open artistic issue, while photography of the street was something that had been pretty well trampled," he says. Part of Galassi's effort is to open up the Museum of Modern Art, which has long championed the modernist tradition, to a somewhat broader range of stylistic vistas into which photography has ventured. Another part of the effort is to reveal common ground among warring artistic factions - modernists and post-modernists - that fuel the art-world debate over the direction of photography. In one corner have been artists such as Cindy Sherman and Laurie Simmons, both of whom criticize traditional feminine roles as they have been represented through the media and popular culture. In these two women's pointed recreations of such roles they also criticize the supposed "veracity" of the traditional photograph. In another corner are artists such as Lee Friedlander, William Eggleston, and perhaps Nicholas Nixon, all of whom draw upon the formal issues of the modern tradition, and seek a direct engagement of the viewer's sympathies. Gregory Crewdson created the beautiful yet unnerving color-window view with insects mentioned earlier. His artificial diorama is cleverly conceived at once to delight, deceive, and startle the eye. Mr. Crewdson combines both traditional and Post-Modern attitudes and aims to establish a middle ground between the extremes. "The fact that the scene is fabricated is important to me," he says, "since the notion of suburbia that I have received is a product of the media. "I'm examining a mythology that surrounds the domestic in America, a myth that has been shaped in film, TV, magazines. I grew up in Brooklyn and my experience is separated from the ideal of domestic bliss, or the notion of small-town life. For me, this is not a cynical view because in a funny way, I embrace the mythology. What I'm trying to do is make beautiful pictures." Nicholas Nixon crafted a black-and-white nighttime scene of his wife and children in bed with a storybook. In it, he balances forms, choreographs lively shapes, and self-consciously plays light against dark, building on modernist formal concerns. The emotional content of Mr. Nixon's work is sincere, the formal considerations resolute. That he is showing his work in a context shared by Post-Modern works brings forth this self-deprecating response: "I was amused to find I'm the old-fashioned guy who has a happy family and makes corny pictures It is reassuring to see that home life can be as tender as this mother with her children. Nixon's work, he says, addresses "the pleasure of being one of those fathers who works part time and who could be ar ound a lot, more than my own father was." For him, the domestic scene is "an artistic bounty. To be around the children a lot, I was able to express some of my feelings about them." The range of works on display here is remarkably broad, and curator Galassi is chary about making sweeping generalizations. But the issue of narrative is alive in most of the works. Does the image tell the truth? Can it tell the truth? Can we draw any definite conclusions from what is seen, staged, recorded? In fact, many photographs engage the viewer inconclusively. What does one make of Tina Barney's large-scale color print, "The Landscape"? Her camera seems to capture an inadvertent moment (though it too may be staged): four people, dressed in casual WASP-style, standing before a fireplace in a well-appointed interior. The two men are self-absorbed, one thumbing through a book (titled "The Landscape"), the other looking right, a dog in his arm. A young girl leans forward, close by the lens but indifferent to it. Any meaning seems contained in the eyes of the young woman standing behind the two men. She seems mischievously interested in the man with the book, or perhaps just the book. All that seems certain here is that the viewer is not immediately welcome. A work such as this illustrates another key point. Photography, notes Galassi, "relies all the more deeply on the narratives we are able to imagine."
'Pleasures and Terrors of Domestic Comfort' travels in the coming year to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Baltimore Museum of Art, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.