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Framing a Century of American Change

News photos, pictorial fantasies, and digital products from the Hallmark Photographic Collection confront the modern age

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`AN American Century of Photography: From Dry-Plate to Digital,'' currently on display at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo., begins with a forward leap and concludes with a backward glance.

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Eadweard Muybridge's ``High Jump'' (1885), an innovative series of 24 stop-action photographs of an athlete hurdling a high bar, is an appropriate metaphor for photography's advance into the modern age. Abelardo Morrell's ``Camera Obscura Image of Houses Across the Street in Our Bedroom'' (1991), on the other hand, is an elegiac allusion to the origins of the medium.

Plugging the gap between them - spanning a century of art and science, poetry and technology, mass media and private expression -

are 250 images drawn from the Hallmark Photographic Collection of Kansas City, a 2,600-picture archive that is perhaps the most important corporate collection of photographs in America. Because the pictures are arranged in chronological order, a walk through the museum galleries is like catching the flight of history on the wing, fragmenting it into a series of swift glimpses.

Apart from the extraordinary range of the photographs - news photos, avant-garde experiments, pictorial fantasies, propaganda messages, digital products - is the exceptional way they have been organized by curator Keith Davis. The exhibition has been divided into four 25-year sections, the images in each juxtaposed with an ingenuity that is at once enlightening, informative, and provocative.

For example, one of the themes of the first section, ``A Reluctant Modernism (1890-1915),'' is the ambivalent attitudes that surfaced late in the 19th century regarding technological and social change. Placed next to William Rau's ``York Narrows'' (1895), a view of railroad tracks bisecting a pristine landscape, is Robert Redfield's ``Near Lake Waramaug'' (1890), an old-fashioned bit of rural-village nostalgia. Contrasted with Adam Clark Vroman's ``The Moqui Snake Dance'' (1895), an objective, ethnographic documentation of a vanishing tribal custom, is Edward S. Curtis's ``Wishnam Fisherman'' (1909), a contrived, romanticized stereotype of American Indian life.

The remaining three sections of the exhibition reveal a variety of ways photographers confronted the progress and change of the new century. In ``Abstraction and Realism, (1915-1940),'' the work of Ralph Steiner, Lewis Hine, Laura Gilpin, Alfred Stieglitz, and Alvin Langdon Coburn (among many others) documents and interprets the machine age.

In ``Public and Private Concerns, 1940-1965,'' information and propaganda are the central - and sometimes contradictory - preoccupations in the work of wartime photographers like Joe Rosenthal (``Iwo Jima,'' 1945) and William Vandivert (``Dead Prisoner, Gardelegen, April 17, 1945''); and home-front artists such as Helen Levitt (her delicate ``New York'' series from the early 1940s) and Gordon Parks (his disturbing ``Emerging Man,'' 1952).

Finally, many of the innovations in photographic and communications technology are reflected in the section called ``The Image Transformed, 1956-Present.'' NASA photographs of the moon by the Surveyor landing craft can be compared to pictures transmitted by a graphic science teleprinter, as in William Larson's ``Electrocarbon Drawing'' (1975).

Significantly, the scientific project and the avowedly ``artistic'' image possess more than a few characteristics in common.

Included in this fourth category are digitally generated images by Nancy Burson (``Big Brother,'' 1983) and Peter Campus (``Decay,'' 1991).

In conventional photography, images are created by the action of light passing through a lens to strike a piece of light-sensitive film. In the new technology of digital photography, however, sensors convert lens-formed images into a binary numerical code that is stored electronically, and which may be retrieved at any time and translated back into tonal values for a print.

This binary code can be manipulated at will to create fundamental reconfigurations of the original data.

By concluding the exhibition with quiet, more-traditional images, however, exhibition curator Davis makes it clear that this new ``virtual reality'' will never replace the traditional photograph.

One of the most poignant images in this section makes his point: Milton Rogovin's ``Triptych'' compresses 18 years in the lives of a man and his granddaughter into three separate pictures - the first in 1973 when the middle-aged man stands by the infant's stroller; the second in 1985, when the elderly man and the young girl stand together; and the third in 1991, when the man is in a wheelchair, attended by his grown granddaughter. There's a poignant symmetry here, a documentation of the cycle of human life as well as a commentary on the camera's unique abilities to compress time.

There are surprises, of course. Some images by lesser-known artists defy classification altogether: haiku-like anecdotes of Harry Callahan (``Weed Against the Sky,'' 1948); pictorial fantasies by Jerry Uelsmann (the allegorical ``Small Woods Where I Met Myself'' (1967); and, most spectacularly, the wildly surreal ``Fox Games'' (1989) by Sandy Skoglund.

* ``An American Century of Photography'' ends its Kansas City run on Feb. 19.

Subsequent stops include the Mead Art Museum at Amherst College in Amherst, Mass., March 19-May 7; the International Center of Photography in New York, July 28-Oct. 4; and Auckland City Art Gallery in Auckland, New Zealand, Nov. 25-Feb. 18, 1996.

Ports of call in 1996 and 1997 include Melbourne and Sydney, Australia.