Looking at the US through many lenses

You won't find wide-open landscapes à la Ansel Adams or Babe Ruth swinging over home plate on the walls at three American photo shows in New York this summer. Instead, you'll discover three distinct takes on American culture.

The images of New York City and America – ranging from the perspective of Jewish photographers to contemporary artists like Cindy Sherman – are showing at the Jewish Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Whitney Museum. They chronicle the history of photography over more than a century through different lenses, revealing the ups and downs of our polyglot society.

The photographers break into two camps: those concerned with aesthetics and those promoting social justice. In the "beauty" camp is Alvin Langdon Coburn, who viewed New York in 1912 as a stage set to enact art for art's sake. At the other extreme, highlighting art for humanity's sake, is a lefty like Ben Shahn, who focused on New York actors in the 1930s – and the inequities they suffered – rather than on the stage.

The exhibits remind us that people are capable of creating beautiful art and ugly circumstances – and transcending both through individual expression.

New York, New York: Photographs from the Collection at the Met until Aug. 25 shows 60 photographers from the 1850s to the 1970s. The Met excels at classics, and there are plenty of them in this show. There are heavy-hitters who shaped US photography, replete with iconic images like Edward Steichen's "Flatiron Building" (1904).

The images provide a survey of trends in photography in the last century, such as Pictorialism's soft-focus shots, designed to transform reality into metaphoric tableaux worthy of "high art." Alfred Stieglitz's "The Terminal" (1892) elevates a street scene of steaming horses being unleashed from a trolley into a painterly composition.

In the social reformist camp was Lewis Hine, who focused on exposing working conditions that exploited children. In "Boy Carrying Hat Boxes, Bleecher Street" (1912), a child appears literally swallowed by burden.

Two sides of the urban coin are evident. The show pictures New York throbbing with vitality as well as aching with loneliness. Leon Levinstein reveals the city's bright side, with "Handball Players, Lower East Side, New York" (1958) capturing players in motion. Meanwhile, Weegee (Arthur Fellig) focuses on two bums warming their hands over a trash-can fire during the Depression.

The Jewish Museum's New York: Capital of Photography through Sept. 2, includes lesser-known photographers, offering opportunity for discovery. Its show is more offbeat than upbeat, showing the underside of the urban mecca. It highlights humanistic images by socially conscious artists to illustrate the theory that Jewish photographers identified with unfortunate people on the margins of society.

At least 100 color and black-and-white prints by 60 photographers offer a look at the last century. Most images reflect a movement known as the New York School of Street Photography.

These shots of unglamorous subjects are purposely down to earth. Walker Evans's subway riders are grim portraits of anxiety. The '40s aroused patriotic feelings, as crowds reveled in places like Times Square. In Diane Arbus's "The Jewish Giant at Home with His Parents, Bronx, New York" (1970), a man hunches over to avoid hitting the ceiling, as his parents, who are much shorter, look amazed.

Visions from America: Photographs from the Whitney Museum of American Art, 1940-2001, through Sept. 22, offers more about ideas than beautiful iconic images. What you'll find is a tale of how nonphotographers use photography in their artwork, and how photo-based media have become pervasive in contemporary art.

The exhibit includes 140 works by 130 artists. Many, like Andy Warhol, Chuck Close, and Lucas Samaras, use the medium to create fine art but are not considered photographers. Some are conceptual artists who record happenings.

The show starts with the two poles: New York Street Photography, grabbing slices of social reality, and formal photography, a parallel to Abstract Expressionism, as in Aaron Siskind's composition of a gouged wall that looks like a Jackson Pollock drip painting. More recent work divides into the blunt naturalism of William Eggleston versus fantasy scenes by Sandy Skoglund, faked for the camera.

In more recent decades, photographers took up personal themes or exposed fissures under the mainstream. In Jim Goldberg's "Playing Chicken" (1988-89), a homeless child teeters on a cliff, deprived of a social safety net.

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