IN celebration of the 150th anniversary of the invention of photography, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has mounted a major exhibition of photographic images produced during the first three decades of this century. ``The New Vision: Photography Between the World Wars'' consists of 125 rare and distinguished works by over 70 European and American masters representing almost every aspect of the medium. The exhibition was selected by Maria Morris Hambourg from the 500-photograph Ford Motor Company collection donated to the Metropolitan in 1987 by John C. Waddell and the company.
Hardly anyone of stature is excluded, whether they were professional photographers (Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, Walker Evans) or artists better known in other fields (Constantin Brancusi, Josef Albers, Walter Gropius).
There also are individual surprises, such as the fascinating study of a young armadillo by Dora Maar, one of Picasso's most celebrated models and companions.
There is also the unbelievable shot by Lewis Hine of a construction worker riding a cable high above Manhattan; and the still shattering picture taken in 1937 of the German dirigible Hindenburg bursting into flames over Lakehurst, N.J.
Most of the works on view reflect a predominantly exploratory or innovative approach to photography. As Philippe de Montebello, the Metropolitan Museum's director, writes in the exhibition catalog:
``After the war a new generation of photographers turned from painterly styles and took radically different directions. Some of these young artists espoused the aesthetic principles of avant-garde movements - Dadaism, Surrealism, Futurism, Constructivism; others were unaligned. But they all shared the belief that photography provided the appropriate technology and methods to record modern life. Indeed, much of the most progressive art of the 1920s and 1930s owes a great debt to their photographic vision.''
In fact, as the works of Man Ray, Raoul Hausmann, El Lissitzky, Marcel Duchamp, and a few others in the show indicate, some of the most advanced art of the 1918-38 period actually was produced by photographers or by painters and sculptors using the camera for specific formal or experimental purposes.
Man Ray's rayographs and Moholy-Nagy's photograms, in particular, were every bit as ``avant-garde'' as anything produced by Picasso or Mondrian during the 1920s.
And for sheer organizational daring, few painters of the period could match the best of Walker Evans's or Ralph Steiner's architectural studies.
MODERN buildings, factories, and machines played a major role in photography between the World Wars, both by creating new, largely urban subject matter and by focusing the camera's attention on complex, tightly organized surface patterns.
Bernice Abbott's ``Exchange Place'' and Mieczyslaw Berman's ``On The Construction Site,'' for instance, both celebrate the Cubist aesthetic and elaborate on it, while Paul Strand's closely cropped and exquisitely simplified and balanced ``Akeley Motion Picture Camera'' appears almost abstract at first glance.
On the other hand, by depicting a worker effectively interlocked with the machine he is operating, Lewis Hine's classic 1921 ``Steamfitter'' permits a welcome touch of humanism to enter the often overly idealized and cold machine world created by photographers shortly after World War I.
By contrast, Margaret Bourke-White offers a somewhat ominous forecast of man's possible dominance by his constructions in ``Fort Peck Dam, Montana,'' and Cesar Domela elaborates on the stifling effect factories can have on workers in his 1928 ``Photomontage.''
Formalism and technical experimentation don't dominate this exhibition, however. Such photographers as Helen Levitt, Andr'e Kertesz, Eugene Atget, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Weegee, and Brassai provide significant social comment as well.
There also are portraits, fashion studies, fanciful images produced by montage and superimposition (Wanda Wulz's ``Cat and I'' is especially effective), nudes, movie stills, and even one of Edward Weston's striking desert scenes.
Even so, at first glance this exhibition might not seem like much to those familiar only with today's more exuberant museum and gallery presentations.
There's no color (except for a touch of brown in Berman's ``On The Construction Site''), everything is small and compact, and even the most provocative images are ``tamed'' by their modest size and silver or gray tonalities.
IN most instances, the viewer must move toward the work in order to grasp its intentions rather than away from it as is usually the case in today's exhibits.
But that's all to the good. Once drawn in, the viewer will almost certainly remain close and attentive for the entire show and will only ``surface'' when the last photograph has been examined.
After its closing at the Met on Dec. 31, ``The New Vision'' travels to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (Feb. 28-April 22, 1990) the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (May 10-July 15, 1990); the Art Institute of Chicago (Sept. 15-Dec. 1, 1990); the High Museum of Art, Atlanta (Feb. 5-April 28, 1991); and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (June 8-Aug. 4, 1991).