`Knockout' of a Photo Show

Astutely chosen works covering 150 years offer dazzling proof the camera can produce art. PHOTOGRAPHY: REVIEW

ANYONE with lingering doubts about photography's qualification as art had better take a long, hard look at ``Photography Until Now'' at the Museum of Modern Art here. If this exhibition doesn't provide convincing proof, even to the most serious skeptic, that photography can indeed be art, nothing will. To begin with, it's huge and remarkably inclusive, with 275 photographs dating from 1839 (William Fox Talbot's ``Leaf'') to today (Nicholas Nixon's ``Tom Moran''). And it's diverse, with images ranging from portraits, architectural studies, and depictions of war, to still lifes, advertising and journalistic photos, and humorous pictures of dogs.

But most important, it was judiciously selected by John Szarkowski, director of the museum's department of photography, to serve as a guide to the medium's history, high points, and numerous creative and technical approaches. It's also the museum's first loan exhibition to survey photography's evolution since Beaumont Newhall's landmark centenary presentation, ``Photography: 1839-1939.''

In assembling such an exhibition, however, Mr. Szarkowski chose a different approach than that of earlier colleagues. Rather than treating the creative accomplishments of photography's finest practitioners and the technical evolution of the medium as unrelated issues, he presents them as always in dynamic interaction. Throughout the exhibition, technical development and individual talent, social and economic challenge, and personal response are played off against one another to illuminate both the work and its technological and cultural context.

As he moves the viewer from the images of 1839 to those of the present, Szarkowski also traces the history of photography's various technical processes. He begins with the daguerreotype and the calotype (in use until about 1860), and then moves on to the collodion (wet plate) process, popular from roughly 1855 to 1880. These are followed in 1880 by the gelatin or dry emulsion process, and finally around 1890 by photomechanical reproduction, which made the photographically illustrated newspaper and the picture magazine possible. The exhibition concludes with the period since 1960, during which picture magazines declined, and television altered everyone's perception of photography. Now the medium has moved into a new era of technical and conceptual experimentation - but mostly for private creative ends.

The viewer, of course, need pay no attention to the historical or technological aspects of the exhibition. One can concentrate exclusively on the work itself and thoroughly enjoy the show. I heartily recommend this approach, at least during the first time around, for it is the most pleasurable way of experiencing the work and also the best way to see it as art.

No matter how one approaches it, however, the show is a knockout and, to my view, another of the many first-rate exhibitions of this remarkable 1989-90 art season.

Almost everything in the show is so crisp and clear and unquestionably authentic that it leaves the impression its primary purpose may have been to define (or redefine) photography itself. Gone are the all-too-numerous painting-inspired photographic images that dominated the medium during so much of the 19th century. Gone also are the numerous slickly silvered or overly contrasting black-and-white images of the 1920s, '30s, and '40s. In their place is only what one senses is native to the medium, only what lends itself easily to the process by which photographs are made and what they do best.

The result is the first major photography show of its kind that I've really enjoyed and been moved by. Particularly impressive is the extraordinary ``graphic'' quality (I can think of no better way to put it) of so many of the images. They project such a sense of immediacy and are so perfectly realized that one cannot imagine them existing in any other medium.

It would be impossible, for instance, to imagine Charles N`egre's ``South Porch, Chartres Cathedral'' (c. 1856) in any other medium. The same is true of Alfred Stieglitz's studies of Georgia O'Keeffe's hands (1920); Diane Arbus's haunting, untitled study of five gaudily masked women (1970-71); and Chris Killip's subtly disquieting 1987 picture of a young girl playing with a hoop on a cluttered beach.

On the other hand, it would be equally impossible for me to single out a half-dozen or so photographs as particularly outstanding. Twenty-five or 30 would be easier, and I suspect that even after I had narrowed the list down to 75, I would really prefer to stop.

This excellent and important show closes at the Museum of Modern Art on May 29. It then travels to the Cleveland Museum of Art, where it can been seen from June 27 through Aug. 19.

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