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REVIEW

A baseball doubleheader

Two exhibits show off photographers' ability to frame the game

By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / July 24, 2011

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Some sports are more photo-friendly than others. Think of how seamlessly baseball integrates pause within play. A base runner crouches before attempting a steal. A pitcher stops at the top of his windup. A hitter cocks his bat waiting for a pitch. These are already images, instants frozen in time. All they need to be hung on a wall are frames. The photographer Robert Adams has described the condition a great photograph aspires to as “a tension so exact it is peace.’’ Baseball fans understand.

For that matter, the sport has long reserved a special place for photographs in its folkways. Ask anyone who collects baseball cards.

So even as games are being played at Fenway Park, baseball is happening at the Griffin Museum by Silver Digital Imaging, newly opened in the South End, and at the Panopticon Gallery, in Kenmore Square. “Sox Shots,’’ at the Griffin, runs through Sept. 19. “Let’s Play Ball’’ is on until Sept. 6.

The South End facility is a satellite space of the Griffin Museum of Photography, in Winchester. The museum is in a handsome Dutch colonial building - handsome and a mite cramped. To compensate for its size, the museum has an additional operation in Winchester, as well as one each in Stoneham and Cambridge. This newest Griffin location is an airy, attractive space in the basement of A Street Framers, across the street from the offices of Boston Ballet and around the corner from Hamersley’s Bistro.

The Griffin’s founder and namesake, Arthur Griffin (1903-2001), was a New England photojournalist whose work appeared in the Globe, Life, Time, The Saturday Evening Post, and elsewhere. Among other accomplishments, he took the first color pictures of both Ted Williams and Joe Louis.

Both “Sox Shots’’ and “Let’s Play Ball’’ feature Griffin’s photographs. The most startling shot of Williams isn’t by Griffin, though. It’s “Ted Williams With a Movie Camera,’’ from the Boston Public Library’s Leslie Jones Collection. A charming image in and of itself, it’s also an amusing, if inadvertent, comment on Williams’s famous feuding with the press. Looking through a viewfinder, he has leapfrogged his print oppressors by joining the electronic media.

An even more enchanting image shows Luis Tiant and Johnny Bench at home plate, so it must be the 1975 World Series. Looie leans on his bat. The elegant stance, the insouciant air: El Tiante could be Fred Astaire (one man’s bat being another’s cane). Which sort of makes Bench Ginger Rogers. Cheek to cheek? Well, cheek to face mask, anyway.

A woman as lovely as Rogers figures in three baseball-themed fashion images from White/Packert Photography. They bear the disconcerting title “Play Ball - Fort Meyers.’’ Clearly, neither spelling nor geography is on the spring training to-do list.

Panopticon’s “Let’s Play Ball’’ comes in three parts (with a few stray baseball-related images thrown in). The most unusual consists of a dozen photographs from David Levinthal’s “Baseball’’ series. The subjects are dolls of famous ballplayers shown either in characteristic poses (Derek Jeter and Ted Williams stand at the plate, ready to hit) or at famous moments (Willie Mays making his over-the-shoulder catch in the 1954 World Series, Carlton Fisk waving fair his home run in the sixth game of the ’75 series).

What’s startling is how recognizable the dolls are. The only time this viewer found himself corrected by a label was when he mistook Rollie Fingers for Dennis Eckersley. If you’ve seen one mustache-wearing, Oakland A’s Hall of Fame reliever you’ve seen them all? Somehow Levinthal has managed to evoke the quintessence of these players. As if to underscore that what he’s showing is how they appear in the mind’s eye rather than in the particularity of newsprint or pixels, the images are slightly blurred. Gods do not answer letters, John Updike famously noted. Nor do they necessarily appear in focus.

There are a dozen Griffin photos, most of Williams. They’re all from 1939. He looks so young! Granted, he was just 19, but he somehow looks even younger. He could almost belong to a species related to our own but more interesting - the high cheekbones, the narrow eyes, the sense of gawky joy - and perhaps more advanced.

One photo, presumably taken at a pregame ceremony, shows Williams standing between his teammate Dom DiMaggio and a Navy sailor in a wheelchair. In an utterly unaffected way, he grasps each man’s hand. Baseball suddenly seems beside the point, compared to so simple a human gesture.

Larger human concerns very much figure in “Negro League Baseball: Photographs by Ernest C. Withers.’’ It’s a thrill to see such stars as Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby, and Ernie Banks (future Hall of Famers all) share a dugout. It’s a different kind of thrill to notice that the familiar face in the upper-left-hand corner of “The 1948 Birmingham Barons After Defeating the Memphis Red Sox’’ belongs to another future Hall of Famer. Say who? Say hey: a very young Willie Mays. But amid the fan pleasure of seeing these pictures of a bygone era is the reminder they provide of how the national pastime reflected the nation’s racism.

In a gallery so close to Fenway, the name Memphis Red Sox carries a grim irony. That business about the Sox being cursed? It’s true, all right, but has nothing to do with all that Bambino nonsense. They were the last team in Major League Baseball to field a black player. Doubly damaging, this was moral crime as competitive blunder. Prejudice doomed the franchise to nearly two decades of mediocrity.

There’s a special aptness to the Withers photos sharing the same space with those of Williams. In his Hall of Fame induction speech, Williams urged the inclusion of Negro League players at Cooperstown. This was no mainstream view in 1966. The Splendid Splinter may have been a diehard Republican (people forget that Williams’s campaigning with George H.W. Bush the weekend before the New Hampshire primary helped swing the state to him). But he was a diehard Republican when the GOP still prided itself on being the party of Lincoln.

It’s not all baseball at Panopticon. “Building/Images’’ offers the work of two young photographers, Liz Ellenwood and Greer Muldowney, who focus on urban architecture, and collages by Jim Fitts, former executive director of the Photographic Resource Center at Boston University. So “building,’’ in the title, is an adjective for Ellenwood and Muldowney and a verb for Fitts.

Ellenwood’s cityscapes show Boston (slices of facades, interestingly juxtaposed), Muldowney’s Hong Kong. The latter is a LEGO landscape of tall, slender rectangles. The overall effect is of alluring artifice - the world’s largest diorama? - marked by a cool, aloof beauty.

Fitts’s pieces, 11 inches square, present layerings of information. He takes a magpie pleasure in assemblage: stamps, photographs, ticket stubs, newsprint, wrapping paper, snapshots, postcards, a parking ticket, even half a panel from a “Little Orphan Annie’’ comic strip. Fitts also shows a croupier’s ability to shuffle unpredictably. The one constant is visual pleasure.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.

SOX SHOTS

Griffin Museum by Digital Silver Imaging, 4 Clarendon St., through Sept. 19. 857-239-9240, www.griffinmuseum.org/ exhibition-digital-silver- imaging-boston.htm.

LET’S PLAY BALL and

BUILDING/IMAGES

Panopticon Gallery, 502c Commonwealth Ave., through Sept. 6. 617-267-8929, www.panopticongallery.com