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PHOTOGRAPHY REVIEW

Finding a sharper focus as technology shifted

'Dorothy True' (1919) by Alfred Stieglitz is on view in the show, which has been imaginatively curated. "Dorothy True" (1919) by Alfred Stieglitz is on view in the show, which has been imaginatively curated. (Courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / August 7, 2011

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A camera is a machine as a paintbrush and chisel are not. That didn’t sit well with aesthetically ambitious photographers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They sought the status of fine artists by suppressing their medium’s technological nature. Pictorialism, as this school of photography was called, employed gauzy visual effects and genteel subject matter in the pursuit of painting by darkroom means.

Photography eventually did gain fine art status - though in one of cultural history’s neater ironies it did so by emphasizing the medium’s technological nature. Pictures became sharper, crisper, tougher - in content as well as form. Technology itself contributed to the change, thanks to improvements in equipment, film processes as well as cameras.

Among the many pleasures afforded by “Modernist Photography: 1910-1950’’ is getting to see this transition right before your eyes. The show, which is the second installation in the gallery dedicated to photography in the Art of the Americas Wing at the Museum of Fine Arts, runs through April 1.

The 32 photographs share space with an Alexander Archipenko bronze and Charles Sheeler painting. Their presence is a sign of how imaginatively curator Karen Haas has put together the show.

The Archipenko - smooth, gleaming, coiled - is a three-dimensional equivalent to the emerging photographic look “Modernist Photography’’ celebrates. The Sheeler shows a Pittsburgh steel mill, a subject echoing his two photographs here, from his celebrated 1927 series on the Ford River Rouge plant. Photographers had begun attending to assembly lines and coffee shops as seriously as their predecessors had to flower-filled vases and domestic idylls.

Haas makes the show seem larger than it is through juxtaposition. Those 32 pictures do the work of a lot more. Frederick Sommer’s “Arizona Landscape’’ hangs next to a photograph, a quite striking one, of some saguaro cactuses. That’s sensible enough. What’s unexpected is who took it, Aaron Siskind, that master of urban grit and minutely examined detritus. Next to the Siskind is an Edward Weston of sand dunes. A few photographs away is a dorsal nude Weston took of his future wife, Charis Wilson - which inevitably recalls two of the photographer’s most famous images, of her sprawled naked on a dune. They become a shadow presence on the wall. For that matter, the two little girls’ Halloween masks in Helen Levitt’s “New York’’ recall the contemporaneous image of a naked Wilson wearing a gas mask.

The show offers numerous such surprises and connections, enlarging and deepening its impact. The more you look, the more visual interrelationships emerge. Another wall, for example, consists of six automotive photos, plus one ringer - not that you would necessarily notice the consistency of theme, it’s presented so subtly.

Yes, those are two parked cars (one just barely visible) behind the famous close-up of a woman’s slim calf and ankle in Lisette Model’s “Running Legs.’’ In John Gutmann’s “Carhops, Drive-in Restaurant, Hollywood,’’ you can’t have those titular attendants without the vehicles that give them their name - and in Gutmann’s “The Artist Lives Dangerously, San Francisco,’’ the danger comes from traffic. The family seen on a billboard in Margaret Bourke-White’s “The American Way of Life’’ are driving. The pertinence of Berenice Abbott’s “Gasoline Station,’’ with its humanoid-looking trio of pumps, speaks for itself. Come to think of it, those pumps look a bit like Siskind’s saguaros. You have to look closely to figure out that the accused in Weegee’s “Frank Pape, Arrested for Homicide’’ is situated in a patrol wagon, but so he is.

Dorothea Lange’s “Cable Car’’ is the ringer. It certainly shows a means of transport, though, and it has a city in common with Gutmann’s artist. And - the real payoff - it’s another close-up of a woman’s lower legs, making it sister to the Model, at the other end of the wall. (On the subject of women’s legs, Alfred Stieglitz’s “Dorothy True,’’ on the wall to the right, makes three. Clearly, Haas had a lot of fun curating this show.)

Appreciation of an arrival begins with some sense of the departure. It’s easy to make fun of the vaporous pretensions of Pictorialism. But the style was capable of ravishing effects. A quartet of small platinum prints of New York that Karl Struss took in 1911 and 1912 possess a wondrous delicacy. So does Stieglitz’s 1915 platinum print “From the Back Window - ‘291’ (2).’’ A Renaissance painter might envy the sfumato effect his picture of Manhattan rooftops achieves. What gives the image such visual power, though, is how it balances mass and texture.

Both Struss and Stieglitz are coming to grips with the city, giving up a precious two-dimensional loveliness (precious in both senses of the word) for the richer, more robust possibilities presented by modern life. The world was changing radically in these years, and photography was changing with it. “A mythology reflects its region,’’ Wallace Stevens wrote; and in its approaches an inherently documentary medium can’t help but reflect the reality it records. Does that statement verge on tautology? Very well then, technology meets tautology - and produces art.

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

MODERNIST PHOTOGRAPHY: 1910-1950

At: Museum of Fine Arts, through April 1. 617-267-9300, www.mfa.org