Candida Hofer's photo of the George Peabody Library of Baltimore is part of "Candida Hofer: Interior Worlds," which is on display at the Baltimore Museum of Art through late February.
Candida Hofer's photo of the George Peabody Library of Baltimore is part of "Candida Hofer: Interior Worlds," which is on display at the Baltimore Museum of Art through late February. (Candida Hofer, Courtesy of Sonnabend Gallery)

Move over, Louvre. Show some respect, Basel's Bibliothek.

A new exhibit at the Baltimore Museum of Art makes the case that two iconic Baltimore buildings can take their place in the first rank of the world's architectural gems. And that's not just the opinion of local boosters; that's the way the buildings are portrayed by an acclaimed German photographer.

In "Candida Hofer: Interior Worlds," the artist's rendition of the Louvre shares wall space with her serenely elegant view of an Italian Renaissance courtroom inside the Walters Art Museum.

And the world-famous Library of the Archiginnasio in Bologna, Italy, appears not one whit more luxuriously ornamental than the cast-iron fretwork adorning Charm City's own George Peabody Library.

"You look at these photographs, and you say to yourself, 'These buildings are here? In America?," says the Walters' director, Gary Vikan. "They read as though they were in Italy."

The exhibit imbues the city's image with a patina of class that's in marked contrast to its long-standing reputation for quirky charm, at best, and grittiness, at worst.

When strangers are asked about Baltimore, they tend to talk about the HBO cable television series "The Wire," in which the city was the exemplar for a host of social ills afflicting urban America. Or they may have seen John Waters' cult films, which are shot locally and include an actor pretending to eat dog poop.

Now, future exhibit-goers the world over may also marvel at our city's beauty. Four of the 13 photographs in "Interior Worlds" are of local buildings, and this is their public unveiling.

Hofer was Germany's representative in the 2003 Venice Biennale, the world's most prestigious contemporary art exhibit, and has shown widely throughout North America and Europe. After the Baltimore show closes in February, it's likely that the local images will be included in subsequent collections of her work.

"We are excited and delighted that these shining new images of Baltimore are debuting here at our museum," says Kristen Hileman, the BMA's curator of contemporary art.

For his part, Winston Tabb, dean of the the Johns Hopkins University libraries, including the Peabody, wasn't surprised by Hofer's request to photograph his institution.

"The George Peabody Library is monumental in scope, a true temple to books, and it easily holds its own with the most awe-inspiring libraries in Europe," Tabb says.

"When you're inside the library, you just naturally aspire and think and dream. You look upward and outward. This space makes you do that."

And though Vikan has been working at the Walters for the past 26 years, he never tires of the panorama of marble and light that presents itself when he walks through the front door.

"Candida Hofer brought things out in this hyper-familiar piece of architecture that made me look at it with new eyes," he says.

"This building has been here for 102 years, but she did a dance with it aesthetically that made it do something it's never done before. And it's not an illusion. She did nothing to manipulate the space."

The 67-year-old Hofer has an international reputation for bringing the conventions of painting to her large-scale photographs of museums, libraries, universities, theaters and other centers of public cultural life.

Many of the buildings she shoots are commonly recognized as works of art in their own right, and she treats them as such. Her photographs are six and seven feet long and nearly as tall — large enough to command attention, yet small enough to be taken in at one viewing.

The artist says she's been yearning to photograph the Peabody for several years, after she first stumbled across a photograph in a book about the 1878 creation by Baltimore architect Edmund Lind. But Hofer wasn't aware of the Walters until she visited Baltimore for the first time in September 2010, at the urging of philanthropist and art collectors Robert E. Meyerhoff and Rheda Becker.

"There is always a sort of silent wish list, and the Peabody Library has been on it since quite some time," Hofer writes in an email. "To have the Walters go with it is a kind of premium. It is increasingly difficult to access such spaces for my kind of work, so I am very grateful for this opportunity."

The limitations of which Hofer speaks refers to the conditions under which she shoots.

She doesn't use an electrical flash or other special effects, relying instead on available, natural light. She takes the physical environment as she finds it and makes almost no changes, though she acknowledges having slightly repositioned one table and chair at the Peabody.

And her photographs are strikingly absent of human inhabitants.

That means that the artist must shoot during prime daylight hours — at the precise time when public buildings tend to be the most heavily occupied. It is at these times that the venues for Hofer are at their most active and eloquent.

Without human occupants, "spaces become more outspoken about what they do for people, about what they do to people and what people have done to them," Hofer writes, "just like an absent guest captures the conversation of those present."

Luckily for the artist, the Peabody and Walters both are closed to the public on Mondays. (The Walters also is closed Tuesdays.) So it was relatively easy to accommodate Hofer's request to devote parts of three days on the shoot in the fall of 2010.

Some critics find Hofer's work austere and cold. But though human beings might not physically inhabit the frames on display at the Baltimore Museum of Art, their presence is felt everywhere.

The galleries of the Louvre are crowded with marble statues that were modeled on living humans, while a bust seems to have alighted temporarily on a shelf in Bologna's communal library, where someone just moved it. In Hofer's photograph of Harvard University's Art Museum, a textbook rests on a table, while a jacket flops over the back of a chair.

In addition, every photograph in the exhibit contains at least one small physical flaw or adjustment to modern life. The artist intentionally places these anachronisms front and center.

For instance, the floor in the Bologna library is marred by a long, C-shaped seam. A marble step on the exuberantly rococo marble staircase in Paris' Palais Garnier contains a discernible chip, where it presumably has been worn away by millions of feet. And the Walters' expansive floor of white marble contains an electrical outlet covered by a yellow brass plate.

These small defects imbue the images with warmth, because they demonstrate that these public spaces continue to be a vital and heavily used part of urban life.

"I think these imperfections, as you call them, are inherent in spaces that have history and are part of their personality," Hofer writes. "It is almost like self-irony."

Nor is that the only pleasant paradox that the exhibit poses.

Doreen Bolger, director of the Baltimore Museum of Art, acknowledges experiencing the tiniest bit of good-natured envy that Hofer photographed the Walters instead of her own institution. Apparently the artist wasn't motivated to pull out her camera on first beholding the 1914 Roman temple facade fronting the building where Bolger works.

"The Peabody and the Walters are so iconic that it's hard to imagine any other spaces in Baltimore being photographed," Bolger says. "Of course, one always wishes that it was your museum that had been selected."

For his part, Vikan would have loved to have had the Walters, and not the BMA, host an exhibit that celebrates the beauty of his institution. But he can see the advantages in locating the show in the museum four miles to the north.

"We're in effect two museums at the opposite ends of the same long road that support one another," he says. "I think it's really kind of sweet. We both serve the community in complementary ways."


If you go

"Candida Hofer: Interior Worlds" runs through Feb. 26 at the Baltimore Museum of Art, 10 Art Museum Drive. Free. Call 443-573-1700 or go to artbma.org.