'Seeing Now' amounts to a 'Who's Who' of American photography

The well-heeled matron in Diane Arbus' 1968 photo resembles no one so much as the Muppet Miss Piggy, with her silver curls peeking out beneath a turban, oversized pearl earrings and dramatic makeup. The fur collar she wears is so white, long and fluffy, it seems about to swallow her head.

"Woman with a Veil on Fifth Avenue, N.Y.C." is unquestionably arresting — but it's merely one of 200 striking images in "Seeing Now," an exhibit at the Baltimore Museum of Art opening Sunday.

The 60 photographers in the show amount to a "Who's Who" of the prominent American camera artists of the last half-century. They include Cindy Sherman's chameleon-like photographs of herself in various guises, William Christenberry's mythical-seeming buildings and Larry Clark's harrowing shots of meth addicts.

"Seeing Now", which is drawn from the museum's collection, consists of photographs shot between 1960 and 2010. It is the sequel to the 2008 exhibit that focused on photographers from the first half of the 20th century.

"Some of these images haven't been shown publicly since we acquired them," says Anne Mannix, the BMA's public relations director. Because film is a light-sensitive medium, she said, there are strict limits governing how frequently and under what conditions photographs can be displayed.

Mannix added that photography wasn't fully accepted as a legitimate form of art until about 1960. That's when museums began seriously collecting photographs and art schools began offering courses on photography history and techniques.

As a result, the field exploded.

Photographers began engaging with the social and technological trends that dominated this period of American culture, and "Seeing Now" contains early examples of video and films. Artists also started experimenting with conceptual forms of photography, using this supposedly literal medium to explore time and reality.

"This is a show that really engages your mind," Mannix said.

"Seeing Now" opens at 11 a.m. Sunday and runs through May 20 at the Baltimore Museum of Art, 10 Art Museum Drive. Free. Call 443-573-1700 or go to http://www.artbma.org.

—Mary McCauley

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