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'Seeing Now' is a potent and powerful tour of American photography

A teenage girl in a two-piece bathing suit stands on a sunlit beach, leaning slightly on one hip as she stares at the camera. From a distance, it could be an innocuous vacation snap shot, albeit one blown up to nearly 5-by-4-feet proportions.

But the more you look and the closer you get to Rineke Dijkstra's color print, "Hel. Poland, August 12, 1988," the deeper and stranger the photograph becomes. Maybe it's the bandage placed over the girl's navel, or the half-friendly expression on her face, but something tells you that all is not quite what it seems in this portrait against the sea and sky.

The eye takes in more and more of what is there, and starts to fill in what is not there.

That sort of experience is frequent in "Seeing Now: Photography Since 1960," the absorbing exhibit opening Sunday at the Baltimore Museum of Art. It's a big show — more than 200 items by more than 60 photographers, all from the BMA's own holdings — filled with images that surprise, fascinate, repel and haunt.

"This demonstrates, I think, the amazing depth and breadth of the museum's photo collection," said BMA director Doreen Bolger. "In many cases, this is the first time these light-sensitive works have been shown."

Kristen Hileman, the BMA's curator of contemporary art, spent the better part of a year putting the show together. She credits the efforts of other curators and collector-donors who helped to build the photographic treasury.

"It is remarkable to me that they had the foresight to begin collecting from the 1960s on," Hileman said. "This was an incredible opportunity for me to learn the collection. It was so hard choosing that there were even a few pieces I had to edit out during installation because there just wasn't room."

The exhibit provides a sequel to the 2008 BMA exhibit "Looking Through the Lens, 1900-1960." The 1960 starting point reflects "when our thinking about photography as an art medium had changed," Hileman said. "There was a decrease of photojournalism. Photography was making its way into museums and the fine-arts departments of colleges and universities."

"Seeing Now" explores ways photographers capture and interpret reality, how they choose a perspective that can allow the viewer to see the image from an entirely different one. Divided into a few large themes — people, places, performance, for example — the show covers the dawning of the age of John F. Kennedy to the yawning of our age of self-absorption. It serves as something of a mirror, not necessarily reflecting the fairest of us all.

Consider another girl in a swimsuit, this one quite a contrast to the Dijkstra shot. Mary Ellen Mark's black-and-white "Amanda and Her Cousin Amy, Valdese, North Carolina" (1990) confronts us with a 9-year-old standing in a wading pool, calmly smoking, the cigarette held, Bette Davis-style, in her left hand.

Her pose and her smug expression speak as loudly as the vacant look on the girl's overweight relative, sitting half-submerged in the water.

Yet another summery scene has quite an impact. It's Robert Frank's "Cape Cod," a 1962 work depicting a young, naked girl holding what might be an American flag, which catches the breeze. In the foreground, a woman lies on her stomach. Next to her, a boy intently looks at the back page of a tabloid; on the front, a headline announces the death of Marilyn Monroe.

It looks at once carefully staged and strangely natural. Time and again in the exhibit, such mixtures of composition and multilayered messages prove compelling.

The Frank item is in a section called "Seeing Pictures" — photos that address other works of art in one way or another. Mickalene Thomas, for example, puts a striking racial and gender spin on an iconic Manet painting in a 2010 photo, "Le dejeuner sur l'herbe: Les Trois Femmes Noires."

And Andres Serrano, he of the controversial photo of a crucifix submerged in the artist's bodily fluids, is represented here with an imposing, five-panel piece called "Black Supper" (1990).

For this, Serrano took plastic figurines depicting da Vinci's "Last Supper," painted them black and placed them in a tank filled with soda water. The photographic result is a stunner. The familiar forms of Christ and the apostles appear through a bubble haze, as if encrusted by time and unanswered prayers.

This pictures-about-pictures section of the exhibit also includes a delectable 2009 work by John Waters called "John Jr." The color print of a pastel portrait of Waters as a boy reveals, upon close inspection, a sly little addition — a pencil-thin moustache.

The people-oriented portion of the show contains many absorbing pieces by the likes of Diane Arbus and Robert Mapplethorpe. One group has been placed in its own room with a mature-theme warning posted outside — Larry Clark's "Tulsa" (1963-71), which chronicles his drug-using friends in stark black-and-white.

"It's a very gritty series of a culture we don't normally see," Hileman said. "There is humanizing in the photos, but Clark doesn't pull any punches."

In Clark's world, the young people shoot up, pose, shoot up, preen, shoot up, stare. They're often undressed; the mood is sexual, but hardly sensual. There's something tough, vulgar, violent and lost about these souls. Something oddly tender, too.

Danny Lyon's "Conversations with the Dead," shot in Texan prisons during the 1960s, is no less arresting. The black-and-white images, beautifully shaded and composed, make us see those we usually avoid seeing, make us try to see what lies inside them.

Tina Barney gives us a fascinating shot of another social strata entirely, the rich. In "The Reception" (1985), two almost scarily coiffed women and a young man who could have modeled for Polo are all staring, rather indifferently it seems, at something off to one side. On the wall behind them is a Picasso portrait, facing the viewer head-on, as if to say, "What are you staring at?"

Different stares are reflected elsewhere in the exhibit, as in Philip-Lorca diCorcia's "Tokyo" (1994). In a kind of super-paparazzo mode, the photographer stalks unsuspecting people — passers-by, not celebrities — on a busy city street. But, having set up studio-worthy lighting in advance, he gets artistic shots of his prey, their faces bearing the blank expressions of the typical urban pedestrian.

Another area of "Seeing Now" focuses on photography of, and photography as, performance art. Vito Acconci's shots from 1970 capture his efforts to bite every part of his naked body he could reach.

In "Good Night Good Morning," Joan Jonas demonstrates a new take on self-portraiture; she spoke to a video camera twice a day for three weeks in 1976. She repeated the concept in 2006, this time filming herself in a convex mirror. Here, photography, video and reality TV seem to collide.

The section of the exhibit devoted to places is every bit as intriguing as that featuring humanity.

William Eggleston captures the stylistic horror and wonder that is Graceland in richly colored shots from 1983, while his homage to more mundane Southern locales proves no less telling; an untitled 1980 interior of a diner is as finely detailed and warmly lit as a master painting, down to the neat clumps of salt and sugar containers on the tables.

Sabine Hornig's "Window I" (2000) is also remarkable, a through-a-glass-darkly photo of a city street. Lewis Baltz's stark photos of the brutally symmetrical and functional buildings in California industrial parks are curiously alive, despite the pronounced absence of life.

The intended finale to the exhibit had to be abandoned at the last minute. Anthony McCall's film projection installation "Line Describing a Cone" involved a haze-making machine to re-create the ambience of old movie theaters in the days when smoking was permitted. But the installation kept setting off the museum's fire detector, so "Ground Gel," a double slide projection by Dennis Oppenheim, has been substituted.

All in all, "Seeing Now" provides abundant substance, cohesion and engagement. Museum-goers with smart phones can become even more engaged — several pieces are marked by a digital code that can be read by the phones, which then connect to websites with more information about the work.

One more notable thing about the exhibit is that it reminds viewers that the BMA's photographic treasure will receive more opportunities for display once the West Wing of the museum reopens in 2012 after renovations with improved, protective lighting conditions.

Meanwhile, the three-month run of "Seeing Now" is well worth seeing now.

tim.smith@baltsun.com

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If you go

"Seeing Now: Photography Since 1960" runs through May 15 at the Baltimore Museum of Art, 10 Art Museum Drive. Free. Call 443-573-1700 or go to artbma.org

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