During the "Me Decade" of the 1980s, New York's grungy Lower East Side (formerly known as the Bowery) was the scene of a remarkable cultural flowering among artists, writers and musicians determined to push the envelope of the possible.
The gaudy scene that arose out of the area's heady mix of cheap rents, punk-rock bands, gender-bending late-night clubs and a pharmacological cornucopia of illicit drugs fueled a vibrant but short-lived counterculture that may have been the last dying ember of the youthful idealism of the 1960s.
In the midst of it all was Nan Goldin, a photographer in her 20s whose arresting images of her friends and lovers, projected as slide shows in the clubs she frequented, constituted the era's most compelling collective portrait, an intimate visual diary of an artist's tumultuous life and times.
Goldin's monumental documentary is one of the highlights of Slide Show, the groundbreaking exhibition of projected photographs that opens today at the Baltimore Museum of Art. The show is the first major exhibition devoted to the slide medium as an art form and it presents the works of 19 contemporary artists who have used slides to create powerful, expressive images.
During the 1950s, an era now remembered mostly for its soulless materialism, joyless conformity and fearful complacency, American families discovered a new pastime whose innocence was unchallenged: the home slide show.
Gathered around portable silver screens in darkened rooms, Americans relived countless trips to Grandma's, summer vacations, weddings, birthdays and camping holidays as trays of tiny images flipped through the family slide projector.
Slides were a cheap way of making color images in an era when color printmaking was still a laborious, time-consuming process carried out mostly by specialized labs.
A color slide cost a fraction of a color print, and when projected almost life-size in a room it gave even the most ordinary images a hint of Hollywood glamour.
Art dealers, educators and museum curators had long been accustomed to using color slides of famous paintings and sculpture as sales, education and reference tools.
But beginning in the 1960s, artists themselves began experimenting with the medium as a way of making big pictures that conveyed a new sense of importance and style. Gradually, they transformed a medium marketed primarily to amateurs into a serious art form.
One of the earliest artists to explore the medium was Dan Graham, who in 1964 began a series of color slides of American tract housing, titled Homes for America.
Graham, whose work is part of Slide Show, was interested in showing the mass-produced, standardized character of the suburban dream at a time when middle-class flight from city to suburb was the most striking demographic fact of postwar America.
His images of tract homes, fast-food restaurants and commuter buses emphasized the essential blandness, conservatism and drab conformity of his subjects. The serial nature of Graham's project also foreshadowed two important postwar art movements, minimalism and conceptual art, both of which similarly emphasized repetition and classification.
A very different kind of photographic sensibility was explored by show participant Helen Levitt, who had made her reputation as a street photographer in New York during the 1930s and '40s.
Levitt's work from that period was mostly black-and-white, but, after she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1959, she began to explore color as a way of intensifying her portraits of contemporary life.
Levitt worked with color slides rather than prints because they were cheaper and because they offered a standardized format for her images.
Her color work, characterized by great humanism and a compositional subtlety that imbued even the most mundane situations with a timeless character, preceded the art world's formal acceptance of color photography as an art form by more than a decade.
More recently, artists such as Jan Dibbets, James Coleman and the photographic team of Peter Fischli and David Weiss have used slide projections to create enormous images whose extremely large scale is crucial to their emotional and aesthetic impact.
Dibbets' Land / Sea, 1971, one of the most visually impressive pieces in the show, juxtaposes six enormous, mural-scale images of earth and water that move almost imperceptibly in relation to each other as a metaphor for the slow passage of time.
The exhibition was organized by the BMA's Darsie Alexander, curator of prints, drawings and photographs, and in effect it opens up an whole new area of inquiry in photographic studies.
It still comes as something of a shock to realize that many of the works on display are now more than 30 years old, and it says something for the originality of Alexander's vision that she has been able to recognize and mine this important body of hitherto largely unexamined work.
Slide Show is an excellent start toward repairing that neglect, and it is also a visually rewarding -- and at times thrilling -- essay on the many forms photography has taken as a quintessential art of the 20th century.
Where: Baltimore Museum of Art, 10 Art Museum Drive
When: Through May 15
Hours: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
Admission: $7 adults, $5 students and seniors
Call: 410-396-7100 or visit www.artbma.org