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Framing a Century of American Change

News photos, pictorial fantasies, and digital products from the Hallmark Photographic Collection confront the modern age

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`AN American Century of Photography: From Dry-Plate to Digital,'' currently on display at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo., begins with a forward leap and concludes with a backward glance.

Eadweard Muybridge's ``High Jump'' (1885), an innovative series of 24 stop-action photographs of an athlete hurdling a high bar, is an appropriate metaphor for photography's advance into the modern age. Abelardo Morrell's ``Camera Obscura Image of Houses Across the Street in Our Bedroom'' (1991), on the other hand, is an elegiac allusion to the origins of the medium.

Plugging the gap between them - spanning a century of art and science, poetry and technology, mass media and private expression -

are 250 images drawn from the Hallmark Photographic Collection of Kansas City, a 2,600-picture archive that is perhaps the most important corporate collection of photographs in America. Because the pictures are arranged in chronological order, a walk through the museum galleries is like catching the flight of history on the wing, fragmenting it into a series of swift glimpses.

Apart from the extraordinary range of the photographs - news photos, avant-garde experiments, pictorial fantasies, propaganda messages, digital products - is the exceptional way they have been organized by curator Keith Davis. The exhibition has been divided into four 25-year sections, the images in each juxtaposed with an ingenuity that is at once enlightening, informative, and provocative.

For example, one of the themes of the first section, ``A Reluctant Modernism (1890-1915),'' is the ambivalent attitudes that surfaced late in the 19th century regarding technological and social change. Placed next to William Rau's ``York Narrows'' (1895), a view of railroad tracks bisecting a pristine landscape, is Robert Redfield's ``Near Lake Waramaug'' (1890), an old-fashioned bit of rural-village nostalgia. Contrasted with Adam Clark Vroman's ``The Moqui Snake Dance'' (1895), an objective, ethnographic documentation of a vanishing tribal custom, is Edward S. Curtis's ``Wishnam Fisherman'' (1909), a contrived, romanticized stereotype of American Indian life.

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