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Can photography be considered art?

A picture of a curvaceous bell pepper hanging in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, could be mistaken for a richly textured painting - if it weren't part of a photo exhibit.

The black-and-white close-up is actually a famous Edward Weston photograph, featured in the MFA exhibit, "Edward Weston: Photography and Modernism."

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The show features 140 rare vintage prints made by the famous photographer between 1920 and 1948. He's best known for peppers, shells, and portraits, and abstract close-ups of trees, rocky landscapes, and nudes. Weston is one of the first photographers to be called a great American artist.

But can photographs really be considered art? Some wouldn't think so.

Show curator Theodore Stebbins says, "There are still a lot of otherwise intelligent people walking around the world that think photographs can't be art. It's our job to assuage that."

In Mr. Stebbins's book (a beautiful soft-cover guide with the same title as the exhibit), he writes, "For nearly forty years photography has been very much welcomed as art into the major museums, yet prior to the last decade and a half of the twentieth century, a general reluctance to consider photographic works alongside their counterparts in other mediums was evident."

In 1922, Weston hoped that someday photographs by the masters of the craft would "be valued and studied in the same manner as the etchings of a Rembrandt or a Whistler."

So Stebbins decided to challenge this idea by juxtaposing Weston's photos in the unique MFA exhibition with contemporary art from such giants as Willem de Kooning, Georgia O'Keeffe, Diego Rivera, Pablo Picasso, and Jackson Pollack.

For example, Pollack's 1949 "Number 10," a drip painting of splattered, playful rhythms, hangs next to three Weston images (from a decade earlier) of kelp and tar splashed up on rocks. Seen next to each other, their style, form, and use of light are oddly alike. In another instance, Weston's famous pear-shaped 1925 nude hangs next to Rivera's 1926 charcoal "Untitled (Back of a Nude Woman)."

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"I hope this is a culmination of the 100-year-effort that Alfred Stieglitz began in 1890," Stebbins says. "The battle for the recognition of photography as art. It's the first time a classic modern photographer has been featured in the Gund Gallery [of the MFA]."

As for pairing Weston's art next to major painters, Stebbins says it was risky because he wanted the photographs to remain the core of the show.

"Would the photographs stand up, or would the paintings be so interesting ...?" he trails off, then poses another question: "Can the photographs really stand this consideration?"

Definitely. Weston's photos are powerful, beautiful, and wondrous works of art.

* 'Edward Weston: Photography and Modernism' is at the MFA until May 28. The exhibit travels to The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., January 2001.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society