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A medium that's still developing

A 50-year tribute to Aperture's ground-breaking photography

The images in this book caused me to sigh with joy, furrow my brow in puzzlement, turn away in revulsion, and break into a whimsical grin. There are black-and-white photographs, color photographs, photo collages, photo assemblages, and noncamera photographic works. Precise realism shares the pages with fantastical blurrings of the medium. Portraits of the famous sit next to those of the forgotten.

"Photography Past Forward: Aperture at 50," published by Aperture ($50), is a thorough survey of the last five decades of a nascent medium.

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Founded by Minor White, Dorothea Lange, Ansel Adams, and others in 1952, the non-profit magazine Aperture has made a name as a controversial, cutting-edge showcase. And like the magazine it pays tribute to, this book, edited by R.H. Cravens, contains ample text: philosophical jaunts on the nature of life and art and photography.

The words cast rays of illumination across the ever developing field of photography, a technically based discipline that has wrested itself out of the shadow of painting to claim legitimacy as an art form.

As with the photos, only some of the text is immediately accessible. Other passages are as convoluted as the industrial behemoth Plant for Styrofoam Production, shot in Germany by Bernd and Hilla Becher. And some of the images are accompanied by such sparse captions that viewers are left with unanswered questions - but that's probably the point.

The photographs, however, vibrate with life, even the inanimate shapes of an attic. All the elements in many of these photographs conspire to say: "Look at me, look at this soulful composition."

Together they suggest that if you look closely, the world is a beckoning, visual masterpiece. If a flock of pigeons swoops by on the street, don't duck and plod on - stop, look, and revel like an 18-month-old. Flap your arms and fly. That's what Aperture has been doing for 50 strong years.

John Nordell is a staff photographer.