NEW YORK, N.Y. — The Museum of Modern Art's photography collection is so rich that it can present virtually the entire history of the medium using only images taken by women and in many cases, of women.
It's instructive to realize that whatever genre or style in which men worked, even industrial photography, women were doing the same.
The show is organized chronologically, beginning with a gallery of 19th and early 20th century photographs that illustrate the two traditions of documentary and pictorial photography.
The most compelling in the first category is a series of photos taken by Frances Benjamin Johnston at the all-black Hampton Institute (now Hampton University), founded to educate former slaves. At the other end of the spectrum are the self-conscious, artistic photographs by Gertrude Kasebier, known for her symbolic, soft-focus images of Victorian motherhood such as the 1899 "The Manger" and 1904's "The Heritage of Motherhood."
The show continues with a stunning array of photographs by European artists in the 1920s and 1930s, including Ilse Bing's 1931 "Self-Portrait in Mirrors," which shows her looking straight at the viewer and in profile at the same time, an illusion made possible by using her camera as a third eye.
And since the art world seems to be having a Picasso moment, with major shows in museums and galleries and the record-breaking sale of one of his paintings at auction, be sure to look at an untitled work from 1930 by Picasso's lover and muse Dora Maar, a highly regarded artist in her own right. It shows a woman from the rear with her long black coat lifted up in the wind.
You'll also want to spend time in front of two prints by French photographer Germaine Krull, whose beautifully composed images of urban landscapes show that women could do muscular photographs of architectural structures as well as any man.
Although Dorothea Lange is among the best-known U.S. photographers, male or female, the curators have rightly devoted an entire wall to almost 20 of her photographs, all the subjects girls and women.
They range from her iconic Depression-era picture "Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California" to the poignant image of Japanese-American children saying the pledge of allegiance soon after President Roosevelt ordered the relocation of 120,000 Japanese-Americans into grim camps in the West.
The mid-to-late 20th century is represented by MoMA's newly acquired colour photographs of New York street life by Helen Levitt, best known for her work in black and white, and uncomfortable but affecting images by Austrian-born Lisette Model and Diane Arbus.
Witty wallpaper just outside the entrance shows close-ups of human buttocks, reproduced from a 1960s-era film made by Yoko Ono. The images look vaguely human up close but resolve into a pillowy abstraction when seen from a distance.
And as you leave the show, "29 Palms: Mortar Impact," a large, black-and-white photograph by Vietnamese-American photographer An-My Le, depicts a few clouds of smoke rising from the barren desert floor, framed by the distant peaks of a rugged mountain range. It suggests the bleakness of war, hints at U.S. engagement in Iraq, and in its simplicity and clarity, is a work of stunning beauty.
The sixth gallery of the exhibition will close on Aug. 30, and the other five will remain on view through next March. It will not travel.