A century of photographs from the National Archives, a look at love in Asian art and culture, and a celebration of art from historically black colleges are among the season's most picturesque softcover titles.

The American Century

The National Archives isn't just about the Declaration of Independence; this temple of documents also preserves a significant portion of the nation's photographic record: more than 8 million still photos in the Washington-area facilities alone. Picturing the Century: One Hundred Years of Photography From the National Archives, by Bruce I. Bustard (Univ. of Washington, $24.95), companion volume to an exhibit of the same name, culls through the Archives' visual riches and presents a few of the choicest.

Bustard, an exhibits curator at the Archives, begins with a lengthy overview of the relationship between photography, the Federal Government and the course America has taken from 1900 to the present. (Good to be reminded that our tax dollars have, at one point or another, supported artists like Ansel Adams and Dorothea Lange.) The images that follow range from the heartbreaking -- a panoramic "View of the destruction brought about by the San Francisco Earthquake, 1906," with stubs of buildings sticking out of the rubble like broken teeth -- to the breathtaking (Lange's 1933 "White Angel Breadline," which transforms a man waiting with folded hands into an image of hungry prayer). This is American history in a visual nutshell: boom times and Depression, protest and politics, our several wars -- in short, a hundred years of how we've lived.

The Look of Love

Another Washington institution, the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, celebrates treasures of a different sort in Love in Asian Art & Culture (Sackler Gallery/Univ. of Washington, $24.95). Meant to be more sampler than survey, the book seeks "merely to introduce notions of love as manifested in selected painting, poetry, and sculpture of China, Japan, and India."

In her essay on romance in Chinese art, Jan Stuart, assistant curator of Chinese art at both the Sackler and the Freer galleries, writes that "because touching is strictly regulated in Confucian etiquette, artists generally employed more indirect means to suggest the emotion of love. Physical gestures and nude or partially disrobed figures are extremely rare. . . . In China, the notion of sublime nudity that is associated with expressions of love in many cultures is absent." Symbols convey variations on love: hence mandarin ducks, "said to mate for life," suggest marital bliss. A hint of red slipper in the mid-12th century drawing "Lady at Her Dressing Table in a Garden" reveals erotic longing; feet were kept hidden from everyone but a lover, and red is traditionally associated with the wedding night. Other essays in the book examine the saucy sculptures on some Indian temples, romance in Rajput painting, and love and longing in classical and contemporary Japanese poetry, appropriately illustrated.

Brushes With Greatness

While federally affiliated institutions such as the Sackler have done great things toward preserving and promoting the nation's artistic riches, the private sector has done its bit too. Many colleges and universities, for instance, have put together outstanding collections, though these don't always get the press that the bigger museum holdings do.

To Conserve a Legacy: American Art From Historically Black Colleges and Universities, by Richard J. Powell and Jock Reynolds(MIT Press, $35; $60 hardcover), brings to public attention some outstanding artwork from the collections of six HBCUs: Clark Atlanta University, Fisk University, Hampton University, North Carolina Central University, Tuskegee University and Washington's own Howard University. The book accompanies a traveling exhibition of paintings, photography and sculpture from these six collections; the show began its journey this past spring at the Studio Museum in Harlem, is now at the Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover, Mass., and in November moves to the Howard University Gallery of Art (with assistance from the Corcoran), where it will stay through January. In a long essay, "Conserving a Legacy," Jock Reynolds, director of Yale's art gallery, tells how this exhibition came to be: It began with a meeting of art conservators at the Williamstown Art Conservation Center (WACC) in Massachusetts. Talk turned to the underrepresentation of minorities in the field. "If we really were serious about wanting to attract minority students to the field," Reynolds writes, "and if we truly wanted WACC to treat a more diverse range of American art in its conservation laboratories, we needed to work in partnership with strong leaders and institutions active in the field of African American education and culture." Anyone who's not a conservator or educator is likely to find the details of the resulting program -- Reynolds spares nothing -- toward the boring side, but one can't argue with the results. (Better than the administrative breakdown is a back-of-the-book section on the actual conservation processes used, as well as in-brief entries on the lives and works of the featured artists.)

Most, though not all, of the artists represented are black (there are, for instance, some photographs taken by white writer, photographer and arts patron Carl Van Vechten). Among the great stuff from Howard University's collection: a Romare Bearden collage, "Early Morning"; a William Artis terracotta sculpture, "Bust of Miss Coleman," which resembles the famous Egyptian bust of Queen Nefertiti; some color-infused portraits by William Henry Johnson; and Charles White's epic painting "The Progress of the American Negro," which spent more than 40 years rolled up in a storage room before this conservation initiative rescued it.

Groovy, Baby

In its way, High Art: A History of the Psychedelic Poster, by Ted Owen and Denise Dickson (Sanctuary, $30), qualifies as an act of loving preservation, though art snobs and clean-living types might be shocked at this graphic celebration of tuning in, turning on and dropping out. In creating poster images for the Charlatans, Jefferson Airplane, theBlues Project, Jimi Hendrix, the Grateful Dead and other musicians who came out of the counterculture in the 1960s and early '70s, artists tried to reproduce the psychedelic visions induced by LSD. (High Art is, among other things, a mini-history of Acid Tests and mind-altering pharmacological experiments, and takes the view that LSD "gave freedom to the Sixties youth culture" these posters symbolize.)

Viewed 30 years later, these acid dreams have a swirling, spiraling beauty to them, as well as an awareness of older artistic traditions that at first seem very far removed from the hippie moment. The work of Alphonse Mucha, for example, is all over Alton Kelley and Stanley Mouse's "The Girl With Green Hair," advertising a collective concert with Big Brother and the Holding Company and other bands. Designing the art for the Steve Miller Band's album "Book of Dreams," Mouse and Kelley riffed on a flying-horse poster that Victor Creten designed for the Exhibition Universelle de Bruxelles in the first decade of the century.

Mouse and Kelley also get credit for one of the era's totemic images, the "Skull and Roses" Grateful Dead poster they did for a 1966 appearance at the Avalon Ballroom in San Francisco (the city was Ground Zero for the explosion of psychedelic poster art). Another key figure on the American graphic scene,Wes Wilson, gets a lot of play here; he came up with the distinctive "Red Flames" lettering seen on many of these posters.

Expand Your Horizons

For a real consciousness-altering experience, check out A Photographic Tour of the Universe, by Gabriele Vanin (Firefly, $24.95). This revised edition explores the far reaches of the galaxy, going as far as the Hubble Telescope, space probes and the biggest earthbound instruments can take us. From the Hubble comes an extravagant image of M31, the Andromeda Galaxy, "a spiral galaxy containing 300 billion stars. . . . Hidden deep within it, there is probably a black hole about 50 million solar masses in size." It looks like a blazing record platter spinning through space, with purple-blue vapor doing a Hula-hoop number around it. (To get this extraordinary image, the photographer, Tony Hallas, used two Fujicolor SuperHG 400 hypersensitized negatives in 50-minute exposures taken with a 15-cm. f7.5 Astro-Physics reflector and a Pentax 6 x 7 camera; the two resulting transparencies were put together to make the final picture.) If this book doesn't blow your mind, nothing will.

Jennifer Howard's e-mail address is jenhoward@compuserve.com.