Photography has been imitating painting since the pioneering days of William Henry Fox Talbot. But now, it's happening in living color.

Until the recent development of truer, more stable color techniques, most art photographers stuck to black and white. With the emergence of Ektacolor "C" prints, Cibachrome and SX70, however, much of the best, most creative work has been in color.

Several shows in town are ripples in the new wave. Perhaps by coincidence all have painting at their core.

At first glance, Leland Rice's new photographs at Diane Brown, 2028 P St. NW, look like abstract paintings or color etchings with clouds of billowing color. The medium only becomes clear upon close examination of the detail, which could only be achieved with a camera.

In these photographs, as in his 1977 show at the Hirshhorn Museum, Rice focuses on the paint-splattered walls, floors and paraphernalia of his fellow Los Angeles artists' studios. But here he frames them into compositions of even greater subtlety and ambiguity, with results that hover somewhere between the real, the surreal and the abstract.

In some of the most successful images, painting becomes the ultimate subject. In a photograph of Frederick Sommer's studio, for example, the luscious color areas recall the paintings of Nicholas de Stael and Richard Diebenkorn. Another studio shot with a yellow rectangle deliberately conjures a painting by Joseph Albers. This fascinating show continues on view through June 23.

More closely related to painting, and perhaps too dependent upon it, are the color photographs of Graeme Outerbridge now showing at Henri Gallery, 1500 21st St. NW.

Outerbridge (not to be confused with distant relative Paul) makes stark abstractions composed from segments of brilliant blue sky, sun-drenched rooftops and shadow-lined stucco facades of Bermuda, where he lives.

Some of the more memorable images recall paintings by Clyfford Still and Kenneth Noland.Another particularly strong photograph fools the eye by appearing to be a close-up of a painting by Edward Hopper or Charles Sheeler, brushstrokes and all.The brushstrokes turn out to have been made by the man who painted the house. A nice, if not profound, deceit. Through June, 28.

Working in color to very different ends is John McIntosh, a photography instructor at Northern Virginia Community College now getting the full treatment, catalogue and all, at the Corcoran. The show is part of a series of current photography backed by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Polariod Corporation.

Working in the studio against an uninflected white background, McIntosh stages single objects - usually manufactured ones, like a pack of Lucky Strike cigarettes, or a packet of dried Japanese noodless - isolating them in what could be mistaken for a high-class advertising campaign.

His goal, however, is not to entice but to elicit cool, detached observation of what he obviously preceives as inherently handsome objects. This includes something as mundane as a sheet of break-off plastic parts for a toy car. (Of course, someone designed all of these objects, so the designers too are celebrated, if only in an ephemeral way.)

Occasionally a touch of nostalgia wafts by, as in one photograph of an old black telephone, its numbers dissolved in light. But in general, McIntosh seems to be observing material culture, without social comment or implication. Amusingly, he keeps a cool, uniform distance from everything - except one vase of flowers where he seems to move in closer for a sniff.

This work wrests a surprising range from minimal means, and only gets corny when it steals images already better handled by Jim Dine and Claes Oldenburg. The show closes June 17th.

Tom Shuler, who teaches photography at NOVA, is currently showing at Wolfe St. Gallery, 1204 31st St. NW.

Though he is not working in color, Shuler has been experimenting - last year with infra-red techniques, this year with platinum and palladium prints. He is so accomplished that the technique never takes over, but the extraordinary range of tonalities in these works is due at least in part to this delicate medium. The range far exceeds that in the drypoint landscape etchings by Maryland artist Charles Hewitt, also on view.

There are old-fashioned-looking photographs of cathedrals, along with several portraits - all equally uninteresting. It is in the sensitive landscape work that Shuler excels, particularly in several pairs of photographs near the door. There is an exquisite shot of a wheat field, with another showing a beautiful bulging curve in the Towpath along the canal.

These and others, including a white birch, which reads as a single white line against a dark ground, suggest Shuler was a tender and poetic sensibility, at his best not unlike great American photographer Harry Callahan.

The show and the gallery close on June 23.

Several area photo collectors, distressed at the dearth of reasonably priced early photographic material in the area, have organized a flea market to sell off their excess, and then buy anew. The event begins at 10 a.m. today and tomorrow at the Old Printed Word, Inc., an antiquarian bookstore at 3808 Howard Ave. in Kensington.

There will be all sorts of photographica, from early tintypes, daguerreotypes, stereoview slides and vintage gravures to photographs by Mathew Brady, Edward Steichen and Walker Evans. The ambrotype process during the Civil War will be demonstrated on both days at 11 a.m. 1 and 3 p.m.

The National Collection of Fine Arts - which does more for children and public schools of this city than any other museum - will celebrate Children's Day today. Focusing on western themes to celebrate the just-opened First Western States Biennial Exhibition, there will be an art treasure hunt, marionettes, including Joan Danziger and Leonard Cave. Bring a handkerchief to silkscreen today between 10 and 4 p,m. All events are free.

Also on display there is "High School Graphics VI." It is the annual print show of and by talented students from schools in the Washington area which participate in the NCFA's "Discover Graphics" programPrizes have been awarded, but everybody wins in projects like these. The show closes Sunday. CAPTION: Picture, From "Bermuda High," by Graeme Outerbridge