Louis Faurer, 64, is a major American photographer, but his name is now virtually unknown. He has always been a loner, original, irascible. The ingredients of his life -- movie stars and welfare checks, oblivion and fame, low life and high beauty -- are no more bizarre than those of his art.

A retrospective exhibition of that art, "louis Faurer: Photographs of Philadelphia and New York, 1937-1973," goes on view today at the art department of the University of Maryland, College Park.

Between the last years of the '30s and the first years of the '50s, Faurer made photographs unlike any seen before. His major subject then was Times Square at night, although some of the images here were taken in his native Philadelphia before he moved to New York. The grittiness, irony and surprising freshness of these 63 pictures recall a radio show of the '50s called "Broadway Is My Beat," a surreal serial about cops and ghosts and private eyes. In the photographs, night lights glint from shiny cars, aging movie posters are torn to shreds by wind, madmen prowl the streets and visitors from out of town gawk at New York's neon.

Faurer was neither journalist nor social activist. None of his photographs are posed, yet some of them -- the giant movie star beaming from her billboard at two bored coffee-drinkers, or the view through the back windows of a New York bus, or that strange and lonely man with flowers in his hand and madness in his eye -- have the look of dreams.

Faurer in the '40s pushed so-called "straight photography" farther than anyone had before him, and during that time he lived two different lives.

From dusk to dawn he stalked the streets peering through the shadows at the the tourists and the toffs, the crazies and the drifting crowds, the beggars and the whores. By day he worked in midtown studios underneath hot lights making sharply focused pictures of thin models for magazines, including Life, Flair and Harper's Bazaar. He was Avedon's competitor. He had women, money, everything. His pictures were included in three exhibitions, among them Edward Steichen's famous "Family of Man" at the Museum of Modern Art. But then he fell from sight. He spent some years in Paris. His fame and fortune vanished. By the early '70s, before his rediscovery, he was living down and out on welfare in New York.

If one of his old friends, Viva, the star of Andy Warhol's strangest movies, had not managed to acquire a selection of his prints, and if she had not shown them to photographer William Eggleston, and if Eggleston in turn had not introduced them to curator Walter Hopps, Faurer might still be forgotten. The present exhibition, organized by Hopps and photographer John Gossage, restores Faurer to his rightful place in the history of the art.

That place is between two of the most influential "straight" photographers of our century, the political Walker Evans and the more emotional Robert Frank. Faurer knew them both. Evans' work is socially concerned, meticulous, austere. Frank's is ambiguous and ironic. "American Photographs," Evan's most important book, was published in 1936. When "The Americans" by Frank appeared in 1955, it appeared to have no precedents. Yet between these two masterworks, as the present show makes clear, Faurer stands as a kind of missing link.

Hopps first saw Faurer's work in Viva's Chelsea Hotel apartment in 1976.

"With shocking suddenness," writes Hopps, "I came to believe that that American photography of the moment of mid-century belonged to Louis Faurer."

His earliest works, made in Philadelphia in the last years of the '30s, are much like those of Evans: the poor, the lost, the crippled, barefoot children on the streets. But his pictures of the '40s, with their astounding compositions, their strange plots and reflections, predict those of Frank. Frank and Fraurer met at Harper's Bazaar in 1947, shortly after Frank arrived here from his native Switzerland. Faurer, then commuting, often spent the night in Frank's New York loft with its filthy windows and its nine friendly cats.

Frank learned from Faurer. A group of early Franks, included as a footnote in this show, make that debt explicit. Famous pictures from "The Americans" -- the one of the cigar-smoking soldier with his slutty girlfriend, or the shot of the newlyweds in city hall -- are eerily prefigured in the Faurer show, which remains on view through April 23.