Walker Evans dismissed color as "vulgar."

Robert Frank said, "The colors of photography are black and white."

Together they laid down the law for two generations of American documentary photographers who scorned color as the tool of advertisers and amateurs.

A change in attitude can be traced to 1976, when a show of William Eggleston's dye transfer prints opened at the Museum of Modern Art and, in effect, officially canonized color. Joel Meyerowitz and others had also taken advantage of the new, more controllable color processes that emerged in the '60s, but it appears to have been Eggleston's show -- and MOMA's blessing -- that touched off the explosion of new color work that has since revitalized contemporary photography.

The work of 18 of the best current color practitioners will go on view this afternoon in "New Color/New Work," a splendid joint exhibition at four Dupont Circle-area galleries: Middendorf, Jones Troyer, Kathleen Ewing and Addison/Ripley. It is a major event, presenting in depth many of the best of the new breed.

Based on New York writer-curator Sally Eauclaire's new book of the same title, "New Color/New Work" is composed of 165 pictures by 18 photographers, with famous names including Eggleston ("Elvis Presley's Graceland" at Middendorf), Meyerowitz ("Cape Life" at Kathleen Ewing), John Pfahl ("Power Places" at Jones Troyer) and Stephen Shore ("The Montana Suite" at Addison/Ripley).

But some of the greatest pleasures lie in the work of significant photographers who have not had extensive gallery exposure here, such as Joel Sternfeld, Jim Dow, Mitch Epstein and Jo Ann Walters. None represent the trendy avant-garde, such as Cindy Sherman and other postmodern artists who employ the camera to nonphotographic ends. Rather, these are photographers who make personal images in the documentary tradition -- straight, unmanipulated images that derive their forms and attitudes chiefly from black-and-white street photographers such as Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander. All have mastered their craft, and though the taut modernist esthetic prevails, many have loosened those bonds to allow the sheer romance of color to come into play, along with an occasional undertow of social concern. In that sense, they share the new tendency toward "content" seen in the Hirshhorn's current survey of art from the past decade.

Like all good art, these photographs are not one-shot images, and layers of meaning slowly unfold only to the exploring eye. Joel Sternfeld's "An American Prospect" (at Middendorf), for example, seems on first encounter to focus mostly on the sheer beauty of the color in his landscapes and deserted factories, all bathed in exquisite light. Closer inspection reveals underlying tragedies: a cornfield gone fallow, a uranium plant abandoned, workers left homeless and living in tents.

Though his more direct attempts to show alienation among the middle class -- notably in a soured couple at a tennis club -- are obvious and contrived, we are grateful for the chance to see enough of his work to understand that it is about nothing less than the state of contemporary society. Here, as in the beautiful but ominous "Power Places" of John Pfahl, and in all of the show's best work, there is an intellectual armature -- but it must be sought out.

Many -- in fact most of these photographic essays -- are concerned with evoking a sense of place, as in William Larson's bleached "Tucson Gardens" at Jones Troyer, photographed at blazing noon. They would lose everything without their Cloroxed color. Among the best of the more private evocations are Jo Ann Walters' deliciously nostalgic images of the encompassing, comfortably mysterious spaces surrounding an old Victorian house.

Those who still wonder how such photographs differ from those taken by competent snapshooters with automatic Nikons need look no further than Mitch Epstein's magical and almost cinematic evocations of India at Addison/Ripley.

There is much more, such as Jim Dow's "Stadium Panoramas," which document in a wide format the architecture of the sports stadium; and Joel Meyerowitz's portraits of redheads, which attempt -- but fail -- to give color a significant place in contemporary portraiture.

No one will like everything. Personal vibrations will vary. But this rare joint venture among four galleries -- quite possibly a first in Washington -- should not be missed. It came about thanks to the efforts of George Hemphill, curator of photography at Middendorf Gallery, with results that any museum would be proud to show.

It also puts the old arguments for and against color to rest. Color has now become, in the hands of many of these artists, a tool that only a fool would argue against.

The four-part show, which opens this afternoon between 3 and 6 p.m., will continue through Jan. 19 at Middendorf Gallery (2009 Columbia Rd. NW), Jones Troyer Gallery (1614 20th St. NW), Kathleen Ewing Gallery (1609 Connecticut Ave. NW) and Addison/Ripley (9 Hillyer Ct. NW). The book, "New Color/New Work," a must for anyone interested in the field, will be available at each of the galleries.