In the early 1950s, while speaking at Tulane University, the artist Ralston Crawford rather unexpectedly put down art photography: No photograph, the painter breezily declared, could compare in quality to the "Catalonian frescoes" or move into what he called the first rank of art.

It is not his tone that now surprises; Crawford (1906-78) was a man of haughty mien. It's the substance of his claim.

His touring retrospective -- it opens today at the Phillips Collection -- tends to contradict him. Crawford printed up perhaps 10,000 photographs -- of ruined walls and ruined cars, of jazz musicians, bridge abutments, tank farms, tombs and boats -- and though he thought himself a painter first, his photos steal his show.

They are elegant, mysterious, fresh and imaginatively composed. Crawford, a Precisionist whose great gift was for editing, often used his camera as a machine for making sketches. A detail would catch his eye: He'd photograph an empty vase in a graveyard in New Orleans, a boxcar ladder half in sunlight, the hawsepipe of an ore boat, steel girders at Grand Coulee Dam, or the complicated play of white light and black shadows underneath the Third Avenue El. Then, editing tenaciously, and constantly refining, he'd work up what he'd seen into a hard-edged oil painting.

"Selection, elimination, simplification and distortion" were, he said, his goals. By the time he had pursued them to his satisfaction, those fragments of the real world that had got him going -- that cemetery vase, that shadow on the wall -- had somehow lost their souls. They'd been turned into Design. The paintings he produced, especially the late ones, are often difficult to read. But Crawford didn't mind. He knew they weren't abstractions. He said "he never painted anything he didn't see."

Crawford's process of reduction added something that he valued, some rigor and austerity, to his finished oil paintings. But it did so at a cost. sk,2 sw,-2 ld,10 The viewer who compares Crawford's paintings with his photographs cannot help but mourn the subtleties, the textures, the mysteries his canvases leave out.

It is telling to compare one of his cemetery paintings, "New Orleans Still Life" (1951), with the little black-and-white photograph on which it's based. Much that moves the mind -- the softness of the light, the translucency of glass, the flaking of the plaster and the sense of time's slow passing -- have been banished from the oil. These subtleties have all become blank passages of paint.

Crawford, who was born in Ontario and raised in Buffalo, was not among the first of America's Precisionists. He was 23 years younger than Charles Demuth and Charles Sheeler, but by 1939 he was comparably famous. His fame came overnight when his deep-space oil "Overseas Highway" was reproduced in color in Life magazine. The highway he depicted beneath a bright blue sky is free of oil spots and litter and, for that matter, cars. Like most of the Precisionists, Crawford viewed the monuments of American industrialism -- the oil tanks and bridges, factories and boats -- as emblems of a brave, and extremely clean, new world.

His fame, which arrived suddenly, dissolved just as quickly. The virility and force of postwar action painting threw it out of fashion. But Crawford's style hardly changed. He had long distrusted chaos and abandon: "I am long on feeling," he explained, "and a lot of discipline -- or steering of that feeling -- is necessary." Barbara Haskell in her catalogue writes that the painter "spoke proudly of his father's intolerance of his mother's 'gushing . . .' That Crawford possessed an almost spiritual side is clear; that he seldom allowed its expression is equally clear."

That emotional parsimony, that adamant restraint, cramps his exhibition, or at least it cramps his oils. Crawford's paintings were for many years unjustifiably neglected. But that does not make them grand. They're too tight, too repetitious. In 1946 Crawford was one of the 42,000 observers -- and the only painter -- invited to observe an atomic bomb exploding at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. Even that awe- and fear-inspiring sight did not much change his painting. It is true that in his paintings of the event his once-straight lines became twisted and his firm shapes started breaking. But these almost-pretty pictures remain decorative and cool. "Do crooked shapes and twisted lines represent painting's adjustment to the atomic age?" asked Ad Reinhardt when he saw them. He provided his own answer: "NO."

The retrospective at the Phillips is an edited version of the larger exhibition that opened last October in Manhattan at the Whitney Museum of American Art. There are not as many oils here as there were at the Whitney, but there are more than enough. After you see a few dozen, they all begin to look pretty much alike.

The few drawings on display have a light touch and a liveliness missing from the paintings. The photographs are even better. They make his show worth seeing. It fills three floors of the Phillips, and will remain on view there through May 25.