THE QUESTION of photography as art was probably not very important to Carleton Watkins. He was concerned with lugging cumbersome cameras, keeping warm in the cold mountains, and packing up his darkroom on the mule. In the 1860s, Watkins was photographing sights in Yosemite -- shooting "Half Dome" generations before Ansel Adams claimed the cliff face as his own.

But it is a question that flashes and sparks throughout "Five Great Moments in Photography," an exhibition being held in five Dupont Circle area galleries (Tartt, Kathleen Ewing, Middendorf, Jones Troyer and Martin). The shared show does not attempt to give the history of photography, just extensive vignettes. And if you can get past the progressive-supper feeling of hopping from one gallery to the next, it's a wonderful show.

The Tartt Gallery chose "The Pioneers (1841-1880)," meaning those traveling photographers like Watkins who chronicled the wilderness of the world, conquering Africa, Asia and the American West with a camera. For the U.S. Geological Survey, William Henry Jackson captured the rugged life in the first photos of the future Yellowstone Park. For the armchair traveler in Europe, Francis Frith shot pyramids and "The Fallen Colossus." And then there were Bisson Freres, photographers to an emperor, who went with Napoleon III and Empress Euge'nie to Switzerland in 1860 and photographed Mont Blanc, which the royal pair tried unsuccessfully to scale.

But there were other kinds of pioneers -- Fox Talbot, in 1839 inventor of the calotype, the first photographic process capable of multiple images. And Julia Margaret Cameron, who -- while her contemporaries saw photography as a tool to record scenes that were fast disappearing -- rightly saw herself as an artist. Her soft focus was intentional in her portraits of famous Victorians, such as one here of a misty Matthew Arnold.

More sepia tones may be found at the Kathleen Ewing Gallery. "Pictorialism (1890-1950)" was to take the brunt of criticism from the photography purists. The pictorialists were not above pruning a branch if it got in the way. How like romantic landscape painting their work was: bucolic scenes till the cows come home. At the turn of the century, Peter Henry Emerson wanted to capture the farmers and fishermen of East Anglia in a certain light, and it was something Winslow Homeric.

The adjoining Martin Gallery comes alive with "Photojournalism." Sports to war photos, these are more than mere reportage, from Alexander Gardner's "Ruins of Richmond" to Larry Burrows's "First Aid Station near the DMZ." In this very sketchy glance at an enormous body of work, we find a sampling of prizewinners: Eric Saloman's "Albert Einstein in Berlin, 1931," Lucien Aigner's "Mussolini at the Stresa Railroad Station" and Weegee's "The Critic" (the one in which the bag lady scowls at two rich old socialites entering the Metropolitan Opera.)

At Middendorf Gallery, "From 291 to An American Place" represents the art photography movement fostered by Alfred Stieglitz and the other Photo Secessionists (the show's named for two of Stieglitz's galleries). Here are many of his New York scenes, including two of his favorites, "Steerage" and "The Flatiron Building." Here we can see art photography evolving from the romantic aesthetic -- Clarence White's "Morning," a woman softly gowned in flowing silk, through the issues of the magazine "Camera Work," to Paul Strand's abstract "Bowls."

And Jones Troyer Gallery is showing the work of "F-64," the West Coast group named by Ansel Adams that included Edward Weston and Imogen Cunningham. Here Weston's mysterious fibrous "Mushroom" and Cunningham's smooth "Two Callas" do double duty as abstract images, something beautiful apart. Instead of imitating painting's aesthetics, they were developing their own, based completely on photographic technique.

Photographers could go places painters couldn't. And they no longer had to drag darkrooms with them. -- Pamela Kessler. FIVE GREAT MOMENTS IN PHOTOGRAPHY --

Through June 26 at: Tartt Gallery, 2017 Q St. NW, Tuesday through Saturday 11 to 5; Kathleen Ewing Gallery and Martin Gallery, 1609 Connecticut Ave. NW, Wednesday through Saturday 11 to 6; Middendorf Gallery, 2009 Columbia Rd. NW, Tuesday through Friday 11 to 6, Saturday 11 to 5; Jones Troyer Gallery, 1614 20th St. NW, Wednesday through Saturday 11 to 5.